My buddy Brian gave me an iTunes gift card for Christmas in 2008. “Use this to download an album by Blind Pilot,” he told me. I didn’t even ask about their sound; I knew Brian enjoyed rock and that he counted Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, and the Ramones among his favorite bands. So I assumed I was going to hear some modern rock retread.
But, almost out of obligation, I downloaded “3 Rounds and a Sound,” Blind Pilot’s debut album.
I was blown away — so much so I actually followed up with Brian the next time we saw each other to make sure he’d recommended the right band.
He had, but it didn’t matter: I was hooked.
Lead vocalist Israel Nebeker’s voice is an arresting mix of smokiness and tenderness that can sound crystal clear or slightly muddy. He sounds as comfortable whispering into the listener’s ear as he is belting out a heartfelt lyric. The rest of the band provides a rich acoustic backdrop against which Nebeker sings about heartache and wanderlust. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but Blind Pilot creates an ethereal, atmospheric sound.
It’s the kind of music that would go well with late-night drives along the coast, Saturday’s post-last call lull, or a lazy Sunday morning.
So imagine my excitement when I found out that half of the band would perform for about 45 minutes at the Pacific Northwest Brew Cup.
The trio — which dubbed itself “20-50 Pilot” on this sunny Saturday — opened with “Two Towns From Me,” a solemn cut that features my two favorite lyrics in the Blind Pilot discography: “I had a dream you were two towns from me / Got to sleep, spent the whole night running.”
Midway through the the track, I leaned over to Stan, a friend I’d made while waiting, and said, “I couldn’t be happier right now.” By song’s end, I couldn’t contain my glee and let the goofiest grin wash over my face. Even with the sun beating down, I got chills. Lottery winners aren’t this happy.
Remarkably, it only got better from there. The trio, leaning heavily on “3 Rounds and a Sound” for much of its set, launched into “The Story I Heard” and “Paint or Pollen.” Hearing the tunes in a stripped-down environment — all three band members, crowded around one microphone — gave the songs new life. They were crisper and slightly more urgent. None of the cuts lost their poignancy, even with the lack of additional instrumentation and faster pace.
A few tracks from the band’s 2011 release “We Are the Tide” were sprinkled in, as well. My favorite cut from the new album, “Half Moon,” showed up, which was delightfully surprising; on the record, it’s much “bigger” than many of the band’s earlier tunes. But the soul of the song remained through the intimate performance, letting Israel’s lyrics take center stage: “That morning sky gave me a look / So I left while you were sleeping / That’s all it took.”
“20-50 Pilot” closed with “One Red Thread,” the first single from “3 Rounds and a Sound.” The relatively fast-paced tune evokes a sense of new adventure with the the plain-spoken but resounding declaration, “I had the itch to fly, and I flew.” It had me tapping my toes and some of the 100-strong audience clapping along.
Shortly before launching into the cut, they asked a stagehand how much time they had left. I wanted to pipe up, “As much time as you want.” But even if the trio had stuck around for another hour, it wouldn’t have been enough. I was enthralled by the setting and enchanted by the band’s heavenly sound. I wasn’t alone, either; shortly after the final notes, Stan leaned over and said simply, “Good beer festival music.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.