“I got kicked out of the band.”
So began my first conversation at The Western Den’s show at The Red Room @ Cafe 939. (It was also my only conversation—once the music started, words were an unwelcome distraction.)
Luckily, the speaker was joking; Alec Alabado, the trumpet player for The Western Den (and the voice behind Ash & the Grave Giant) wasn’t playing with the group that day because there were only three inputs in the small room. The Western Den was opening for English singer-songwriter Lewis Watson at a Saturday matinee. Despite the bright afternoon sun that struck the side of the building, the Red Room did its best to create a suitable atmosphere, with drawn curtains and mood lighting. That, coupled with the fact that the show was sold-out, made it impossible to see the windows through the sea of bodies.
At its core, The Western Den are Deni Hlavinka and Chris West, both seniors at Berklee College of Music. Together, they write the music, sing, and front the band—Deni on keyboard and Chris on guitar. They usually perform with an agglomeration of friends playing various musical instruments—from trumpet, to violin, to cello and bass—but today only violinist Tim Reynolds joined them. With the music stripped of its layers, the group’s storytelling and powerful voices shone through.
They started out with “The Altar.” A simpler sound meant that the lyrics bled through more, whisking the audience into a different era: “Come clothed with hands clean and wash the dirt off of your feet.” Chris and Deni took turns leading the verses, coming together in sweet harmonies on the chorus. At all points, they exercised near-perfect control with their voices—like a yo-yo master who dangles his toy to a certain height, keeps it there with ease, and then just as effortlessly brings it back up. There was a lazy tension in their sound that was intoxicating, and that kept the crowd pressed against the stage.
Tim Reynolds’ violin was just as alive. There were no audible bow changes or scratches of strings, making it easy to forget that the instrument wasn’t physically attached to his body. The vibrato that he teased out was tight and smooth, used tastefully to accent the end of a long phrase. When he took a solo (interspersing jazz and fiddle notes with the folk melodies) the audience fell silent. In the second between when he took off the bow and the audience burst into applause, someone behind me whispered, “Damn.” No other words were necessary.
Together, the three voices weaved in and out of each other to build the storylines of the songs, with the guitar and piano providing cushioning and support. They broke the spell occasionally with casual stage banter and reminded us that they’re human—well, almost.
“It’s so weird that it’s daytime, isn’t it?” Deni laughed. “I feel like a vampire.”
Despite the unusual timing of the show, The Western Den, as usual, had no problem holding a captive audience. Through the course of their set we climbed mountains with “For the Sake of Seeking” (“Through darkness / Brave the mountains / There you climb”), built a castle with “Tumbling Down” (“Built our castle / Atop the ashes / Made it worthy of our plans”) and were left somewhere in the desert of Egypt with the group’s closing song, “Desert Ground” (“High over Cairo / The Valley of Kings / Where the Desert called their bodies down”).
There was no encore, but luckily, they won’t leave us for long. The Western Den is releasing a new EP this winter, so stay tuned.
- Technical mastery
- Strong coherence
- Convincing storytelling
- Limited set