Going to Mars with Judah and the Lion

Lindsey Lanham | A&E Editor

Photo by Maggie Giordano

The floor is sticky with alcohol as the crowd jumps up and down. All 1,500 of them are packed tightly, exchanging body heat, blinded by the lights flashing on the audience. The couple on the balcony that has been making out the entire show has stopped, attention now directed towards the band on stage.

Judah Akers has sweat dripping off his chin. His hair is messy and sweat-damp. He looks like he’s just run a marathon, but he’s only been on stage for about an hour now. The band keeps playing behind Akers as he steps up to the microphone, smiling, and sings, “How am I supposed to slow it down so I can figure out who I am?”

The sold out crowd at The NorVa cheers loudly, making it sound as if there were even more people in the room.

Akers smiles as he continues singing. He has his band backing him up and the crowd dancing with him, and after seven years of being together, they finally are getting the attention they deserve.

Originating from Nashville, Tn., Judah and the Lion met at Belmont University. The group is made up of lead vocalist Akers, Brian Macdonald on mandolin and Nate Zuercher who plays the banjo. The band started off as a Christian band and their first release “First Fruits” was an EP of six Christian praise songs.

“When we first got started, we released a worship music EP that Judah had written,” Zuercher said in an interview before the show. Since then, Judah and the Lion have matured and evolved, now creating music that appeals to a broader audience. “We just didn’t want to get stuck in the Christian music bubble. We wanted to make music that’s more ourselves.”

“We’re able to talk about all other aspects of our lives too, the good, the bad, the ugly,” Zuercher said. “But we’re always bringing it back to the idea of hope, that everything that can work out will work out.”

Akers is jumping around on stage wearing a “Belmont Mom” t-shirt over another long sleeve shirt. Zuercher is on his left in a baseball cap and a white shirt with matching white track pants. Macdonald is on the other side of Akers in a bright orange striped shirt and black pants with white splotches.

Judah and the Lion don’t look the least bit intimidated by the sold out crowd and their happiness is evident by their smiles every time they look into the crowd. They’re finishing up the song “Hold On,” an older track that the audience still adores if their cheering is anything to go by.

The release of “Kids These Days” in 2014 is when the band really started to build their current fanbase. The album hit No. 2 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers” chart and No. 4 on the Folk Albums chart. It marked the beginning of a new erafor Judah and the Lion, one of bending genres and finding their voice as a band.

In 2016 Judah and the Lion released “Folk Hop N’ Roll,” along with the single “Take It All Back.” The single was certified gold and signaled the onset of the band’s rise to fame.

The album proved that Judah and the Lion understood music in a different way. The group managed to find a balance between rock, hip hop and folk music. Hit single “Take It All Back,” is a sort of conglomerate of these genres, giving listeners the opportunity to hear what exactly “folk hop n’ roll” is.

A little over a year after “Folk Hop N’ Roll,” the group released a deluxe version of the album which included four new tracks two of those being “Suit and Jacket” and “Take It All Back 2.0,” a new version of the song off “Folk Hop N’ Roll.”

Judah and the Lion have been touring in support of “Folk Hop N’ Roll” for a while now, going from opening for bands like Twenty One Pilots to headlining their own shows. Zuercher explains that’s been surreal going from playing in front of a couple hundred people to over a thousand every night.

Judah and the Lion’s hard work at genre bending and layering are paying off in more than just venue size and attendance.

Judah and the Lion were nominated for Best New Artist and Alternative Rock Artist of the Year at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards and won Best New Rock/Alternative Rock Artist. “Can’t really believe it,” Zuercher said, laughing. “I don’t know how we got here.”

“It’s our first real big award,” Zuercher continues. “We’re still sort of breathing in that reality. It’s pretty incredible.”

In front of the crowd Akers takes a few minutes, sweat-drenched and panting to address the crowd. He speaks of unity and hope, telling the crowd they can do whatever they want with their lives.

“Go out. Pursue your dreams,” he tells them. “That’s why we’re on this tour and that’s why we wrote this song,” he finishes, letting the opening notes of “Going to Mars” ring loudly in the theatre.

The song is a new favorite, littered on every alternative radio station in the area. It’s their second single off of “Folk Hop N’ Roll (Deluxe),” and was an instant crowd pleaser. The front row all hold up signs that read the same thing: “Thank You” in capital letters, with the planet Mars taking place of the “o” in “you.”

“Going to Mars” is a song about being able to do what you want, no matter what people say. The banjo complements the mandolin as Akers sings an anthemic “Cause we can do anything we want / We can do anything, it’s who we are.”

Towards the end of the song, Akers makes his way to the center of the audience. He has a stool that he stands on, only putting him about a foot above the crowd. As he stands in the middle of the crowd, singing with the audience, there is no longer a barrier between band and fans. For a minute, it was just everyone singing the same words.

“Tonight’s one of those nights I never want to end,” Akers, now back on stage, tells the crowd, who cheer encouragingly. The show’s coming to an end and everyone knows it. Akers leads his band to start their final song of the night, “Water.”

Before the song fully starts, Akers takes a minute to give three rules to the audience. The first being to eat more chocolate, the second to be kind to people and the third “please listen to more Judah and the Lion,” Akers says, smiling.

Years after starting as that quiet band from Belmont University, Judah and the Lion can now confidently enjoy their success. The group has managed to sell out venues like The NorVa and 9:30 Club and now everyone is waiting to see what the trio is going to do next.

“Yeah trying to find rest is always a challenge,” Zuercher laughs, addressing their tour schedule. “After we get off this tour we’re going to be able to put a lot of time and energy into a record without having to be on the road.”

“We’ve had a nutty tour cycle over the last couple of years, on the road all the time. But we’re going to put a lot of thought, time and energy into this next record,” Zuercher said.

It’s quiet now in The NorVa. The crowd has left with the exception of few who are still finishing up their night. Empty cups once filled with beer litter the ground. It’s a strange parallel to the music and dancing that overtook the theatre only hours ago. But the crowd left that night with a new experience, a new thought that maybe this little band from Nashville does roar after all.