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Ruston Kelly Brings Dirt Emo to New York City

Ruston Kelly is known for his blend of Americana and pop-punk with a dash of stoner rock- a genre he’s aptly titled “dirt emo.” These days, though, he’s labeling his music “self-help rock.” It’s a moniker that aligns with his setlist, which included ten songs from his new record The Weakness and ten from his previous two albums. The set paid tribute to themes of addiction and recovery across his discography but never allowed darkness to overtake the energy in the room. 

“If you’re at my show, you can be whoever you want to be…you can sing as loud as you want or you can stand silently,” he declared after his third song “Paratrooper’s Battlecry.” I’m not sure if this was prescriptive or affirmative of the positive energy already present in the room—Friday night at Webster Hall was one of the most pleasant experiences as a fan I’ve had since live music returned after 2020. “Self-help rock” must draw a respectful crowd. 

Sonically, Ruston’s show expanded on the usual musical limitations of Americana—steel guitar, synth, trumpet, ukulele, and harmonia all made appearances, subtly accenting the guitar-forward tracks. The band kept the music tight, save for one sprawling outro on “Rubber” where Ruston and his guitarist led on electric guitars. 

The beanie-clad frontman kept banter to a relative minimum, save for one longer anecdote involving a baritone ukulele, a trip to Joshua Tree, and a gnarly case of writer’s block he’d previously shared with People Magazine. For “Mending Song,” Ruston played the very ukulele, the instrument that kicked off the creation of The Weakness

Throughout his set, he paid homage to some of the world’s most recognizable lines of music—a verse of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” became the intro to crowd favorite “Mockingbird,” and “Over the Rainbow” served as the outro to “Brave.” And that night in Webster Hall, “Teenage Dirtbag” may as well have been the most famous song of all time—everyone in the room sang along to Ruston’s cover. 

For his encore, Ruston emerged from the wings accompanied only by his trumpeter for a somber version of “Brightly Burst Into the Air.” After he played the “Brave/Can’t Help Falling in Love” mash-up, the full band emerged to play a full-bodied version of “Radio Cloud,” a single from 2020’s Shape and Destroy. 

The room was ecstatic as Ruston, on his way off the stage, breathlessly declared New York City the best crowd on The Weakness tour. The audience wasn’t a room of lyric-screaming diehards—to be honest, the room wasn’t even full. But the Webster Hall crowd was reverent, reciprocating Ruston’s vulnerability by listening just as much as they sang along.  

Ruston Kelly continues his tour through early summer and will be touring with Noah Kahan this fall. Check out the dates here.

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