English writer Charles Caleb Colton is best known for his often-quoted observation that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and in the modern age of parody and extreme ease of video/media creation, imitation sometimes climbs past sheer flattery to become art in its own right and make a new name for itself. Belgian singer-songwriter Gotye’s smash hit “Somebody That I Used To Know” has become the lead target for covers, parodies, and alternate versions, since its rise to fame in late 2011. One of its most infamous recreations, the five-musicians-on-one-guitar performance by Canadian quintet Walk Off The Earth, has become a megastar in its own right, with a smattering of tributes created to honor and poke fun at it, as well. Lest you think that they are around exclusively to cover Billboard chart-toppers, however, do not be quite so quick to judge: the Ontario five-piece have already been around for 6 years, and have a massively eclectic sense of performance and songwriting under their belts that has set them full speed ahead on a course to take over the world.
Coming along for the ride with their Canadian companions were the Los Angeles assemblage known as The Mowgli’s, who were rubbing shoulders with Walk Off The Earth on their small-club tour earlier in the year and were ready to join them for a second round. This time, however, the Southern California octet already had their reputation preceding them in the City By The Bay, as their eponymous single “San Francisco” had climbed its way atop the iTunes Singles Chart as the anthem for the San Francisco Giants as they won the 2012 World Series. Despite being given the earliest spot of the evening, the Mowgli’s’ set was well attended, and the boisterous, playful group hurled themselves into their tracks with glorious gusto. With nearly all eight members of the Mowgli’s providing vocals for each song, theirs is a sound evoking both thunderous, enveloping gospel chorus and sparkling, soulful folk rock; a shining beacon of powerful emotion bursts from every seam of every tune. Their large number gives them little room to move about onstage, but this did little to dwindle their festive mood, with each man (and woman!) of the band exploding with energy in their own individual spaces. Warm embraces and giant smiles were exchanged at the end of their alarmingly-short set, and it was definitely not to be the last time they would be seen that night.
After an even shorter set by Belgian singer-songwriter Selah Sue — which, despite some enthusiastic shouts from a peppering of fans, seemed to drop the energy level of the assembled crowd far more than to raise it — Walk Off The Earth’s banner was displayed in full, and the lights fell to a deep, dark blue, casting haunting silhouettes as the headlining quintet took the stage. Already intending to kick things off with a bang, Sarah Blackwood and Gianni Luminati — both in charge of an assortment of musical duties, from guitar to vocals to ukulele and everything in between — attacked one of the many random drums littered about the stage, causing a cloud of confetti to spew forth and dance within the shimmering blue hues. Immediately, the group hurled themselves into the opening notes of “Revolutions In My Head”, a stomping and delightfully engaging number that saw the five members running about, jumping up and down, and knocking loose even more confetti from all across the stage. A brief greeting was offered before lead vocalist Ryan Marshall took center stage, arming himself with an acoustic guitar to move right into a cover of “Magic” by hip hop star B.o.B., and the rest of Walk Off The Earth leapt — literally and figuratively — along with him into the song.
The most exciting aspect of Walk Off The Earth’s performance is to see what interesting spins the band will place on each number of their set. In addition to their often-lighthearted and splendorous covers of a wide library of songs — everything from Rage Against The Machine to The Beatles — the members of the band regularly trade instrument and vocal duties, sometimes in the middle of a song, with guitars and ukuleles flying across the stage in the process. Marshall and Luminati trade most of the vocal duties, with Blackwood dancing like an excited sprite between and around them, offering her own shining pipes to both backing and lead duties from number to number. In addition, other far more unorthodox methods are used, such all three of the aforementioned members playing one guitar — Marshall strumming, Luminati beating it with drumsticks, and Blackwood pounding at the pedals with her bare hands — all the while backed by drummer Joel Cassady and multi-role-member Mike “Beard Man” Taylor, who switched between keyboards, trumpet, and backing vocals at the drop of a hat.
Despite only recently rising to fame with their exciting YouTube covers, Walk Off The Earth has two full albums under their belt, in addition to their new EP R.E.V.O., and thus had a wild and terrifically fun set to throw at their onlookers, who seemed to be an even smattering of long-time fans and newcomers desiring a share in the wonder of the performance. Songs ranged from original, recent material that had yet to be released, as well as work from their earlier two records, My Rock and Smooth Like Stone on a Beach. Walk Off The Earth ended their main set with a stirring performance of “Summer Vibe”, bringing The Mowgli’s onstage with some of their crew members, and hurling balloons and confetti down and out into the crowd, the entire theater a soaring burst of song and waving hands that echoed the chorus back at the band (egged on by a crew member that held lyric-emblazoned signs aloft). The band’s reappearance, in addition to a few last minute winding-down numbers, included their signature performance — the five-musicians-on-one-guitar performance of “Somebody That I Used To Know” — and the crowd cheered with a jovial fervor through every last moment of the four-song encore.
Like many first-time discoverers of Walk Off The Earth, I went to see them in June of this year with no expectations past their Gotye cover, and was utterly blown away by the nonstop, dynamite energy of their presence and antics onstage. With their 2012 winter victory lap, their routines and maneuvers have, if anything, become even tighter and more precise, but thankfully, none of their blooming, bursting passion has been dwindled as a result, and with a longer evening offered to them, their set has become more full and powerful than ever before. It was a wonderful treat to also see The Mowgli’s again, especially with their new single exploding across every street of the city it was birthed within, and a truly inspiring vision to watch the crowd cheer for them with almost the same energy that they had for Walk Off The Earth. Both bands are an absolute whirlwind of beautiful, joyous chaos who have knocked the world on its feet in surprise by their sudden storm, and it is only a matter of time before they return to pick it back up again and dance another round.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.