It's ten minutes until nine in a hot and stuffy but energetic room, and Jon Foreman is set to take the stage. The lights go down. A harsh note on a cello whines, like a bagpipe drone. Foreman, in characteristic t-shirt, jacket and fedora, steps to the microphone and sings, "The doctor says I'm dying."
Now there's a rousing way to start a concert.
Later, Foreman observes that, upon reflection, lots of the songs on his solo projects are about death. "I'm really funny," he declares, apologetically. "I'm a good hang." The disparity is present in the perfectly-placed concert opener, "Terminal." Foreman wrestles with contrasts, with the glaring specter of death in a broken world lit by a supernatural love and a promise of glory. "We're fatally flawed in the image of God," he sings, setting the table for an evening of music not afraid to tackle really big issues.
Given the serious nature of much of his work, it's astute that Foreman has fashioned the Wonderlands tour a bit loosely, with a fluid setlist ostensibly built around audience requests. The format built intimacy and connection and gave the songsmith freedom to affect the mood of the room in one direction or another.
The freeform approach was even (unintentionally) adopted by the opener. Brad Corrigan (Dispatch) was 15 minutes in when a fan named Chris shouted a request for "Customs," which led into a shared story about Chris's trip to Nicaragua, and Braddigan's story about his documentary Ileana's Smile and a warm Spanish singalong, "Amor, luz, y melodia."
Following Corrigan's set, fans started passing song requests to the front on random fragments of paper. Soon, the stage was festooned in song, and the requests kept coming throughout the night, crumpled snowballs hoping to survive the heat. Some had stories accompanying the request. Some were fully expected (read: "Dare You to Move," "Meant to Live," "Only Hope"). Others were obscure. Someone even wrote "Shut Up and Dance," and Foreman wondered aloud if that was a song request or an imperative bit of advice.
Gazing at the messy piles all around him, Foreman declared, "Welcome to the Wonderlands, Atlanta. I would encourage you to embrace the chaos. Chaos has embraced you, whether you like it or not."
Foreman was accompanied onstage by Aaron Redfield (Fiction Family) on drums, with a kit turned ninety degrees to face center stage, and cello impresario Keith Tutt II. The tight trio worked like an improvising jazz band, quickly establishing the key for unfamiliar songs and seamlessly matching tempo changes driven by drums or cello or guitar. Redfield would occasionally have to sit out half a verse before he picked up on Foreman's oft-obscure time signatures, and each song had room to breathe. There was even an extended bit of scat singing from an otherwise oddly-paired guest vocalist.
Foreman was nimble on his acoustic (adorned with a lovely Lute Hole cover) and once used his harmonica as a guitar slide. A high-fret capo brought a mandolin sound at times, and for Switchfoot songs, Tutt was quick to pluck the electric guitar parts on his cello.
Three requests in particular launched heartfelt dialogue from Foreman (who, I noticed, sounded a little bit that evening like Mitch Hedberg). A nine year old boy curiously asked to hear "Twenty-Four," which, given that it was written following a skateboarding accident just before Foreman's 24th birthday, brought this bit of sage advice from the stage: "Skateboarding does not impress girls."
Juan from Brazil requested "My Coffin." Foreman consented, and then someone shouted, "What does it mean?" which led to a fascinating moment of pondering the implications of inanimate objects fearing their own deaths. A fan requested "In My Arms," stating that she'd walked down the aisle to that song. "The grocery aisle?" Foreman joked, and then a unique gift from the fan was passed to the front: a set of surfboard fins painted to match the EPs. Before "Meant to Live," Foreman announced, "Today is a very special day," and then invited Paul Meany to the stage. MuteMath, playing later in a venue in the same building, loaned their singer for an unexpected duet which, honestly, highlighted Foreman's vocal prowess.
The audience was connected throughout, singing along to even the newest of songs. "Southbound Train" was a highlight, with Foreman's harmonica never sounding more like Bruce Springsteen, as was "All of God's Children." The latter's lyrics were strangely apropos as a raucous MuteMath crowd upstairs shook the ceiling and Foreman quietly sang, "All of God's children, shining underneath."
Finally, the methodical "Your Love is Strong" was a powerful closer, a vibrant sold-out-crowd singalong echoing the theme of much of Foreman's music: "Forgive us weary sinners, keep us far from our vices, and deliver us from these prisons."-- Mark D. Geil, 10/14/15
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