A decade removed from their whirlwind rise from Ballard open mic-ers to Sub Pop indie-folk sensations, things still seem to move quickly for The Head and the Heart. In the summer of 2019, a half-joked suggestion led to the hometown stars performing on Pike Place Market’s rooftop for 30,000 spectators (according to a band estimate). The massive concert came together in just a few fast-and-furious weeks.
The harmony-happy sextet, who once busked at the Market, weren’t the first local music heroes to turn its iconic clock sign and Elliott Bay into Seattle’s coolest concert backdrop. But the free show teeming with civic pride was certainly a homecoming for Seattle music’s history books.
“I don’t know that I was in my body, in all honesty,” frontman Jonathan Russell said last month. “It wasn’t like anything I’d ever done or might ever do again, you know. It’s hard, because on one hand you want to enjoy it, but on the other hand it makes so little sense to your brain and you know that you still have to perform. … You’re like, ‘What the hell am I supposed to do, I’m on a roof?!’ We’re not U2. This isn’t old hat for us.”
Good news is anyone else who had an out-of-body experience (or was simply out of town) will have the chance to relive the epic show. The Head and the Heart announced on Jan. 15 that the performance, which Amazon Music initially livestreamed, has been made into a full-fledged concert film and matching live album, out Jan. 22. The movie and album will be available on Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Music, respectively, with the album also getting the vinyl treatment.
Titled “Rivers and Roads: The Head and the Heart — Live at Pike Place Market,” the film is equal parts concert flick and traditional music doc, chronicling THATH’s formation around Conor Byrne Pub’s open-mic nights and rise to fame through interviews with members (including co-founder Josiah Johnson, who left the band while going to rehab) and local industry shakers. Conducted the days after the Market gig, many of the band interviews took place at their old Conor Byrne stomping grounds, with a visit to their former Ballard band house — a musicians’ pad members of fellow folk-rock acts the Moondoggies and the Maldives took over as THATH’s tour schedule heated up.
For Russell, a Virginia native now living in San Francisco, the work trip down memory lane stirred mixed emotions, “especially being there with Josiah,” he said. The close friends and ex-bandmates formed THATH’s songwriting nucleus after a new-in-town Russell heard Johnson covering Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” one night at Conor Byrne.
“It brought up a lot of good and sometimes painful memories,” Russell said. “Not really painful, but just painful in the sense of now being 35, you know there’s certain things that never will happen again. You can’t get those back. … It was like multiple parallel universes laying on top of each other walking back up to [Conor Byrne’s] door, realizing who we are now and where we’ve gone, and realizing that it really did start there.”
One incident that doesn’t come up on camera but Russell mentions while reminiscing on old Ballard haunts is the 2011 night the ascending rock star was 86’d from the Tractor Tavern for allegedly choking the club’s sound engineer. Russell may or may not still be serving a lifetime ban for the most infamous bar fight in Seattle indie-folk history.
“That was not a high point of my life,” Russell said with regret. “But yeah, I kinda still hope there’s a Polaroid [of me], like ‘[Expletive] this guy,’ on the wall or something. I deserved anything that came at me. I wasn’t cool about that at all, so that’s fair, but you still want the best for ’em. That was a great venue.”
While the “borderline kumbaya” vibe of Conor Byrne’s open mics nurtured Russell’s artistic development in a way that may not have happened in another city, the East Coaster who came to Seattle on a whim said he never felt like he completely belonged. Even though his band helped define an era of Seattle music — an indelible stamp the Market show gave fresh ink — in some ways leaving felt like “a tricky marriage that was ending.”
“The more time that passes, the sweeter memories start to surface,” Russell said. “They start to flower almost, whereas for a while it felt like this deadscape of needing to get out. It was an interesting emotional roller coaster of never really feeling like I fit in in Seattle.”
These days, half of THATH still calls Washington home and, for Russell, return trips mean visiting old friends and the “back in my day” nostalgia of seeing how the city’s changed. “I’ll go kayaking in the [Puget] Sound, which I would never do when I lived there,” he said. “The longer you’re away from it, you start realizing how special that city is.”
You can feel it in the film’s poignant closing minutes, as THATH sends its breakout acoustic anthem “Rivers and Roads” soaring above the crowd packed along the cobblestone street, their voices shooting up toward the vast blue sky presiding over Elliott Bay. It was one of those perfect Seattle summer days even California transplants have to admit are unbeatable.
“I think for me, playing the Market of course was surreal, growing up in Seattle and knowing my family was there and friends, neighbors …” says singer/violinist Charity Rose Thielen in the film, overcome with emotion. “It was amazing. I think when that many people unify it feels very powerful. Every barrier that could exist feels broken down. That’s something that as a band early on when we were playing anywhere and everywhere we wanted to make sure that there was no division between us and the audience.”
Evidently, some things never change. Even in Seattle.