Ascend Amphitheater; Nashville, TN
October 4, 2023
Review by Philip Obenschain. Photos by Gina Di Maio.
It’s been an incredible year for singer-songwriter Noah Kahan, who, since releasing his breakout, ascendant third album Stick Season almost exactly a year ago (and expanded We’ll All Be Here Forever edition earlier this summer), has rapidly become one of the most popular and buzzed about young artists in the contemporary folk space. A regular performer in Nashville over the years, and even a one-time resident of Music City as he was getting his start, Kahan recently returned for a pair of sold out shows at Ascend Amphitheater, sandwiched between earlier 2023 appearances at both The Ryman and Bonnaroo, and a pair of upcoming dates at Bridgestone Arena next spring- a staggering accomplishment and a meteoric rise, all indebted to one phenomenal album. We caught Noah’s second night at Ascend with local favorite Samia, and experienced the magic and this pivotal moment for the singer-songwriter firsthand, for a sincere, exuberant, earnest celebration full of special guests and a de facto homecoming for many members of Kahan’s band and crew. Read on for our review and photos!
I’ve been aware of Noah Kahan for several years now, but I admit that I, like many people, didn’t really start paying serious attention until his masterful last record Stick Season, which has been on regular rotation this year. I’m also embarrassed to admit that until this summer at Bonnaroo, I had never seen him live, despite shows all over town at the likes of The East Room, The High Watt, Cannery Ballroom, Brooklyn Bowl, and The Ryman over the last several years, before skyrocketing to the unlikely arena act he’s now become. Ever since ‘Roo, I’d been dying to see a full performance, and I was thankful to catch him at these more manageably sized Ascend shows before Bridgestone next year (I’m sure they’ll be great too, but this type of music really feeds off of intimacy).
Filing in for night two, I was met with an absolutely packed crowd, buzzing with anticipation, and just a few moments later, Nashville based indie pop breakout Samia emerged to kick off the show. If you follow our playlist, you know we’ve been big fans of Samia for years now, and particularly love her recent sophomore album, Honey, which is among the best local releases of the year. Playing a mix of tunes from that new record and her debut, The Baby, Samia and her band set the tone with an effortless cool, their style a more indie rock and pop vibe than Kahan’s more folk rooted stylings, but complimentary in the sincerity of its delivery, and confessional writing style. Giving a nod to her adopted hometown and performing with an undeniable magnetism, Samia sounded great and really captivated the crowd, and the newer stuff like “Kill Her Freak Out” and title track “Honey” landed especially well. She’s the real deal and a really cool way to open this show.
I had glanced at Noah’s night one setlist during the changeover, and was curious to see how different the second night would be (not very, it turns out, but the addition of some very special guests definitely gave repeat attendees a treat). Scanning around me, I was surprised to see so many small kids and country industry-looking types in attendance, though I suppose that the veneer of Noah’s music is a sort of accessible, poppy singer-songwriter folk in its sound, even if the themes juxtapose that with darker and more serious subject matter like depression, substance abuse, and mental health. Kahan (and specifically his work on Stick Season) falls into a category of songwriters for me, where I don’t generally connect with most other artists they sound like and would be lumped in with on the surface, but that I really connect with this artist specifically, and I think that it’s that happy-sad juxtaposition, the New England frankness, and the raw vulnerability in his approach that elevates his music to something I’d compare more to a Julien Baker or Phoebe Bridgers than, say, Ed Sheeran (who Noah jokingly compares himself to as “the Jewish Ed Sheeran,” along with “Folk Malone” and other fun quips).
After a few minutes, Noah and his band (most of whom live in Nashville, he would later reveal during introductions) took the stage, the singer decked out in denim with his hair in braids, mandolin in hand to launch into his performance with “All My Love,” met with instant singalongs from a very, very excited crowd (many of whom I’d wager were seeing him for the first time). As I’ve alluded to, I think Stick Season is an instant classic and a transcendent work for Kahan, and he definitely recognizes that fact, pulling nearly the entire set from that album and its expanded re-release, with just two tunes (“False Confidence” and “Maine”) thrown in from a prior record and EP for the fans who’ve been around awhile. The singer’s energy and demeanor were equally electric and jokey, as they were serious and impassioned, as he made quips in equal measure with stories of strife and accountability, sincere gratitude for all of the new fans, and musing about his time living in Nashville, performing at spots like The East Room “for about six people.” Only 26 now (though he jokingly admitted he knows he doesn’t look it), Noah- Vermont raised and now Massachusetts based- was just 20 when he first lived in Nashville, and clearly still has a strong connection and affinity for the city, giving this performance an even more special and personable feel.
Though his music is ostensibly folk, but folk through a weathered, northeastern lens, you could switch a few instruments around and transform it into indie rock or even punk without missing a beat, as Noah performs with an urgency and raw intensity that really underscores the therapeutic and self-reflexive nature of these songs, and how they seem just as important for him to play, as fans are eager to hear. After the propulsive singalongs of “She Calls Me Back” and anthemic “Everything, Everywhere,” the moody “New Perspective,” a shout to the OG fans with “Maine,” and others, Kahan’s band (who were absolutely fantastic and locked in all night) stepped aside for him to play one of his most vulnerable and confessional tunes, “Growing Sideways,” by himself, before inviting fellow earnest singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov (in town for pair of shows at The Ryman) to join him on stage for “Paul Revere,” as the pair traded verses and absolutely mesmerized the crowd. Then, after the other throwback tune, “False Confidence,” another mic was placed on stage which was noticeably very tall. Noah’s not a short guy, so I was racking my brain for what giant might be about to emerge, instantly ruling out recent collaborator Kacey Musgraves, but, as he had a show the next night, I should’ve guessed- it was Hozier (who stands at a staggering 6’6″, lest you think I’m exaggerating). The pair played a particularly spirited rendition of “Northern Attitude,” with Hozier emerging partway though to deliver a verse with such passion and vigor that you’d think it was his own song if you didn’t know better, before they belted the chorus in unison, creating a high-energy moment of magic that Noah himself joked about being unable to top (“well, the rest of the show is going to suck now”).
That was all for surprise guests, but the rest of the performance featured quite a few more of Stick Season‘s best tunes, like particularly folky and melancholy “Orange Juice,” the propulsive and rock-geared “Dial Drunk” (which, as with many of the night’s more frenetic songs, he delivered with such passion that it bordered on a growl), and, of course, to close the show, viral hit title track “Stick Season” and (for my money, the even better) “Homesick,” two songs without which, Noah wouldn’t have so rapidly exploded over the past 12 months. One of the most passionate, unpretentious, sincere, and electrifying shows I’ve seen all year, I left Noah Kahan’s Stick Season tour even more certain that he’s the real deal, and couldn’t be more deserving of all of his recent success. While I wish I’d be plugged into his earlier work enough to catch one of those tiny shows a few years back, seeing Noah at Ascend, at this pivotal point in the midst of his incredible rise, was a really special experience, and as the last show of the season I’ll be catching at this venue, a perfect conclusion to an excellent summer of live music. If you missed out this time around, I implore you to catch Noah Kahan next spring!
All My Love
She Calls Me Back
Your Needs, My Needs
Call Your Mom
You’re Gonna Go Far
The View Between Villages