June 21, 2014
From playing hometown shows and recording music in their Hondas to selling out theaters and performing for millions on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the indie-rock sextet, Run River North, has had an explosive trajectory in the last year. After having the pleasure of hearing them perform not once, but twice this last weekend, two questions lingered with me: how had this talented crew not been discovered earlier and where was the merch-booth because I needed to buy a CD ASAP.
On Friday, June 20th, the band came to Pandora Radio Headquarters in Oakland to perform at a Whiteboard Session – four songs, 20 minutes, in the middle of the office – and once they broke out into their first song, employees who had stayed at their desks were running over, squishing onto any piece of couch or floor they could find. All six voices coalesced into a beckoning chorus that, despite sharing the somber stories of families struggling to make ends meet, called out for empowerment with a gentle urgency. The classically trained Daniel Chae and Jennifer Rim tenderly plucked their violins and painted a musical landscape with their bows, establishing the foundation for drummer John Chong and bassist Joe Chun to layer on a galloping rhythm. Sally Kang then added her keyboard and shimmering vocals to the tapestry, to be completed by lead singer and songwriter, Alex Hwang, standing barefoot at the microphone, with a story to be told. Hwang’s powerful voice sang of the never-ending search for self, the complexities of growing up as “dash American”, and the ambiguity of home. He mused about the significance of home – whether home was the people in your life or a place – and acknowledged, “Yeah, we say ‘home’ a lot in our songs – our producer says we need to use our words better.” Drummer John Chong interrupted, “We changed it to ‘Ohhh’ on our album,” to which Alex laughed, “Yeah, but home just sounds right.”
I had the opportunity to talk with Alex briefly after their performance:
SFCS: You have such a soulful sound – it’s remarkable – where do you find your inspiration?
HWANG: Our family, people we know. We are fortunate that they have some great stories. And I think that’s why we haven’t done any love songs yet. I can’t write them, because I haven’t fallen in love.
SFCS: Well, the sincerity of the stories definitely comes through – you write what you know, about the journeys that you and those close to you have traveled. How would you explain the journey that Run River North has been on?
HWANG: I can honestly say it’s been like a river. We started in a house and there were monsters, and we took them on, but there came a point when we had to leave the house. And now, we are on this river – there are quiet times when it’s chill and there are some bumpy times too – we are just along for the ride, trying to enjoy it.
The next day, Run River North was set to perform at a hip Mission District venue, The Chapel. I got into the city a few hours early, to find a place to park and grab some grub, and found myself in The Vestry, The Chapel’s restaurant and bar. The dining room had soft red lighting and dark wooden booths perfect for date night, but as I had not brought a dining partner, I opted for the bar with its open seating at community tables and wall-to-wall windows facing the bustling city street. I ordered the corned beef panini and was impressed by the way in which The Vestry elevated the simple Reuben – Irish cheddar and creamy shamrock sauce, punctuated by the pungency of caper berries, all sandwiched between two peppery slices of warm rye. And so I passed the time, chatting with my fellow patrons at the bar, until the doors opened and I made my way up to the edge of the stage.
The room quickly filled and soon, the first of two openers was standing at the microphone. Totoake, the fruits of lead singer and rhythm guitarist Elisha Kim’s college recording project, has a big rock sound with hints of teen angst. Their set was high energy and Kim was dripping with sweat as he jumped through the entirety of every song, but their enthusiasm was infectious and the audience hooted with approval. Kim was charismatic, damping his guitar while he winked at girls in the front row, and when lead guitarist Theodore Heyer went off on a killer guitar solo, showing off his nimble fingers and brilliant technique, the audience went wild. I wish I could’ve been able to discern more of the lyrics from underneath their rocking chords, but I still enjoyed the big sound that these college boys brought to the stage.
Then it was time for the second opener, Matrimony, to perform. The bond between the band members was palpable when they began to play and it was clear in the way they interacted with each other on stage, that they were bound by more than a mutual passion for music. The group is fronted by singer Jimmy Brown and his fiancé Ashlee on keyboard/vocals, with Jimmy’s cousin on bass, Ashlee’s brother CJ on banjo and mandolin, and her other brother Jordan on drums. It’s been said that a great band is like a family, and for Matrimony, this is certainly the case. Ashlee’s smoky vocals partnered with Jimmy’s Irish-turned-Southern drawl have an intriguing chemistry that makes for a captivating harmony. Their sound is indie, layered on top of an endearing country form, sprinkled with folk influences and the slight bite of rock, making for a fascinating fusion of genres that allows the band to transition seamlessly from the haunting chords of “Giant” to the acoustic gem “See the Light.” Every member of the band carries equal weight in the musical composition, but throughout the course of the set, CJ’s banjo is revealed to be the secret weapon with its delicious twang and incredible energy. Their set closed with all five members leading the audience in an a capella harmony – a lovely conclusion to their emotive musical performance.
Finally, the six musicians of Run River North walked onto the stage. They opened with “Monsters Calling Home,” a wrenching song about their immigrant parents fighting for the American dream and having to make difficult choices, choices that often turned them into monsters in the eyes of their children. The fevered violins reached out for crescendo and Hwang stomped his bare feet furiously as he called out, (singing) “Son, oh, my son, won't you come, won't you come?” Each time the phrase was repeated, another member of the band chimed in, until all six voices pieced together into a stirring refrain that left me breathless. Every song was a delicate balancing act: the weighted narratives required the throaty richness of Hwang’s vocals and the steady rhythm of bass guitar and drum, but the lightness in the willowy violins and Sally’s airy voice was incredibly refreshing in such heavy songs as “Foxbeard” and “Growing Up.” They closed the show with “Banner” and a message for the audience to carry on into the night: “On TV, you see all these people with signs – people grieving or trying to share a moment – but they are hateful words and the worst faces. Sometimes you get angry and want to make better signs, but then you have to remember not to hate love and not to love hate – You have to walk with love.”
Run River North is an incredible band. They left me jaw-dropped at the Whiteboard Session, but after seeing them at The Chapel the next day, I was completely blown away by their musicality, their stories, and their passion. Their music soothed my soul in a way I rarely experience and I am honestly so grateful for their performance. I left the show feeling at peace with their beautiful words still swimming in my mind.
Photos by Jennifer Horton / Staff