Band of Horses at the Ryman, 4/28/13

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The Spin approached the Mother Church with an open mind on Sunday night. We’ve heard a bit of Band of Horses, but it's never quite cut through the SST alumni, soul singers and other staples of our diet enough to stick. However, having sold out a night at the Ryman, added a second night to meet the demand, and then promptly sold that out, to say that these guys must have impressed somebody is a bit of an understatement. A quick check of the details indicated that the group had also impressed two of our favorite producer engineers, Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Halo Benders, the first three BOH records) and Glyn Johns (The Who, The Rolling Stones, BOH’s latest, Mirage Rock). Intrigued, we took our pew.

The evening kicked off with an unplugged set featuring an upright piano, a harmonium and a semicircle of acoustic guitars. Taking a few cues from Talking Heads’ definitive concert movie Stop Making Sense, the stage was set to suggest a living room, including a pretty sweet floor lamp, and leader Ben Bridwell began alone, with additional members of the group joining him for each successive number. Before long, bells of recognition began to ring: The second song was a very stripped-down version of “No One’s Gonna Love You,” which had stood out to us among a sea of middle-of-the-road riffs on adult contemporary radio, with its lilting melody, controlled-stagger rhythm and Bridwell’s distinctive voice, a clear tenor with a tendency to curl the ends of words.

We could take or leave the curlicues, but this setting offered Bridwell a chance to show off his genuine vocal abilities, which bring to mind the old chestnut about a book and its cover; for a scruffy, gangly guy with neck tattoos, he clearly works hard at pitch control, crooning and shouting with equal precision. Bridwell shares this skill with his bandmates, who surprised us with big, round, multi-part harmonies that, given their country-folk context, brought to mind the best efforts of Eagles and Crosby, Stills and Nash. After an impressive take on Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” the acoustic set wrapped with Bridwell and guitar-slinger Tyler Ramsey gathered around Ryan Monroe at the piano for “Neighbor.” With its chorus about Bartles and Jaymes not needing first names, the tune perfectly complemented the group’s playful attitude, which effectively undercut the air of pretension that’s hung over many an acoustic evening.

When the curtain went up for the electric set, we appended our previous comparison to read “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” as wounded, squalling solos inspired by the latter poured forth in abundance, often as not from songs that started out gently. This included their rendition of Neil Young’s own “Powderfinger,” which had us jumping along with the rest of the crowd. The band’s guitar tech was onstage almost as often as the group with fresh axes, but that didn’t turn the set indulgent or pretentious. It was simply a service to fans, a signal that BOH has the ability to reproduce the sounds on the records, and by God, they’re going to use it.

There wasn’t a whole lot here to win over an outsider, but that wasn’t the mission for this show. As bassman Bill Reynolds told Scene contributor Marissa R. Moss, “It’s about embracing the Ryman and letting it do its thing to us,” which was clearly the prime directive for band and fans alike. As Bridwell mentioned, the second night’s set was completely different from the first, resulting in some very deep cuts like “Part One,” noted as “possibly the first Band of Horses song, ever.” Songs like the title cut from Infinite Arms and the full-band electric reprise of “No One’s Gonna Love You” didn’t tickle our fancy, but we definitely saw more dancing, cheering and taking selfies than at some rock shows we could mention. We see plenty of musicians studying other musicians with an attitude of detached deference, and that’s great, but the unreserved joy of fans who have no stake beyond seeing people they like play songs they love is just as beautiful.

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