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A review: We are the Willows create collage through music

Members of Minneapolis-based band We Are the Willows perform a four-part-harmony song. They are (from left) Hilary James, Peter Miller, Travis Collins and Leah Ottman. Rachel Fergus /RiverTown Multimedia

I can think of words and phrases to string together that would begin to summarize the We Are the Willows concert, but they are all such cliches: unique, mesmerizing, haunting. All are true but they have all been used millions upon millions of times.

We Are the Willows from south Minneapolis defines itself as "an orchestral indie rock band." The six-member group created a two-part concept album that looks at the 350 letters that member Peter Miller's grandparents wrote back-and-forth while Miller's grandfather was serving in World War II.

The show performed at the Sheldon Theatre was like a live collage with photos projected onto a screen while Miller told stories about his grandparents. After each anecdote the band played a song that accompanied or reflected on the story and photo. Songs ranged in topic from the fear of not returning home, feeling like a number instead of a person, and looking forward to the possibilities of the future. The music was able to combine the excitement of love and adventure with deep feelings of sadness and ghosts of the past.

Before every song Miller would give the audience a little synopsis of why he wrote it, what inspired him. Before one of the final songs, he recalled his grandfather's death and the time leading up to it. One night, Miller's grandfather awoke and thought that he was in a foxhole and that Miller was his comrade. That moment of worlds blurring together can be felt throughout the entire album.

The combining of worlds was carried from the stage, down the stairs and into the audience. When the lights came on after the final song, it became clear that the group did not have a defined fanbase. Couples with white hair and smile lines were sitting next to tattooed twenty-somethings and Gen-Xers who also had grandparents that served during World War II One audience member told a friend while leaving the Sheldon: "My grandpa fought in World War II, so it gets me every time."

Miller's voice, the lead singer, is not perfect. It can be argued that his is not the best voice in the band. But We Are the Willows is not dependent solely on voice to carry their music. The combination of cello and violin with drums, guitar and bass give the group a unique sound. And, with such a unique album and inspiration, it is hard to not be sucked-into the music. If a chance arises, see them in concert.

For information about the band, visit: www.wearethewillows.com.