Band of Horses seemed to be on the proper path, the one proven successful by so many artists before them: Release small, yet beloved album that attains cult status (Everything All the Time). Follow said album with a slightly more polished effort featuring a no-question-about-it lead single (Cease to Begin’s “Is There a Ghost”). Arena tours followed by stadium shows seemed bound to follow for Ben Bridwell and company, but something happened along the way that took them off-track. Some signs point toward the mixed reception of their third LP, Infinite Arms, which is by no means a bad record, but represented the booster rocket that failed to propel the band’s spaceship into the musical stratosphere. Heavy-handed analogy aside, the sky truly was the limit for Band of Horses at one point, but sometimes bands you love and respect just aren’t destined for such heights.
That’s okay, though. The members of Band of Horses don’t seem to mind, and they really have no reason to. Having seen the band at a few different-sized venues over the past two years, one would be hard-pressed to find a group happier to be there (wherever that “there” would happen to be). After struggling to maintain a solid lineup for consecutive albums, Bridwell now seems at peace with the gentlemen that accompany him on the stage for various festivals and club crawls. They could have changed their name to Band of Joy if Robert Plant hadn’t beaten them to the punch years earlier, and their audience wouldn’t have groaned so much as they would have awwww’d. That pleasure reverberates from their latest release and first live album, Acoustic at the Ryman, full of whiz-bang, gee-golly thanks to the fans that have stayed with them over the years.
As the album title clearly states, the performance is a stripped-down affair, with the band leaving behind the electric guitars that helped transform such songs as the aforementioned “Is There a Ghost” into would be arena fillers. This works to the band’s advantage, as the harmonies on Band of Horses’ records are sometimes overlooked in favor of the slow build-transition-noisy nature of their instrumentation. On Acoustic at the Ryman, such moments of epic interplay are switched out for pianos and acoustic guitars, but the vocals remain powerful. The group has been compared to ‘70s folk rock acts such as America and Bread, and this record backs that up.
Often, the music drops out completely, leaving the vocals to fill the space in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. This is used to great effect on album closer “Neighbor”, a highlight from Infinite Arms, in which you can hear a match drop during the unified verses at the 2,362-seat venue. Coupled with a giggling-through-the-harmonies Bridwell, it captures a moment in time many live albums lay to the wayside with post-production tinkering. Acoustic at the Ryman isn’t a groundbreaking release by any means — it’s just nice to hear real voices shut down a crowd every once in a while.
All four albums are represented on these 10 tracks taken from the band’s two-night stint at the Ryman. Bridwell introducing 2006’s Everything All the Time’s “Wicked Gil” as “an old song” is a bit of a harmless exaggeration, and a rare, brief moment of him saying anything other than a variety of the word “thanks.” It’s during those thankful moments after a number of songs that you hear an element of surprise in Bridwell’s voice, particularly after the gorgeous, piano-led rendition of “The Funeral”. After thanking the crowd, you can hear him as he turns away from the microphone to tell the band, “That was fun.” The audience reaction throughout reflects that opinion.
If you have to select a 30-second block to represent the record, look no further than the last 30 seconds of “Older”. Once more, the instruments fall away as the three-part harmonies takeover. The singers never falter, although they’re without a beat to keep them steady. They maintain that synchronicity despite the unintended efforts of fans losing the tempo as they clap along. The group is unaffected. They just do what they’re really good at — enjoying the power of music. Band of Horses are just as happy playing with acoustic instruments as they are electric. As content to go a cappella as they are to have accompaniment. Acoustic at the Ryman won’t change your opinions if you’re indifferent to or just plain dislike Band of Horses. However, if you stand with Bridwell’s warmth, there’s joy from the very first harmony. Arenas be damned.
Essential Tracks: “Older”, “The Funeral”, and “Neighbor”