Written by Emilee Lindner • Photography by MIchael Amico, Live Nation • June 4, 2017
There’s always something that makes my throat ache during The Head & the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads.” Perhaps it’s the beautifully ascending melody or the hopelessness of the lyrics or the yearning in their harmonies. But every time I hear them sing, “Been talkin' 'bout the way things change / And my family lives in a different state,” I choke up and I swallow hard to avoid any tears escaping.
It's Saturday afternoon in New York City, and my family is nearly 300 miles away, nestled into their woodsy home as I wade through an ocean of young festival fiends at Governors Ball. I’m homesick often, but festivals always make me feel a bit moreso. And so when I hear this lyric performed live, I feel my throat starting to take a gulp.
But it wasn’t just me having an emotional experience during “Rivers and Roads.” The band itself was having a moment -- a sort of homecoming -- as they invited their former bandmate onstage to lead the singing of their traditional show closer.
It’s been over a year since The Head and the Heart announced that singer Josiah Johnson was sidelined from the band to focus on addiction recovery. They had already made two albums, and their third was being released last September. But Johnson took a hiatus, doing what was necessary -- skipping the album-finishing and the touring that followed -- to get himself better. “[We’re] providing him with love, support and the privacy he needs to be strong on his journey, for as long as it takes for him to feel solid and whole again,” the Seattle band wrote on Facebook in March 2016. “This is not an easy thing for us as he is very much a part of our family.”
“It was scary to think we’d go through the process without him, but it was the only way he would be able to get healthy,” drummer Tyler Williams told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this year about putting out their first major-label album, Signs of Light, sans Johnson.
Yet, at Governors Ball, Johnson stood at center-stage, beaming in his crop top, jeans and unzipped boots. He clutched the mic with a light grasp, like a ‘80s game show host who grins during the whole show. Jonathan Russell, who founded the band with Johnson in 2009, looked on proudly, and Matt Gervais, who took his place as singer, announced his return to the stage for the performance of “Rivers and Roads.”
The song is about going your own way but taking the journey back home to the ones you love. It stands for searching for your own success while sacrificing time with your family and your pals. It means comprising and sadness and valuing what’s important in your life. “Rivers and roads / Rivers and roads / Rivers till I reach you,” they sing on the chorus.
Onstage, Johnson and his former bandmates nuzzle up to each other. I feel my eyes get watery, but not because I'm vulnerable and missing my family — but because I think about Johnson’s journey. I think about the rivers and roads he must’ve taken to reach his bandmates, the paths he took to recovery and to regain control over his life. I think about how he's standing onstage with the people who support him and how he has returned and conquered to do the thing that he loves. I think about how music cradles us when we’re sad, heals us when we’re broken and let’s us revel in our emotions so we can feel it all. We felt it all.
They harmonize even stronger now. Fiddle player Charity Rose Thielen rips out ad-libs with abandon, emptying out her lungs and letting every stressor float out with her voice. It’s not perfect, but it’s free. The entire band takes to a mic to crow, “Rivers and roads / Rivers and roads / Rivers til I reach you.” Together, their voices are smooth, like they’ve found a home in each other. All instruments drop out until it’s just them and the hit of a tom-tom, facing the Governors Ball crowd, who may or may not understand the weight of the moment. They’re harmonizing so loudly that Johnson’s veins pop out of his neck. And then, they float their voices down to an end. “Rivers till I reach you.”
Talk about the way things change.
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