As band members entered the stage in the darkness, they carried lanterns with them – casting a warm glow. It guided them to their spots on the stage while also illuminating the faces of the crowd, many of whom were already glowing with excitement. It was reminiscent of the final night at summer camp, where the stories and camaraderie shared throughout the week finally come to life. That moment when you and your newfound friends venture into the woods in the middle of the night to sing, chat, and soak in the last few hours together. Then, emerging from the shadows, our camp director, Sammy Rae, took the stage. Flat-brimmed hat and oversized carabiner in hand, she greeted the crowd with a smirk and and a playful side-eye, like we had been caught out past camp curfew, but wouldn’t be penalized for it this time.
The summer camp vibes were not just in costume, but in stage decor as well. The stage was dressed with signs welcoming the audience to camp, handmade wooden directional signs pointing to different stops on the tour, and the band’s home in Brooklyn New York, and a tent off to the side that kept instruments the band rotated. Even the microphone stands were adorned with bracelets and bead crafts, like a musical totem pole. Many dedicated fans embraced the tour’s theme, arriving with their own carabiners and merit badge vests. All that was missing was a bonfire and bunk beds.
The summer camp theme wasn’t just a playful wardrobe choice for the tour, but a way to celebrate their fans. Like any summer camp, you’re apprehensive at first – but by the end of the week you’ve made so many new friends and have had so much fun that you cant imagine going home. A Sammy Rae & The Friends concert feels the same way. The band is doing something that few bands seem to do nowadays, which is having fun onstage. What sets this band apart is their unapologetic joy on stage, a rarity in concerts today. Having attended countless shows, Iv’e seen many acts hardly budge from their microphone stands. In contrast, Sammy Rae & The Friends almost seemed to find the stands in their way as they grooved and danced across the stage. Even the dual saxophonists, who usually held their position on a riser at the back, frequently sat on the edge of the stage in front of the crowd. Even the encore of the night saw the band members swap instruments – the pianist took on the drums, the saxophonists strummed guitars, and Sammy Rae herself even picked up a banjo. It was not just a display of their talent but, a testament to the inclusivity that binds them together.
Inclusivity is the heart of Sammy Rae & The Friends. While “The Friends” is the group name for Sammy’s backing band, it also extends to the audience – Who Sammy ensured were just as integral to the performance as she was. Encouraging them to sing, clap, wave – even tossing her Denim jacket into the crowd during “Denim Jacket.” With a vocal style that channels the transatlantic allure of a bygone era, Sammy Rae could get away with making albums that reimagine modern songs with a 40’s style. While that has it’s own fanbase, the band wouldn’t be nearly as successful as they are now. Instead she’s taken her own path, infusing her voice to original songs with soul and classic rock influences. Tonight, that’s earned them a packed crowd at the Place Theatre.
Perhaps what I like most about Sammy Rae & The Friends, aside from their high-energy style, is the effortlessness of being their fan. We’ve found ourselves in an era where fanhood can often feel like a full-time job. Many acts seem to make it hard to be a fan when they have their websites filled with cryptic web puzzles, secret messages, easter eggs, and endless speculation in stan-pages on who songs are about, or the artist’s next move. Sammy Rae & The Friends instead welcome all of their fans. There are no intricate puzzles to solve, no secrets, no hierarchies of fans to navigate – just a simple love for their music is all it takes to be a fan. In this age of complexity, their simplicity is refreshing. It was my first time at one of their shows – and even I felt included.
Sammy said that St. Paul was the furthest stop on the tour so far, but they still felt close to home with how enthusiastic the audience was. The band introduced several new songs, including “Luck of The Draw” and the soulful “Coming Home Song,” offering a delightful taste of what may hopefully soon grace our ears. Sammy explained to us about how this tour was a fun way to experiment with new arrangements to the band’s repertoire. She performed a solo piano version of “Living Room Floor” a banjo version of “The Box” and the encore of The Faces “Oh La La” where the band switched instruments. The band ended the night back on their usual instruments with “Lets Throw a Party”, a whiplash of tempos and key changes that could make even the most shy minnesotan in attendance wiggle around and dance a little.
Like all summer camps, our time must come to an end – And Sammy Rae & The Friends left us wanting to get back to camp as soon as we can. While St. Paul is certainly a ways from New York, I hope they make it back here again following the release of their next album. If their excitement is contagious, consider myself sick.