"Hi, we're Band of Horses. We're gonna play some songs for ya."
With that low-key introduction, Ben Bridwell began what was probably the most musically satisfying concert the Johnny Mercer Theatre has heard in years. Band of Horses' hybrid rock ‘n' roll - a sort of electric Americana with country-tinged harmonies and sweeping U2 grandeur - filled every corner of the sold out (or very nearly so) hall.
A stage-wide screen behind the band projected images - starry skies, rolling waves, wheat fields, western chaparral vistas with mountains, puffy clouds and blue horizons - making every song seem like a music video, with the five (occasionally six) guys playing in a different setting.
Yet this wasn't distracting, nor did it feel like shtick. At its core, it was still a band on a stage - the bass rattled in your chest, the electric guitars made molar-fillings buzz. The rotating visuals only augmented the imagery of the atmospheric music.
The band was tight, and focused, and each of them seemed to be having a great time exchanging energy with the audience. This sort of thing is extremely important - you usually see it just as a hot young band is making the transition from club stages to theaters. The best ones, no matter how big they get, never let it go.
Savannah got to see this group at exactly the right moment in its career.
Bridwell is BOH's chief songwriter and lead vocalist. He stood at center stage, strapped on a guitar every once in a while, and played a bit of percussion. Despite his early-show protest that his voice sounds "like two dolphins having a relationship," his high tenor, with its tinny edge of vulnerability, took every song, every audience member, on a journey.
Best of all, it's a band, not a solo project with the total focus on any one member. Guitarist Tyler Ramsay and keyboard player Ryan Monroe sang many of the songs in harmony, in tandem with Bridwell, with the heavy doses of reverb that have become BOH's trademark. This added to the spectral, almost orchestral effect of the vocals.
Although the band drew from its back catalog - some audience favorites like "Marry Song" and "The End is Near" - the majority of the set was comprised of tunes from the recent, Grammy-nominated Infinite Arms album. From the loping, cosmic "Factory" (with Monroe adding appropriately eerie string synthesizer) to the bouncy "Dilly" and the anthemic ‘70s throwback "Laredo," everything sounded great - the Mercer Theatre's famously bad acoustics must've been on hiatus Monday night.
There was something retro about Band of Horses - on a basic level, they reminded me of the great country/rock pioneers Poco, with the intriguing melodies and fist-tight harmonies. But BOH music is not as twangy, the lyrics are better, and the focus is on the songs, not any particularly hot picker. It's all about atmosphere here.
Guitarist Ramsay opened the show himself with a half hour set. Hmm ... a skinny guy with long, stringy hair, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, sitting hunched over a guitar and singing morose tunes in a high voice ... it brought back the first time I ever saw Neil Young, in 1973 ...
But I'm dating myself with all this, aren't I?
God speed, Band of Horses. You deserve all the success that's coming.