Back in February, Band of Horses came to Somerville. The band, having steadily risen in fame since 2006's excellent Everything All The Time, recently completed an acoustic tour, eschewing their more traditional festival stages and arenas for smaller, more intimate venues. Like so many, I first heard Band of Horses on the radio with their ubiquitous single "The Funeral". It was and continues to be just an excellent indie rock song. "The Funeral" got big. Everything All The Time got great reviews. Band of Horses was on the scene. I was excited when it was announced they would be playing at Seattle's Labor Day Weekend music festival, Bumbershoot, in 2008. I still remember the show vividly, and it ranks highly on the list of the best shows I've ever seen.
So it was a real treat when I saw that Band of Horses had a stop on their acoustic tour right in our own backyard. On top of that, another Seattle-based singer-songwriter named Sera Cahoone was opening, and I've loved her stuff for years.
Sera was up first, playing with J., her bandmate of 10 years. The duo played a well-paced set, blending some more upbeat tracks with her more typical thoughtful pace of music. J. played the pedal steel guitar, which may be the most distinctive trait in Sera's music, giving songs a definite country twang. Its sounds filled the theater and grabbed attention.
For Sera's final track, she had Ryan from Band of Horses come out and play mandolin on "Nervous Wreck", an absolute high point of the set. With an audience that may or may not have been well acquainted with Sera's work, it was a thrill to see the applause she garnered at the end of her performance.
What came after can only be described, endearingly, as "An Evening with Band of Horses". Ben Bridwell emerged first, and after grabbing an undersized acoustic guitar opened the night with the acoustic closer of the band's first album, "St. Augustine". The rest of the band members followed soon after. The band played a dense set of songs spanning their entire discography.
In between songs, there was some legitimately hilarious stage banter. At one point, the band fell completely silent as guitars were being tuned. "This is how we normally practice," Ben Bridwell remarked. "I dress up like a teacher, and nobody speaks."
Another nice thing to see was the camaraderie between Sera Cahoone and J. and Band of Horses. Sera and Ben played together in the Seattle band Carissa's Wierd. It was J.'s birthday, and Sera had said while on stage, "It's his birthday, so go kick him in the crotch." Later in Band of Horses' set, Ben remarked, "And thanks to Sera Cahoone for playing, we love those guys. And it's J.'s birthday; we're gonna go kick him in the crotch."
Some renditions did fare a bit better than others -- "Marry Song", one of my personal favorites of theirs, walked somewhere between the original's acoustic simplicity and the band's more upbeat electric live rendition. The result was a bit emotionally devoid.
Lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey sings on the gorgeous "Everything's Gonna Be Undone", which includes a gorgeous solo guitar intro. The intro had the crowd at its most silent all night. But when Ben, Ryan and the upright bass came in, all gathered around a single microphone, sonically things became a bit muffled, with the microphone picking up on a lot of metallic string sounds. While it was a nice brotherly demonstration to all squeeze around a center mic together, it's too bad that the sound issues got in the way of the song. "Older", a song sung by bandmate Ryan, was similar.
There were some absolute standouts. "The Great Salt Lake", one of the more massive tracks from the band's first album, sounded similarly grand with the warmth of acoustic guitars. "Weed Party" also got a makeover. Originally a lightweight rock song, the upright bass provided a thick, bouncy bass line that completely transformed the tone of the song.
Band of Horses' third and fourth albums suffered somewhat with critics, and have generally failed to inspire the fanbase like the first two did. However, with the release of Acoustic at the Ryman and this acoustic tour, it seems as if Ben and his new friends have found a new side of the band. Many are critical of the band's direction, and I've wondered where they'll go in the future. But after seeing this performance, how they all interacted together on stage, and the absolute passion they showed for their songs, I am confident the band has more to contribute. As Ben repeated during the first encore performance "Monsters", "If I am lost, it's only for a little while."