At the age of 19, Michael David Rosenberg founded Passenger with Andrew Phillips, but after the band dissolved in 2009, Rosenberg took the moniker to the English streets and his solo career began. Adopting Passenger as his stage name, Rosenberg busked throughout England and even across the sea to Australia, where his performance in One Movement, a major music festival in Perth, gave his act the final push into popularity. He released multiple albums and sold out 500-seat venues all over Australia, but it wasn’t until 2013, with his single, “Let Her Go,” that Passenger’s voice became widely known in America, too.
Last Thursday night, hundreds of people queued outside of the Fox Theater in downtown Oakland, waiting anxiously for the doors to open so they could run inside and claim a coveted spot at the edge of the stage. At the strike of seven, the line moved briskly into the carpeted lobby and down the stairs to the stage. Although I have frequented the Fox many times, I am always in awe of the theater’s old cinema flair, with its grand domed ceiling and East Asian influences, in particular, the two Hindu deities that flank either side of the stage. So, even as the crowd jostled around me, I was caught up in the Moorish magic of the venue, and looked forward to the soothing music of Passenger to complement the space. As eight o’clock came to pass, the lights slowly began to dim, the chatter began to die down, and the eyes of the two iconic statues began to glow.
The first opener, Stu Larsen, took to the stage, dressed in a red flannel and a big brown hat reminiscent of Pharrell’s signature “Mountie.” The Australian singer-songwriter started out his three-song sampler with “Thirteen Sad Farewells,” a song he wrote with the intention of giving to a friend, but decided upon completion to “selfishly keep” for himself. He kept the song-thief joke running with the introduction of his second song, “Alright, I’m gonna sing a song I stole from somebody else. You ready?” The crowd cheered. He continued, “I’m gonna take that as a resounding yes. It’s a song by One Direction,” to which all the young girls started to shriek . He laughs, “Oh sorry to those girls that got excited, it’s actually a song by Coldplay.” An audible sigh is heard from the enthusiastic One Directioners, but the rest of the audience clapped and hooted. Stu sang a beautiful cover of “Fix You,” exhibitioning his very high range with an airy falsetto that skimmed over the crowd like water across a leaf; it was hypnotic. His final song was “King Street,” a rant softened by his lyrical tone, and the story-driven song was a fitting conclusion for Passenger’s opener.
No time was wasted after Stu Larsen left the stage, and within 15 minutes, The Once was introduced as the second opener of the evening. Hailing from Newfoundland, Canada, the trio had a charming old-fashioned style, harmonizing seamlessly to create a billowing composition. “Sometimes in life, bad things happen,” female vocalist Geraldine Hollett mused, and a man in the crowd shouted back, “Like every day!” Phil Churchill, the male vocalist, responded, “Well, this whole night is dedicated to you dude,” before Geraldine continued, “Sometimes you can’t or you won’t deal with it, but then there comes one time where you have no choice and you have to deal with it. It’s kinda like a dirge.” She laughs, “But actually, it’s a heavy song.” Geraldine, Phil, and the third musician in the trio, Andrew Dale, delivered on their promise of a weighted performance, and when the song ended, Geraldine called out to the man in the crowd, “Are you feelin’ better, sir?” And his response? “Hell fuckin’ yeah!” The crowd cheered in agreement. With authentic country instruments – sultry guitar plucking, the barbeque twang of a banjo, and the mandolin with its cheery trill – The Once cleverly integrated a smoky bar rhythm into their “sweet tea on the front porch” anthems.
Then came Passenger. He stood center stage, just a man with his guitar slung over his shoulder, devoid of any fuss or frills. He is his music – straightforward, perfectly unembellished, and profound. When the audience finally quieted down, he joked, “Passenger sounds a lot like a band and you were probably expecting a lot of different instruments and ingredients, but it’s just me and my guitar… hope that’s alright.” Alright? Everyone was absolutely fine with that. In fact, it’s exactly what we came for. Before performing “Riding to New York,” Passenger shared the story that inspired the heart-wrenching song:
“I started smoking when I was 15 because I wanted to fit in with the cool kids and by the time I realized that it didn’t make you cooler, I was hooked. I’ve been trying to give it up. This time last year, I was touring and I wanted a cigarette so much, I had a dream about a massive dancing cigarette… I realized this had gone on far too long, so I went to a gas station to buy a pack.”
At the gas station, Passenger met an old man and they got to talking. He discovered that the man had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was traveling across the country to see his grandchildren and live out the rest of his life with his family in New York. “I didn’t buy the cigarettes. I put the pack down and went back to my hotel and wrote this song.” The lyrics are beautifully sad and speak about realizing what is truly important in life, and although many girls were teary-eyed at its conclusion, the song was a call to action to each and every one of us to “live every moment with joy, which is fucking impossible, but we still gotta try.”
Passenger has a fresh approach to tackling the heavier material, with frank lyrics and a hint of comic relief to serve as a reprieve from the dark and potentially depressing story. His soft folk-rock style is melodic and serves as a clean canvas for his words to flow in an intriguing stream of consciousness that truly resonates with the audience. He has stepped into extraordinary success, but the singer has not lost his humility in the process. When it came time to play his hit single, “Let Her Go,” Passenger mused, “Before that song got massive – thanks Budweiser – before that crazy shit happened, I didn’t have a record deal. I didn’t have a house… There was no one telling me it was gonna be okay… But I wrote out a catchy little number about my ex-girlfriend – brilliant – and had no idea that after ten years of writing, this song would be the one that changed my life. It blows my minds that I come to cities like this and play in beautiful venues to people who actually give a shit about real music.” The crowd clapped enthusiastically.
He went on to dedicate his “big break” to the audience, to the people following their passions and dreams despite all the people telling them to give up and get a real job, because what is a real job anyway – we deserve the chance to pursue what makes us happy. “Let Her Go” is the perfect example of what makes Passenger such a great artist: honest lyrics that drive the simple melody and exhibit his distinctly feathery voice without hiding behind a zoo of instruments and musical gadgets. It’s just him and his guitar.
The last song of his set, “Scare away the Dark,” is a rant about how we are losing ourselves to technology. “People,” he said, “come together to listen to and experience music, but if we aren’t careful, we will stop experiencing all that is truly great.” He asked everyone to put away their phones, to be a part of the music rather than watch it through our devices. No backlit phone screens blared in the dark theater. No cameras clicked. No tablets were raised to take videos of the show we were all supposed to be experiencing. It was an invigorating end to the show, but the audience would not accept his conclusion, they wanted more from the singer’s tangy bellow, and the Fox pounded with the entirety of the audience’s claps and continuing call until Passenger returned to the stage for an encore.
He invited out both of his openers to join him in the encore. With a song that called out to the wanderlust within us all, Passenger sang to the new generation of travelers exploring the world and trying to find our place. There are so many places I want to go and so many things I want see, but at that moment, as I reveled in the music and swayed with the strangers around me, it was clear that there was no other place we ought to be than at the Fox Theater with Passenger. We were in just the right place.
Photos by Jen Horton / Staff