I was tremendously happy to see Horse Feather's third show at the Sunset Tavern last Wednesday night. I only just heard them on KEXP a few days earlier and immediately bought their latest album House With No Home. Lately I've really been getting back into the local country/folk sounds that have been coming out lately and the sweetness of it caught my attention.
The band consists of Justin Ringle on voice and accoustic guitar, accompanied by a cellist (Catherine O'Dell), violin player (Nathan Crockett) and another dude (Sam Cooper) who played a stripped down drumkit, a mandolin, a second violin and a banjo. God love 'em, a banjo.
The Portland-based band was very unpretentious and unassuming when they took the stage that night. Even their tuneup sounded divine and I couldn't wait for the show to start. Ringle looks a bit like Will Oldham, or like a cross country trucker, in his plaid shirt, big ol' belt buckle and bearded face. Apparently he prefers not to face his audience while he performs, which gave me a perfect full-on view of him as I was standing off to one side of the tiny stage. During tuning, the Sunset audience was chattering loudly and I was worried that they wouldn't give the band the appropriate respect they deserved. Into the first simple bars of the initial song, the audience was still abuzz. The faint plucking on the violin and bass could barely be heard, along with singular notes on the banjo. But suddenly as if on cue, the entire joint stood in enraptured silence as the band broke loose on "Helen". Not a single breath could be heard, only the occasional apologetic chugging of the credit card machine.
Without any break, Horse Feathers launched neatly into their second tune "Finch", from their 2006 album Words Are Dead. For such mellow music, Ringle is surprisingly animated onstage, at times looking either pained or exultant. It appeared as though the music had indeed taken over his body and his facial expressions. But oh! that voice. I was already completely and totally in love with that man's voice.
The band took a few minutes to tune while Justin thanked the opening acts, Mighty Tiger and Ah Holly Family, and then quickly drew us in with the bluegrass-infused "Working Poor". The prominent, sweet fiddling and banjo work were high quality and the backing band did a nice three-part harmony which was reminiscent of a summer hymnal. Next up was the song that drew me in a few days previous, "Cur In the Weeds". It began with heart-wrenching simplicity and then the music purely swelled with a heavy buildup on the bridge, the vioin racing along with our hearts. You could just feel the audience holding it's collective breath as the song ended with a singular dustbowl-infused pace.
The band paused again for another tuneup and then continued with the more orchestral "Blood on the Snow", followed by "Mother's Sick" with a more classic country-fried sound. I was content where I stood just to watch Horse Feather's charismatic frontman and marvel at both his amazing talent and intriguing stage presence. As he skillfully leads the band with his accoustic guitar, Ringle bends and sways with the music, stomping his foot so hard on the stage I can feel it where I stand.
Contorting his face as he sings, he sometimes appears vicious and visceral, other times angelic. Much, much respect is owed to the rest of the band and I was humbled by their immense talents. I'm glad to know that some band geeks can make it good. Even seated and slightly in the background, they were just as much a part of the experience. Following another tune break (all those strings must be a bitch!), we were treated to "Albina". There's not much to say, it was just So Nice. The violinists were totally sawing at their instruments, creating a sense of urgency in their tone.
"Walking and Running" began with Justin on vocals and accoustic alone, followed by a single violin fading back to just the guitar, barely a murmur, so quiet I almost thought he'd stopped playing. Enter the solitary banjo, followed by very, very quiet backing vocals. All of the Sunset stood stock-still and completely silent, so quiet I could hear someone opening a bag of chips backstage. I was glad to hear that version of the song, the recorded version is a little more upbeat, so this was a nice variation.
"Heathen's Kiss" was the highlight of the whole show for me. It's one of the more complex songs in their catalogue and has a real "Deadwood" feel to it, calling to mind a hot, dusty and bloodstained Old West. The ghoulish, western-styled strings really took center stage, until homeboy busted out a saw (swoon) which just added more to the creepy, desperate Gold Rush-vibe. Ringle's voice rose above it all with a howl. The song concluded with some really nice harmonies from the band and great percussive style. I was totally taken away to a place where I could practically smell the whiskey and fresh timber. I'll go back again and again just to hear them perform that one song. For serious…
This was followed by the sweet and innocent-sounding "Father" and then "Falling Through The Roof". Finally they really pulled out all the stops on the last song, "Rude to Rile", with pounding drums, crashing cymbals and the violinist maniacally rocking back and forth. It totally had an Arcade Fire thing going. It ended very abruptly and that was the set! I was sorry to see it end, but relieved and thankful to have seen it at all.