Band of Horses at Terminal 5
New York, November 4, 2007
When I first caught a glimpse of Band of Horses live, it wasn’t in person; it was a tepid, shaky performance of “The Funeral” on David Letterman (YouTube). I’d had their debut, Everything All the Time, for a while and hadn’t really listened much except to know that the difference between the muscular recorded version of the song and the Letterman adaptation was glaring. Granted, a one-song late-night television debut isn’t the best barometer of a band’s live prowess, but others have done it far better than Band of Horses did.
My first actual Band of Horses concert experience came in August, 2006. In the time after the Letterman fiasco, I’d fallen deeply in love with Everything and its rustic, majestic tones. It’s one of my favorite albums of the last few years, and whenever I can be bothered to tote my acoustic guitar to New York’s Union Square Park, “The Great Salt Lake” remains a staple in my panhandling setlist. On that summer afternoon, under the sun at Brooklyn’s McCarren Pool, the boys were bare-boned but on the mark. Word of an upcoming album had just surfaced, and they managed to fit previews of two new tracks – “Is There A Ghost” and “Ode to the LRC” – in the middle of a strong set that represented Everything well, albeit in workman-like fashion.
My feelings on what would become of that upcoming album, Cease to Begin, have oscillated from initial disappointment to genuine adoration. I began to accept, and admire, its subtle change in style. And with it pretty much holding my iPod on lockdown for the last two months, I had to see the band again. Playing in the three-week-old Terminal 5 (the walls are still unpainted, although that might be an aesthetic decision), the new go-to spot for major indie bands in New York, Band of Horses announced itself as a legitimately badass rock band.
In front of their largest crowd, the Horses seemed ages more comfortable than the group I’d seen previously. All smiles and satisfied beer swigs, the group brought its brand of hospitable Southern culture to cold Manhattan. Cease to Begin is largely a record about the terror of new-found isolation, about finding yourself in a foreign place with no connections and just wanting to go back home. The group sang those sad songs, recorded originally with doubt, now with optimism. And as Bridwell skeptically asked, “In a town so small how could anybody not look you in the eye or wave as you drive by” during “Ode to the LRC,” the crowd affirmed that optimism by actually waving at him.
There was happiness all around. Focusing solely on the stage, and forgetting about the myriad man-purses and $100 haircuts surrounding me, I actually began to believe I was seeing the best bar band in history. It was a fucking party, and Ben Bridwell was bringing the whiskey.
This was a group that has gone from playing its songs ably to giving them new depths and life, best exemplified by their rendition of “The General Specific,” my favorite Cease track. They took what was already an addictive honky stomp and made it downright raucous, smashing a tambourine on every one-beat with conviction and letting a mysterious piano player flaunt his shit before ending the song on nine emphatic strikes. The old songs (including a much better rendition of “The Funeral”) remained poignant, particularly the set-opening “Monsters,” which blended guitar, banjo, and some lap slide into a cathartic crescendo.
The new tracks, meanwhile, sounded even better in person. The live version of “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands” revealed some Sabbathian influence buried on record, while “Ode to the LRC” and “Islands on the Coast” loomed large. The group transitioned well to slow numbers like “Marry Song” and “Part One,” and played them lovingly enough to keep everyone interested. Even as Bridwell referred to them as “momentum killers,” that sentiment didn’t strike me at all — they were breathers, sure, but mesmerizing ones.
The group, clearly enjoying themselves on stage with an energy you’d have to be Stephen Hawking to not adopt, ended the night on a note unfamiliar to many. Their take on Them Two’s “Am I A Good Man” hardened the original’s cutting soul with the type of dark self-doubt and despair you hear in any good blues band. It was a sound previously unforeseen, yet welcome, in the Horses catalogue.
Listening to the cover, it was nice to hear Bridwell’s voice, typically in the upper registers, venture deep. And it emphasized how far this band has come. On Letterman, Bridwell couldn’t even hit his own high notes. Now he’s hitting all the high notes and all the low notes. As a matter of fact, he’s hitting all the right notes.
MP3s from Cease to Begin:
YouTube: Band of Horses – “Is There a Ghost”
11/10, Pontiac, MI (Crofoot Ballroom)
11/12, Chicago, IL (Metro)
11/14, Minneapolis, MN (First Avenue)
11/15, Fargo, ND (The Aquarium/Dempsey’s Upstairs)
11/17, Bozeman, MT (The Filling Station)
11/18, Boise, ID (Neurolux)
11/19, Seattle, WA (Showbox)
11/20, Seattle, WA (Showbox)
11/21, Portland, OR (Crystal Ballroom)
11/23, San Francisco, CA (Mezzanine)
11/24, Los Angeles, CA (Avalon LA)
11/26, Pomona, CA (Glass House)