When it comes to flipping genres on their heads, Judah & the Lion seem to have created the perfect formula by combining folk, hip hop, and rock into a sound all their own.
Formed in Nashville in 2011, the band’s traded in their opening act training wheels for a full headline tour showcasing their second full-length album, Folk Hop N’ Roll.
The quartet, fronted by Judah Akers and accompanied by Brian Macdonald on mandolin, Spencer Cross on drums, and Nate Zuercher on banjo, have quickly made a name for themselves across the festival circuit. But before they were playing Bonnaroo and South by Southwest, the fiery foursome were four college students focused on performing in the Belmont University Showcase Series.
“At Belmont, we don’t have a football team. So the ‘football game’ is the Showcase Series,” said Cross. The four met during their time at Belmont and, through these concert series and other local gigs, Judah & the Lion were able to establish a footing in the performance world.
Over the course of four years, the band has gone from performing for tiny crowds at their college to opening for Mat Kearney, and now they’re headlining their own tour. As they travel from state to state, they tour the good old fashioned way: in a van.
Though traveling by van may take longer, it’s allowed the band to really soak in the culture of each state and eat how the locals do. “We try and make the most of wherever we are,” said Cross. “If we’re in Charleston, we’re going to have to get seafood or shrimp and grits.”
As they prepare to kick off the second half of their tour in August, they pretty much have their food routine nailed down. While it’s easy to think professional touring bands eat better than the rest of us, please find comfort in the fact that Judah & the Lion take advantage of free hotel breakfasts just like the rest of us.
“After a few years of touring, we’ve gotten to know our bodies pretty well, so we know we need to put good things in it,” said Cross. As they travel between cities, their time is definitely limited, so Chick-fil-A and Chipotle have become two dietary staples.
Though they hit up Whole Foods when they can, there is one treat during this tour that they can’t say no to: ice cream. “Some of us have a sweet tooth,” said Cross. “In the city, if there’s a good ice cream place, we’re kind of hard-pressed not to go get some.”
If their eating habits are any indication, despite their sudden success, at their core they are still twenty-somethings trying to figure out life as best they can, a theme they focus on heavily in their lyrics.
In the simplest of descriptions, the lyrics off their new album offer a home to those who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They begin their album with “Graffiti Dreams,” which serves as a battle cry for every twenty-something that has ever felt like changing the world.
As the album progresses, the songs begin to get even more real, and I’m not talking late-night Twitter real. I mean the real struggles you wouldn’t blast across social media. The best example is found in their song, “Insane” where Akers sings about hiding depression behind a smile because it seems like everyone else has it figured out.
“It’s deeper than we’ve gone before lyrically,” said Cross. “We wanted people to know that they’re not alone in what they’re going through.” The message of “you are not alone” isn’t just present in their lyrics, but it’s a theme they bring with them into their concerts as well.
If their lyrics offer a sense of home, then their live shows are best described as a family reunion. When they first started touring, it was their live shows that really grew their audience, and helped distinguish them from other acts in the same genre. Unlike other bands that often drink on stage, Judah & the Lion refrain from poppin’ bottles during their set.
“We really wanted to take this as professionally as possible,” said Cross. “If people paid good money to come out to a live show, we wanted to be on our game.” Their dedication to their audience is not overlooked, which makes their live shows authentic and nearly impossible to replicate.
While good stage presence is a trait that can be taught, being present in the moment is a gift, and it’s a gift that Judah & the Lion give to their audience each night. “I hope they leave a little sore from dancing,” said Cross. “And I hope they leave a little more hopeful than when they came in.”
After 150 shows in 2015 alone, it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to see Judah & the Lion live, do yourself a favor and check out their latest album, then buy a ticket to their show ASAP. Who knows, maybe if you hang out around Chick-fil-A you may just get to see them before the show.