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X Ambassadors keyboardist Casey Harris. All photos by Terry Steeves.

CityFolk Review: X Ambassadors give a taste of electronic rock power

By Terry Steeves on September 20, 2016

Ithaca, New York’s quad squad, X Ambassadors, brought their forces of electronic rock to close out Cityfolk’s main stage on Sunday night. There was not a song they delivered that didn’t have immense power, with an energy and intensity that took hold of the crowd from start to finish.

Lead vocalist, guitarist, and saxman, Sam Harris.

Lead vocalist, guitarist, and saxman, Sam Harris.

Wasting no time, they unleashed a couple songs from their recent debut studio album, VHS (June 2015): “Loveless” and “Hang On”. Both possessed strong combos of hip-hop, and rock, with lead singer Sam Harris’ massive R&B-flavoured vocals in the forefront. Already, I could detect hints of influence from bands like Incubus and RHCP, but also an underlying pop/soul quality that gave all the material a great melodic structure.

A song called “Giants”, from one of their earlier EPs, “The Reason” (2014), was rock-heavy with a thunderous beat, and contrasting intensities. Like the song’s title, the chorus also came in like a giant, as Sam worked all ends of the stage, and had every member of the crowd waving in unison to the song’s beat. One called “Unsteady” was dramatic in its solid, slow droning beat, classical piano chords, and Sam’s clear, higher-ranged vocals that flipped effortlessly and seamlessly into falsetto and back. The audience was left to chant the song’s final choruses on their own to the delight of the band: the first of many crowd participatory moments of the night. It was a wonderful thing to be immersed in.

Sam switched among a variety of acoustic and electric guitars and to tenor sax from time to time, where he looped segments, including his voice to build a thickness into each song. Lead guitarist, Noah Feldshuh, and keyboardist, Casey Harris, also embellished the material through various synth pads and effects pedals, while drummer, Adam Levin provided the rhythm power behind it all. Still, the music’s essence remained raw and soulful in its delivery, with elements of acoustic guitar, unadorned piano, and stripped-down vocals.

Awaiting the show...

Awaiting the show…

I loved the cool walking groove of “Low Life”, which featured Casey driving out some Hammond organ rumble, and some nice guitar work by Noah, who also churned out some great wah-heaviness on “Gorgeous”. I loved his evil, Eddie Van Halen-styled intro to “Jungle”, which was anthemic in its sledgehammer beat. This one was also enormously textured, with booming choruses that had all instruments going full tilt: one of my favourites of the night.

The set ender was their biggest hit to date, “Renegades”, which was rich in its tribal Celtic beat, infectious melody, and sing-along chorus. The video gives a positive and inspiring look at individuals with physical disabilities, and how their strengths enable them to succeed in anything. The song reflects a deeply personal side of the band, with reference to keyboardist Casey Harris’ lifelong blindness. During the song, Sam made his way offstage to immerse himself in the loving vibes of the crowd, as they carried on the chorus’s chant.

After resounding applause, the band returned to the stage to give the crowd one more, another of their earlier pieces entitled “Unconsolable”. This one featured great intro and outro sax sequences, bell-like keys, another driving beat, and more of Sam’s high register flourishes on the chorus. Afterwards, he moved to each side of the stage to bow and thank every corner of the audience, who were left in the lingering afterglow of X Ambassadors’ epic performance at Cityfolk 2016.

For more on X Ambassadors, visit their website or find them on Facebook or Twitter.