On a cold late-autumn evening in Toronto, we joined an enthusiastic throng of concertgoers lined up in front of The Danforth Music Hall. Having just stopped for an incredible burger and beer at local grill The Bullger (that’s a story for another day, but holy cow), the two of us were fired up for an evening with one of my favorite rock bands.
It would be a lie to say I was new to the X Ambassadors fan camp.
Since an early-2015 set of theirs, caught in a small venue in Texas, I’ve been hooked. Their music is undeniably excellent, but it’s their live show — I just can’t get enough of it. The experience is exultant. Between Sam Harris’ goosebumps-inducing vocals to a penchant for blowing our minds on every instrument on stage, it’s a nonstop encounter with otherworldly talent. Sitting in the crowd, you are not simply hearing a live show, but experiencing the music in its finest format. An XA show isn’t just about a good time; it is a deliciously otherworldly experience: at times exuberant, subtle, reminiscent, uplifting, heartbreaking and joyous.
If you’ve been hiding under a rock, X Ambassadors are currently one of the most successful contemporary rock bands in the continental U.S. Hailing from Ithaca, NY, the wildly successful rock band brings stadium-worthy big energy with interwoven flavors of jazz, soul, alt rock, hip hop, pop and R&B. After a rocky path to early releases, they caught the eye of Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds, who put in a good word with Interscope Records and they signed soon thereafter. Hits “Unsteady”, “Jungle” and their debut album, VHS, followed. It’s been nothing but runaway hit after hit since then. Their latest album, The Beautiful Liar, was released in September of 2021. A concept album following a decidedly different vein, it touches on elements of the supernatural. Frontman Harris credits the darkness and uncertainty experienced through the last 18 months of pandemic; “it’s been a very difficult time,” he says.
“One of the hardest things” he stops mid-set, pausing for effect in front of an enthralled audience, “…is how… how do I look at the people I love and care for the most, and tell them it’s going to be okay?”
Launching into ethereal vocals with the relatable and heartfelt “Okay”, the audience hung on every note.
Any X Ambassadors show is a rollercoaster of wild emotion, haunting lyrics, contemporary thought-provokers, wild musicality and a can’t-keep-your-feet-still beat. This band knows how to harness the power of sound to bring every audience member along on a journey. Sam Harris manages to hit high notes in flawless succession that other artists probably couldn’t reproduce in a studio, even with auto-tune. And then, he flows into a mid-song saxophone jam, a groovy bass line or a soul-shattering guitar solo — without letting up on the Mach-5 dance moves for a second. Clad in a pinstripe suit and crisp white sneakers, his expressionist dance exudes emotion. He becomes both the puppet and puppet master onstage, and his music is the puppet string. Incorporating art into the light show, mid-show we caught Harris in a strategically-placed mid-stage spotlight. Like a character out of a children’s cartoon nightmare, it projects hauntingly exaggerated silhouettes across the stage-right and stage-left auditorium walls, playing into the characters of their latest album release, The Beautiful Liar, which tells the story of a little blind girl whose shadow comes to life.
“The message of our music is ‘the extraordinary exists within the ordinary’. It celebrates the ordinary person and says no to discrimination and ignorance,” says Harris. And, your average X Ambassadors show is certainly anything but ordinary. It’s a life-altering celebration of the power of sound. At the end of their Toronto show, I leaned over to an audience member who’d admitted it was their first time seeing the band. I asked, “How would you rate their show?”
“Words cannot describe. Oh man…” He paused. “I think it would just be a full page of fire emojis.” And, I can’t say that I disagree.
Photography by Kaili Rose