The first time I saw Band of Horses live was this past March at a small-scale venue in Knoxville, Tenn., just as Everything All the Time was beginning its heavy reverberation on the indie circuit. Ben Bridwell (pictured) and his merry band of travelers were in their coltish stage, a bit unsure of themselves as they worked their way methodically through the set. That’s not to say it wasn’t a quality show — the jangly banjos and lap steel guitar were enough to make time disappear — but the atmosphere was lax, and you could tell the audience was only half-mouthing the words, still unsure of the lyrics to any songs other than “The Funeral” and “The Great Salt Lake.”
Eight months and a new album later, Band of Horses arrived with a completely different aesthetic at Terminal 5 on the west side of Manhattan. Bridwell owned the crowd from the opener, “Monster,” which crescendoed into rollicking renditions of countrified anthems like “The Great Salt Lake” and “Islands on the Coast.” Before the show, I had wondered how the band was going to execute its new, more contemplative material in front of a lively, sold-out crowd that was champing at the bit to head-bang to “The Funeral” rather than sway to “Detlef Schrempf,” especially after the dirty rock of opener The Drones.
If you recall, I expressed early skepticism of Band of Horses’ second CD, Cease to Begin, in a blog a month ago. After about 10 straight-through listens to the 30-minute album, though, I got hooked. It’s more country than indie, more Atlantic Coast than Pacific Coast. Exactly the way a band that relocated from Seattle to South Carolina ought to sound. But it’s not an album that could possibly translate to the stage. Bridwell’s echo-y vox would have to shoulder far too much of the load, like an early Jim James/My Morning Jacket show in East Kentucky. Or so I thought.
Songs like “Ode to LRC” and “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands” rawkedharder than their studio cuts. The band launched into “The GeneralSpecific,” Bridwell was banging away at his tambourine, and I wastransported to a backwoods field party, minus the barn and themoonshine. And when he sang, “What the writers say/It means s— to menow,” I genuinely believed him. Even though Bridwell got visiblyrattled after the band flubbed a song during the encore, he’s becomingincreasingly more comfortable behind that grizzly beard, which seems togrow along with his music.
The only question is: can he slough off the James/MMJ comparisons? (I think they’re unfounded, other than to say, yeah, Bridwell’s voicehas reverb.) Band of Horses has opted to play various covers on thetour — last night’s offering was Them Two’s “Am I a Good Man,” adding a welcome blues element that I never knew they had. But will that lead to albums like MMJ’s Learning and The Sandworm Cometh?I’d be interested to hear what Bridwell could do with some rhythm andblues. But what do you think? If he did, would it just be discounted bycritics as yet another sign of a poor man’s MMJ?