Saturday, December 6, 2014

Horse Feathers at The Satellite - December 6, 2014

I'd be hard pressed to say that there's a better live band around right now than Horse Feathers. This band is just about perfect. I'd seen them twice before, the last time they were in town and played The Echo in May and December of 2012, but when two years went by and I heard nothing from them, I was unprepared for the impact they would have on me this time.

Apparently after the last album, Cynics New Year, and supporting tour in 2012, band leader Justin Ringle felt the need to step back and reassess where the band was headed. Though lauded for their original and committed take on gothic/indie/chamber Americana music, there was a dourness to the material that some critics felt made them less than exciting. I disagree, but it was enough to revitalize Justin and led to the creation of So It Is With Us, perhaps the most accessible of their five albums.

They are another of those bands from the Pacific Northwest who come to the table fully prepared but with a unique sound that sets them apart from all the other bands from that region giving them all specific identities. Think Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, The Parson Red Heads, Mimicking Birds, Sallie Ford, these guys. Though, to me, with the soft-spoken vocals and chamber sound, they most closely resemble Canada's Great Lake Swimmers or North Carolina's Lost In The Trees, both in performance and in style. But the new album adds a bit more rock to their signature laid back appeal, enlivening things considerably, though still keeping their realistic and sombre outlook intact.

Recorded partially in a barn in Oregon (doesn't everybody?), which gives the music an ambiance of being played in a tall, dank, wooden cathedral and infuses the album with a sonic dampness that suits them. But live, the music springs to vibrant life on stage with an immediacy and punch that makes the songs even better. Silky smooth vocals sit atop a first rate chamber orchestra which includes violin, banjos, keys, two drummers, occasional mandolin and harmonica to lay a gorgeous carpet for the superb melodies to rest upon.

Right from the first song, a normally noisy Friday night Satellite crowd was hushed into rapt attentiveness as the seven member band overwhelmed with their cohesive, carefully structured compositions that are so clean that each instrument can be heard and appreciated for their contribution to the entirety of the texture. Justin Ringle's (at right) voice sounds more supple and varied than on record, and his duets with mandolin/guitar player Brad Parsons are even more natural and powerful in person.

By the time they launched into their third song, "Middle Testament", I figured each song was going to be better than the one before it and just had to go with it. I was already approaching that nirvana-like space where the music takes over and you feel alone with the band.

There wasn't a single lag in the entire set list that consisted of plenty of older material as well as a healthy sampling from their latest album, So It Is With Us. Nathan Crockett's virtuoso violin was regularly rewarded with applause after each of his solo highlights during the evening and the presence of two drummers added immeasurably to the new power this band has found. Distinctive keyboards on certain songs and the anchored bass work all lent the perfect balance to the stunning orchestrations.

They seemed very relaxed and happy, saying they'd been looking forward to coming back to L.A. for a long time and it showed. They played an hour set and two encores. The perfect sound mix at The Satellite didn't hurt either (though I could have used some of Rebecca Balin's lights). Even though I've seen them twice before, it couldn't have prepared me for this astonishing performance. Got to greet Justin and Brad outside after the show which put a perfect capper on this memorable night.


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