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Few things compare to the thrill of enjoying live music outdoors, and last night both Lord Huron and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats played incredible, energetic sets to an almost-capacity crowd at Wolf Trap.

You could hardly have picked a better day to kick off the Wolf Trap 2016 Summer Concert Series. As audiences rolled into the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts – the country’s only national park for the performing arts – they were greeted by one of the most perfect days in recent memory. As the sun set with swirling pinks, purples and blues, The Night Sweats’ horns filled the air while a magnificent rainbow straddled the cloudless sky. It was hard not to feel that after months of rain and gloom, summer was finally here.

The Filene Center at Wolf Trap is one of the most stunning venues I have ever seen. You don’t really get a sense of the size and scope of the amphitheater until you reach the top of the hill it’s carved into. Looking down on the sloping lawns, strewn with blankets, coolers, and happy, shining humans, you can’t help but smile at the wonderful energy around you. As with most performances at Wolf Trap, this was an all ages show and a great opportunity for friends and families to take in performances by some of the more exciting and novel (yet safe) acts on tour today.

Wolf Trap’s staff were polite and keen to help patrons find their seats in the pavilion section, and there was a loose, relaxed feel to the evening. Curiously, while folks on the lawn are able to bring their own coolers with beverages, those of us lucky enough to be seated in the orchestra section were instructed to finish our drinks before we were allowed to our posts. Chugging a beer as Nathaniel Rateliff and his band started their set had a weird throwback feeling – Starr Hill’s Northern Lights is delicious, but not necessarily a beer for gulping down in a minute.

Speaking of Rateliff and his backing band – their blend of soul, gospel, and indie folk had the audience dancing and singing for the duration of their set. The Denver-based musician has the feel of an old-time troubadour, and the charisma of a Southern preacher, stirring the audience and his band into a joyous frenzy. The 7,000 person venue was rocking and bubbling with energy, as throngs of Granola Dads and Teva Moms danced arrhythmically. It was pure, unbridled white-people dancing, and it was lovely to witness.

Lord Huron headlined the show, seemingly to the surprise of most attendees – the venue was noticeably emptier after the end of Nathaniel Rateliff’s set. Considering the demographics of the attendees, it’s easy to see why – the band’s 9:40pm start time was relatively late for a school night, particularly for those who made the trek from D.C.-proper. Ben Schneider and his band did not seem to mind playing for a smaller audience, and put on a show that was equal parts haunting and uplifting.

The sound and production value of Lord Huron’s live performance was on a par with any other world-class folk band I have seen – echoes of natural elements really helped set the mood, and it was fitting that this show took place in a gorgeous wooden amphitheater in a national park. Playing mainly songs from their 2015 release, Strange Trails, the quintet faithfully recreated the high-fidelity sounds and rich sonic landscapes they are known for. One song featured “a bit of magic” –  in Schneider’s words – as bassist Miguel Briseno played the theremin expertly to an awestruck crowd.

Even as Lord Huron played all the way to the 11pm curfew, the energy never waned among the faithful who stayed to the end, who were richly rewarded with a fitting performance to mark the beginning of a very impressive summer schedule at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.

Featured Image from last years 9:30 Club show.

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