Only a few songs into its concert Wednesday at Woodland Park Zoo, openers Lake Street Dive mentioned that the night represented a first for them.
“We’ve never played at a zoo concert before,” singer Rachael Price said.
As Price and her band soon found out, ZooTunes shows are unique. True music fanatics may bristle because many in the crowd chat, or picnic, and with kids being free to roam, the distractions are many.
Yet when a band approaches those diversions with the right approach, the music and general merriment can enhance each other.
Though Lake Street Dive has been together for a decade, the band has only hit the mainstream in the past year, based on a YouTube video of its version of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” on the street. So the players know how to project over distraction, and they did Wednesday night.
Price’s smoky voice turned the Jackson Five’s pop song into a jazz standard. It was gorgeous, and the night’s highlight.
Through the 70-minute set, the group explored jazz, folk, country and soul. “You Go Down Smooth” was particularly smooth.
There is something decidedly old-fashioned about this band, and not just because of the stand-up bass or Price’s vintage skirt. The “feel” of its music, as with great jazz, is more important than any solo, any lyric, or any one song. In that way, Lake Street Dive was the perfect band for the zoo, where the ambience is all about vibe.
Josh Ritter was the night’s headliner, and a seasoned ZooTunes veteran, but the show was special for him, too. Ritter is from Moscow, Idaho, so he’s a local of sorts, and his parents had come.
“I’m going to play some new songs, but clap even if you don’t like them,” he asked, “because remember, my parents are here!”
The crowd didn’t need Ritter’s urging, as his 90-minute set was warmly received. Ritter is also a novelist, and songs like “Kathleen” and “Hopeful” felt like short stories set to music. With a stellar band, and a powerful voice, his story songs were compelling and powerful.
Like many ZooTunes vets, Ritter couldn’t help but make a joke about the setting.
“There are lions roaming among you,” he said.
At that, the eyes of the 3-year-old next to me widened into saucers, but all she saw, scanning the crowd, were smiles from young and old.