Band of Horses Deliver Vibes, Heart at Intimate Troubadour Show: Concert Review

Chris Godley
The spirit of Gram Parsons lives in singer Ben Bridwell, whose cosmic country essence is Americana personified.   

“You couldn’t meet a nicer guy with neck tattoos,” said one industry fan of Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell.

No joke. The 34-year-old frontman and founder of what is perhaps America’s best country-leaning pop-rock band since Wilco came on the scene in the '90s might look like a scraggly trucker, but an angelic voice and sensitive songs that tug on the heartstrings suggest otherwise.

Bridwell is in fact, what you could call a true modern-day troubadour. So it’s fitting that the band would play that very iconic venue, West Hollywood’s The Troubadour, as the second of two private concerts in Los Angeles to celebrate the Sept. 18 release of Band of Horses’ fourth album, Mirage Rock (on Wednesday, the BOH played 11 songs for an Oct. 15 airing of KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic).

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Produced by Glyn Johns, Mirage is the follow-up to BOH’s Grammy-nominated Infinite Arms and their second release on major label Columbia. The band’s time in the studio has been described as looser, as the mostly analog production allowed the five-piece the liberty to simply play. And the proof is in the live show, which sways effortlessly between muted ballads of longing to rollicking rockers that bring to mind Neil Young and Vietman-era Rolling Stones, the latter of which Johns recorded in the 1960s and '70s.

Kicking off the set with “Knock Knock,” off of Mirage, the band swiftly turned back to their catalog for favorites such as “NW Apt.” (from Infinite Arms) and 2007 breakout hit “Is There a Ghost,” which, in all likelihood, was the West Coast populace’s first introduction to BOH.

Indeed, while Band of Horses preceded radio giants like Mumford & Sons, their new album likely will sell less a tenth of their rootsy acoustic counterparts: The first-week tally for Mirage Rock was 25,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, good enough for the No. 13 spot on the Billboard 200; Mumford is expected to move in the vicinity of 600,000 units next week -- and BOH is the home act.

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In a way, it’s unfair because BOH’s music is so steeped in Americana that the group should be our Mumford. Prime examples: new songs “Electric Music” and “How to Live,” storytellers about life’s struggles, Infinite Arms’ “Laredo” and a stellar cover of Gram Parsons’ “A Song for You,” which reminded the elders in attendance (there were plenty) that so-called “cosmic country” is alive and well in the South, where Bridwell and crew are based (Charleston, S.C., to be specific) and California, where the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and later The Eagles marked their territory.

Not that the packed-to-the-gills crowd needed much prodding, especially once the anthemic, somewhat nonsensical but no less undeniable “Ode to LRC” kicked in with its Tweedy-esque opening riff. Moody numbers such as “Infinite Arms,” “Detlef Schrempf” and “The Funeral,” on the other hand, moved on a more introspective level. And while transcendent reverb washed over throughout, tunes about benders (“The General Specific”) and heartache (“No One’s Gonna Love You”) hit hard, with special recognition due to keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Ryan Monroe, whose succulent harmonies on songs like “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” elevated the show from good to great.

Back to those tats: You can’t always see sensitivity when you judge a dude by his cover. That lion throwing up blood -- most passersby would never know the ink sits less than an inch from Ben Bridwell’s heavenly vocal cords. But it only takes one listen to instantly recognize how a voice can make the world a better place.  

Set List:
Knock Knock
NW Apt.
Is There a Ghost
The Great Salt Lake
Long Vows
Marry Song
Electric Music
The General Specific
Infinite Arms
Detlef Schrempf
Islands on the Coast
How to Live
Weed Party
A Song For You
Cigarettes and Wedding Bands
Ode to LRC
The Funeral

Slow Cruel Hands of Time
No One’s Gonna Love You

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin