The End of America brings poetic songs, rich harmonies to Montclair (REVIEW, PHOTOS, VIDEOS)

teoa review

From left, Trevor Leonard, Brendon Thomas and James Downes of The End of America perform at Van Vleck House in Gardens in Montclair, on July 24. Photos by Michael Stahl; visit portraitsbymichaelstahl.com.

“When you sing with two or three people and you get it right — when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts — everything kind of lifts a couple feet off the ground,” Graham Nash wrote in his 2014 memoir, “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life.” That’s a pretty good description, as well, of the feeling you get when James Downes, Trevor Leonard and Brendon Thomas harmonize.

Trevor Leonard at Van Vleck House & Gardens.

The three singer-songwriters back themselves with acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, keyboards and harmonica in the Philadelphia-based group The End of America, also known as TEOA. They don’t always sing together: Often, one member will handle the verses himself, and the others will chime in on the choruses. But whenever you hear those voices together, you feel that lift.

The Outpost in the Burbs presented them in an outdoor concert — at the Van Vleck House & Gardens in Montclair (which Thomas called “The Red Rocks of New Jersey,” referring to the scenic Colorado amphitheater) — on July 24, and they will also perform outdoors at Ross Farm in Basking Ridge (which Thomas called “The other Red Rocks of New Jersey”) on Sept. 10. Visit rossfarm.org.

You can watch some videos from the Montclair show below.

The richness of TEOA’s harmonies is matched by the poetry of their songwriting, which can be either delicate or hypnotic (as on “A Million Miles of Low Road,” where they sing about “where you go when hope deserts you”) or angry and urgent (as on “Russian Fortune,” which begins with Downes singing, “I need a breath, I’m on a bender/My head’s a kingdom that’s been overrun”).

Brendon Thomas as Van Vleck House & Gardens.

In Montclair, they sang the folk song “He Was a Friend of Mine” — which was famously revamped in 1965, by The Byrds, as a tribute to the late John F. Kennedy. When TEOA recorded this song in 2020, they made it into a tribute to the late Tom Petty, and added a bit of Petty’s “Wildflowers” to it. But in Montclair, they made it into a tribute to the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, with new words and an excerpt from the Foo Fighters song, “My Hero.” (A moment later, they performed a bit of Fountains of Wayne’s “Sink to the Bottom” — as a tribute to the late FOW member Adam Schlesinger, who grew up in Montclair — and promised that they will do the whole thing, someday.)

Leonard, Downes and Thomas first met around 2005 and have been recording as The End of America, or TEOA, since 2010. Their name comes with a disclaimer. As Downes explained in Montclair — and, one suspects band members will keep on having to explain, as long as the band keeps performing — it is not intended as some kind of political statement.

It comes from Jack Kerouac’s landmark beat generation stream-of-consciousness novel “On the Road.” The main character, having travelled from Paterson to San Francisco, thinks, “Here I was at the end of America — no more land — and now there was nowhere to go but back.”

They talked about making an album, Wait No More, during the pandemic, using Zoom and other tools to communicate while apart. It was voted best alt-country album of 2021 by the No Depression journal/website (even though, as band members joked, they don’t know what alt-country is).

James Downes at Van Vleck House & Gardens.

They then sang that song’s title track, which doesn’t mention the pandemic specifically, but evokes the frustrations of being stuck and unable to get on with your life. The song mentions a classic-rock anthem of transcending dead ends (“I had a dream, we were in a desert, Springsteen singing ‘Born to Run’ “), uses the band’s own name in an appropriately Kerouacian context (“we drove to the end of America, where sea swallows land”) and repeats, in the chorus:

Starry skies and open doors calling
Look out your window, I’ve been waiting
But I will wait no more.

The End of America performs at Ross Farm in Basking Ridge, Sept. 10 at 6:30 p.m.; visit rossfarm.org/events.

For more on the band, visit theendofamericamusic.com.

Here are some videos from the show, filmed by Cindy Stagoff:

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