“A night of songs, conversation and hope.” These are the words To Write Love On Her Arms define their flagship event Heavy and Light with. Now in it’s seventh year, their second and final show for 2015 at the House of Blues, Orlando on January 31st was all this and more.
From the moment the countdown began and the curtains unveiled the silhouette of spoken word poet Sierra DeMulder, it was clear this night would be different. Rather than just being a concert or a benefit show, there was a sense of purpose and, dare I say it, hopefulness, in the air. The lineup of world renowned musicians and speakers was meant to do more than merely give the audience a good time, they were there to move us. And from the first sentence of DeMulder’s “Today Means Amen,” we were taken on a journey that emphasized the fact that, “Nothing would be the same if you did not exist.”
The pint sized Minnesota local spoke clearly and boldly, her words echoing in the ears of a mesmerized audience. And with that, Heavy and Light 2015 had begun and Matthew Perryman Jones took to the stage.
Performing solely with his acoustic guitar, MPJ took us through some fan favorites, including “Can’t Get It Right,” recently performed by the character of Gunner on Nashville. You can’t beat the original version though, and the double denim clad musician grasped the emotions of the audience and held it through his short set.
Potentially the most beautiful aspect of Heavy and Light is it’s ability to unite people, and it does this by breaking down the barrier of the stage and the audience. MPJ achieved this by sharing his story, and talking about why he writes music. In his song “Oh, Theo,” his vocals were clear, his stage presence unassuming yet you couldn’t take your eyes off him. The moment his vocals soared opened the space in our hearts and minds that may have been closed to the significance of the night. We were ready for more, we were ready to be moved.
Enter Jamie Tworkowski, founder of TWLOHA and in his arms, his 2 year old nephew Landon. While it’s undeniably rare for such a display of family values and cute overload to be on display, the kid announced the next act of the night and long time friends of TWLOHA – The Summer Set brought the intensity up with their pop/rock tunes and the soulful vocals of Brian Logan Dales.
With a set that varied slightly from the year before, The Summer Set smashed the stage with “Maybe Tonight,” before delighting the audience with their hit “Lightning In a Bottle,” and “Legendary.” Clearly a tight nit group, the band inadvertently communicated through the set, seemingly to effortlessly go into break downs, build pivotal moments and ultimately create a space for honest conversation. They performed a new track, “When I Look In Your Eyes,” and after squeezing some more tunes in (no one was complaining, the audience had entered a Summer Set dance party the moment it began), they finished off with a cool rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” aided by the grooves of Dales and an audience united by the steadfastness of the 80’s anthem.
Breaking the music for the ‘conversation’ aspect of the evening, professional counselors Aaron Moore and Denny Kolsch stepped up and talked about the issues of depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury. Highlighting the rarity of such an event in the mental health world, it was also clear that Heavy and Light is an exquisite platform that exists in the realm of music, and as the night progressed, it provided people with a bridge to open up and seek help from the community around them and professional services in the area.
Dustin Kensrue of Thrice was next, and… wow. There are few words to describe this gentleman and his music. As someone who has never heard him before, I did not know entirely what to expect, but the absolute depth of his vocals and how they paired with the emotion and lyrics he delivered was something else. Playing the harmonica, we were given a folky, singer songwriter vibe as he sang “Pistol.”
Highlighting the fact that we must be honest and recognize the dark and heavy issues inside of us so we can truly find the light, the gravel of Kensrue’s tone was utter, flawed perfection and seemed to embody the themes of the night.
Announcing that he would be releasing his first solo record in 8 years in 2015, he shared a new track before covering Tom Waits’ “Down There By The Train.” And to put it simply, it was an enigma that took the audience to a new place, allowing his vocals and the simplicity of the acoustic guitar to fade out and make room for the audience to sing.
There is much excitement surrounding the release of the To Write Love On Her Arms movie starring Kat Dennings and Chad Michael Murray, and after Kensrue finished his set, Tworkowski gave us a taste of the film which was filmed in Orlando 3 years ago. Set to be released straight to DVD on March 3rd, an exclusive scene featuring Between The Trees was shown from the story of how the movement started.
DeMulder returned with a set of three spoken word poems after this. Like any musician, her words captivate and possess the stage. The poet held the audience’s attention the entire time; her ability to ride the waves of depression, heart break and loss, and then so truthfully bring us back with her to a place of redemption and hope, was poignant and artistic. This event carries the unusual ability to bring in various creative mediums to communicate a message, and the addition of DeMulder in this year’s lineup was a fitting and pivotal choice.
TWLOHA events are definitive in their message and the importance of words – and Tworkowski shared his heart with those gathered following this. The soon-to-be author brought home the purpose of the event, and if there was any doubt in the audience’s minds that this was a normal concert, it was likely dumbfounded after this. The story of the organization and how it started by accident culminated in the recognition that Orlando was where the journey had started 9 years ago, and the significance of each individual member of the audience’s role in this was pivotal.
Introducing good friend and Heavy and Light alumni, Jon Foreman, to the stage, more room was made to feel, to move and to sing. Supported by a bassist and percussionist, Foreman brought a collection of new and old favorites, opening with “Resurrect Me,” before blowing everyone away with “Only Hope.” The strings alone made this a phenomenal performance, but there was something beautiful and sacred within the words, and as Foreman sung boldly and then softly, people gravitated towards the song and as a member of the audience, it felt like it became our own.
Speaking about his upcoming project The Wonderlands, the Switchfoot frontman announced plans to release 24 songs this year- 1 for every hour of the day. He then shared them for the first time, and if the sing-a-long nature and sweet love story poised within these two new tunes give us a taste of The Wonderlands, I can’t wait to hear the rest.
A highlight of last year’s Heavy and Light was the duet between Foreman and Summer Set frontman Brian Logan Dales, when they performed a cover of Lorde’s hit,“Royals.” This year they brought it back, mixing their unique tones to form a cool and unusual moment on stage.
Performing “Dare You To Move,” Foreman cultivated one of the most memorable moments of the annual event, and the powerful words of the 2003 hit were soon being sung in unison by every person within the House of Blues. Young or old, healthy or unhealthy, heavy or light- the declaration of moving towards hope and believing we were made with purpose, in that moment, felt universal. You’ be hard pressed to find that moment anywhere, yet in the chords of such a well written song that resonated with many people, it felt like one of the truest, purest forms of hope I have ever personally encountered. Following on with “Your Love Is Strong” by request of an audience member, and the beauty and sincerity of Foreman’s talent was emphasized.
Exiting the stage to cries of “encore!” Foreman reemerged, and true to his nature, he had everyone place their arms on each others shoulders and sing the classic, “Lean On Me.” Does that sound corny? Well it was, but it was absolutely the best possible expression of community that could have taken place at that time because it visually depicted the message of the night, “You are not alone. You are a story still going.”
Bringing all the artists back on stage for an encore of “Learning To Fly,” there was jest about not knowing how to finish the song (they decided to wing it), and headliner lead, Foreman making room for the phenomenal tones of his bass player (which we now know is clearly also a singer!) to join in; there was a harmony and camaraderie on stage that did not feel forced or unnerving. In fact, the accomplished musicians followed the rise and fall of the atmosphere and finished the night with a combination of everything good about Heavy and Light: the joy, vulnerability, honesty and company.
TWLOHA’s Heavy and Light in Orlando was special. Unique in presentation, delivery, content and in sheer authenticity, the musicians and speakers separately formed beautiful masterpieces that touched the audience and evoked honesty and truth within them. Together, the team delivered a night that was formative in my own life and likely the lives of many others in the room.
High in musicianship, quality, performance and most of all, in heart, TWLOHA again showed us that their Heavy and Light event is a springboard within the music and mental health world realms to discuss the hard things and discover the light together. Because of that, it was a night I will never forget.