December 5, 2012 - 11:20pm
BY RAY MALO
Just two of the five members of Band of Horses, singer/guitarist Ben Bridwell and lead guitarist Tyler Ramsey, take the Michigan Theater stage to begin set opener “Ode to LRC.” What results from this unexpected move is a natural suspense: on record, “Ode” is a full-band number from start to finish. Bridwell’s unparalleled tenor soars through the spacious theatre, and an almost tangible sense of tranquility engulfs the crowd. When the remaining members join them to complete their sound after the first chorus, the resulting live music moment is rousing, practically transcendent. It’s a simple Rock ‘n’ Roll move, meant to make every audience member exponentially more excited to be in the room. It makes for a grand entrance.
So when the band launches from there directly into “NW Apt.” from 2010’s Infinite Arms, a contrast is immediately made apparent. This song, at least in the live setting, relies on a single dynamic throughout — fortississimo. It’s an overwhelming sonic assault, certainly made prevalent by the fact that my ears are thirty feet from the rear wall of the balcony, but one that has noticeably altered the general mood of this crowd.
This coupling of tunes as show openers highlights the duality of the Band of Horses catalog. Their 2006 debut album, Everything All The Time, is an absolute triumph, in large part because its quietest moments significantly heighten the impact of its loudest. This is particularly obvious on the album’s dramatic centerpiece “The Funeral, ” but also more subtly throughout. Sophomore record Cease to Begin largely carries this tradition, but also marks the band’s split with indie label Sub Pop. Their two subsequent albums sound more and more dynamically static, especially this year’s Mirage Rock, a trend that seems to be a product of the influence of both new band members and mainstream producers seeking radio hits. Their live show has thus become a study of a band maneuvering these sharp contrasts.
So while older impactful tracks “The Great Salt Lake” and “No One’s Gonna Love You” earns the biggest cheers, new tunes such as “Laredo,” a strummy single from third album Infinite Arms that frankly goes nowhere, has a less enthusiastic response. The latter is one of the many tunes the band plays excruciatingly loud, which seems to stem from the keyboard player’s unnecessary doubling up on rhythm guitar parts when no keys are needed. Even Bridwell seems to recognize the band’s tendency to turn their amps to 11: After a lighter, acoustic number, an impatient audience member shouts “Play the hard stuff!” to which Bridwell replies, “We’ve been playing hard this whole show!”
This little exchange seems to set off an immediate chain reaction of audience consciousness. Suddenly, a crowd that seemed content to have their defenseless ears blasted while seated is on their feet, many rushing to the edge of the stage. What follows almost seems like a different show than that which has preceded it. Or, as Bridwell excitedly yells, “I was pretty sure this was a rock show!” The band closes the show with five fan favorites from the first half of their catalog, including the magnificent vocal showcase “Is There A Ghost,” and my ears and I leave the Michigan satisfied.
Band of Horses takes many forms in the live setting, but the one constant across their repertoire is the otherworldly voice of Ben Bridwell. Adding parts that satisfy no need beyond volume seems to only takes away an audience’s ability to hear it. I think their live show would stand to gain considerable depth if Band of Horses simply recognized and embraced the fact that Bridwell’s voice is always the most important instrument on stage.
—A version of this article ran in the print version of The Daily on Dec. 6, 2012.