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There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of the alt rock band X Ambassadors, but there’s an even better chance that you have heard an X Ambassadors song.
The group’s riled up stomp-clap hit "Jungle" could be heard in high-profile ads for Beats, the end credits for last summer’s "Hercules" and the first trailer for this summer’s smash hit "Pitch Perfect 2." Meanwhile, their current hit "Renegades" serves as the cornerstone for Jeep’s current advertising campaign. All of that and the band has still yet to release its debut full-length album, "VHS," which finally drops next week Tuesday.
If X Ambassadors can keep the momentum – and the corporate synergy – going, it would come as no surprise if the Ithaca-based rockers found themselves becoming the next Imagine Dragons. The bands’ tunes already share some similarities, both often fueled by pounding, booming beats and empowering anthemic sing-along choruses that quickly earned themselves regular spots on workout playlists across the planet. Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds even served as one of the band’s key catalysts to fame, nudging Interscope Records to sign X Ambassadors after hearing an acoustic rendition of "Unconsolable."
Judging by X Ambassadors brief seven-song Summerfest set at a well packed U.S. Cellular Connection Stage early Thursday evening, there’s still some work to be done before the band officially earns the title of Top 40 rock heir apparent. However, the potential is most certainly there, and by the end of the rockers’ setlist, it was on full display.
"We’ve got a great f*cking show for ya," announced lead singer Sam Harris right at the start before launching into a rendition of "Free & Lonely" that didn’t quite come through on that promise. Audio issues seemed to plague the early going – a saxophone solo got a little lost in the mix, and it took about three songs in for Harris to seem comfortable with the levels on brother and bandmate Casey’s keyboards – and the song itself played as a draggy opening pick.
Things improved a bit as X Ambassadors moved into "Love Songs," featuring another pedal-assisted sax solo from Sam Harris that popped more in the mix, and the sonic wailing of "Giants." Still, the tunes in the early going felt a little sludgy, keeping the audience up if not quite at ‘em. Both Harris brothers’ performances sold the material – Casey especially had a nice mini-highlight in the front half of the gig with a short but vigorous piano solo – but a lot more energy and charisma was going to necessary to get some of these heavy-felt numbers off the ground.
However, around the mid-point of the set – after "Unsteady" and heading into "Gorgeous," a completely new song from the band’s upcoming debut – X Ambassadors quickly morphed into the band with next big thing potential I hoped I would see. Gone were the audio issues and lumbering rock numbers from before, replaced by a light funky groove and Sam Harris’s shockingly piercing falsetto. The lead singer was definitely, as the kids say, feeling himself during "Gorgeous," between nailing the skyscraping high notes and joining guitarist Noah Feldshuh on a strong guitar solo to close out the song. Considering how well the song was coming through, though, who would blame him?
After that, there was no turning back. The New York band then went into "Renegades," clearly their big hit – at least judging by the flurry of cell phones craning into the air to record the song as soon as it began (I guess that’s the metric now). Fair enough; it’s a good tune, starting with a waterfalling piano and acoustic chill and growing into a big guitar solo, drum-mashing explosion. The song’s whooshing snap beat was a little lost live, but that was easily forgiven considering the live performance’s big finale beat the heck out of the rather mild recorded version.
Speaking of finales, X Ambassadors predictably ended their night with "Jungle," and they threw everything into it. There was the song itself, a satisfyingly raw and rough bluesy, thrashy banger, but that led into one last big guitar solo party with Feldshuh rocking out and Sam Harris joining in, not as much strumming a bass as he was almost blisteringly ripping it. It all came topped off with one last brassy sax solo, ending their short shift with a big bang.
Make no mistake; it was a short shift (though probably on par with other 6:45 slot time shows having to get off in time for the 8 p.m. opener), but by the end, at least it left me wanting more. And judging by the band’s current connections with Imagine Dragons – and not to mention Jay Z, who remixed "Jungle" for Beats – and apparent synergistic skills, I’m going to guess more is exactly what we’re going to get over the next few years.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.