The Ryman Auditorium often challenges its visiting artists. For Rainbow Kitten Surprise, this manifested as a battle over energy. But they still crushed it.

I always love shows at the Ryman. The venue is far from perfect. From a rather objective perspective, it’s a difficult place for a show. The stiffness of the old wooden pew seating creates confusing rules on when the audience is supposed to stand. The numbering system can be complicated, and for this particular show, everyone in our row was improperly seated an entire section over. The complete absence of a floor pit in the auditorium style can create an artificial barrier between performer and audience and limit the overall energy of the room. It’s a tough venue, especially for bands who like to dance. Which is partially why I love it so much — the restriction adds to the majesty of the space, and I enjoy seeing artists and crowds alike adapt and try to navigate the auditorium setting. I’ve seldom walked away from a show at the Ryman without asking the inevitable question: would this show have been better in a different venue? Maybe Marathon for more high energy bands, or Mercy Lounge for quieter, more intimate ones?

This question dominated our group reflection as we walked up Broadway in search of better Uber prices. One friend posed a word, “restrained,” that I think epitomizes the relationship between Rainbow Kitten Surprise and the Ryman Auditorium. Because Rainbow Kitten Surprise was dancy. Like, surprisingly dancy. The performance itself was captivating, fun, and beautiful. Underneath the surface, though, it felt like Rainbow Kitten Surprise was straining against the limitations of the Ryman, struggling to bring the fans just in front of them to a level of energy not physically permitted by the space. While some of this disconnect manifested in unresolved angst, yearning for catharsis, other aspects of it were distinctly fun. The church-like setting didn’t stop lead singer Sam Melo from stripping his shirt during the last song, and the setting lends a sense of irony to the profound rendition of “Cocaine Jesus.” To be sure, Rainbow Kitten Surprise is excellent live, and the Ryman provided an interesting setting for them to tackle.

The unification of Rainbow Kitten Surprise and Mt. Joy in a single concert is a performance from my dreams. During other shows I’ve seen at the Ryman, folks tend to fill in gradually during the opening act, slowly filling the room until the main performance begins. Not so on this night. It wasn’t even 7:45 and almost everyone was in their seats, eagerly awaiting the enigmatic Mt. Joy, who were catapulted to headlining their own tour after the success of a few singles and their self-titled debut. For two nights in Nashville, though, they pressed paused on headlining and supplemented their own tour by opening for RKS. In the past I’ve occasionally described Mt. Joy as a combination between The Lumineers and Rainbow Kitten Surprise, based on their tendency toward similar contemplative lyrical themes and proximity in genre. But while RKS struggled against the energetic limitations of the Ryman, Mt. Joy — the epitome of indie folk-rock — comfortably played within the rules. By keeping it low-key, they kept the focus on the music rather than the performance itself. And they did so incredibly. Mt. Joy is truly one of my favorite bands, largely due to the way they weave complex and considered lyrics through traditional indie folk-rock ballads. While some young bands stick completely to the script in live shows, and others go experimentally off the rails, Mt. Joy simply issued a commanding performance punctuated by seamless medleys and instrumentalist highlights.

The sum of the two acts equated to a phenomenal show: two of indie rock’s best headliners for the price of one. And of course, the Ryman made it interesting.