Everyone loves a band with beards. The Beatles reached their creative peak when they were at their bushiest. Stateside, there are bearded gods aplenty; Rick Rubin sports a huge one, Common has a sexy one, ZZ Top have beards with humans attached to them…the list goes on. The beard is also a staple of the American popular folk scene which has exploded in recent years. My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver all have scruffy, unkempt beards in a tradition which Band of Horses proudly uphold.
Band of Horses fit comfortably within this group of much loved, critically well received and commercially reliable bands. As they take to the stage at the Hammersmith Apollo, four out of five members have the necessary facial accessory – a hairy harbinger of what is to come – two hours of enjoyable, if slightly predictable, old fashioned American folk-rock. They begin with a strident version of For Annabelle from Grammy-nominated album Infinite Arms. Positioned strangely far back from the audience, singer Ben Bridwell is flanked by guitarist Tyler Ramsay and bassist Bill Reynolds with keyboardist Ryan Monroe swapping instruments to join what became a three guitar barrage. This additional muscularity made Band of Horses’ songs a lot heavier than on record and NW Apt and recent single Knock Knock has a dirty edge, sounding like a grungier Kings of Leon. This instrumental power is a pleasant surprise, but Bridwell’s vocal remains the focal point around which the songs are built.
Rising above the rest of the band, it manages to be yearning, passionate and sorrowful – a glorious mix which is devastating when Bridwell explores higher registers. His abilities are best displayed on an epic rendition of old favourite The Great Salt Lake and Heartbreak on the 101, a song from their latest album which is a real departure from their previous work. Ranging from spoken word to almost operatic histrionics, it tells a story in the best country music tradition and the audience seems rapt with concentration as Bridwell stands at the front of the stage and lets rip.
Band of Horses have been around for a while now. Their first album, Everything all the Time, was released in 2006. As the evening progresses, it’s clear that the passage of time has not changed them. The songs have got slightly rougher and more stripped back but the overarching template remains the same and it’s a formula that recurs throughout the set. Professional musicianship, high quality vocals and solidly traditional folky Southern rock make for a highly proficient performance but, as the second hour draws to a close, their songs do start to sound uncannily similar. Whilst Mumford & Sons sweep across America selling a watered down, pop-orientated version of the music Band of Horses create in quantities the latter can only dream of, it’s hard not to long for a mindless singalong chorus to break up the mid tempo angst.
Nevertheless, they are never less than charming. Tonight is the last night of a lengthy tour and the band is clearly in a celebratory mood. Bridwell encourages the audience to party, “even though it’s a Tuesday night” and they tell us that Window Blues, the closing song on 2007’s Cease to Begin is a song they have never performed live before. Bridwell’s takes every opportunity to express his gratitude and thanks to the audience and there is a surprising warmth between the band members for a group which has seen so many changing faces since its inception.
Cease to Begin’s Is There a Ghost receives the best reaction of the night, and is the highlight of the evening. Mournful, strangely euphoric and concise, it is a pinnacle they have never surpassed. Ultimately, Band of Horses provide evocative and pleasant folky Americana which is difficult to find fault with, but, in the same way that beards wouldn’t be cool if we all had them, there can be too much of a good thing. Unless their next album is very different, one song does not a great band make.