Concert review: Horse Feathers (with Matt Bauer) serenade and stun fans at the Firebird, Thursday, May 24
Portland, Ore.’s Horse Feathers, helmed by frontman and singer/guitarist Justin Ringle, is not to be missed. Once a collaboration with Peter Broderick, Horse Feathers has grown into an artful orchestra complemented by fine singing and poetic lyrics.
Matt Bauer opened the show at the Firebird and gave an excellent performance. He stood alone playing his mostly banjo-led tunes that consisted of heartbreak and dark observations that recall Robert Frost. The songs that really struck me, “Rose and Vine” and “Don’t Let Me Out,” were all from Bauer’s 2008 release, “The Island Moved in the Storm.”
After Bauer finished and Horse Feathers was setting up, I walked over to the merch table to shake Bauer’s hand and inform him that I had learned about his music and Horse Feathers’ at approximately the same time in 2008. I found it both extraordinary and fascinating the two were double billed, on this night, four years later.
A rotating cast of musicians appeared on stage and Ringle stood starkly before the microphone with his scuffed-up Gibson acoustic. Besides the band leader, the only other semi-permanent member of Horse Feathers is first violinist Nathan Crockett, who appeared with Horse Feathers last year at Off Broadway. This time the performers included Dustin Dybvig providing a heavier and more exciting form of drumming, Lauren Vidal on cello and Angie Kuzma on the second violin.
The first song, “Last Waltz” from the 2012′s “Cynic’s New Year,” opened with long violin draws from Crockett and Kuzma. Ringle’s voice broke above the orchestral bed with a near falsetto clarity. Weaving through the venue, the sound caused the jaws of beer-sipping fans to drop in awe.
In “Belly of June,” from 2010′s “Thistled Spring,” drummer Dybvig rocked the tune to new heights with liberal use of the bass pedal and mallets on the snare drum. This raw sound, beautiful with the ornate cello, Ringle’s voice and the two violins, was a nice juxtaposition.
“Better Company” rose from a cacophony of strings and concerned itself with images of two lovers at Puget Sound. The song built toward a heady chorus and ebbed back to nothing like vapor trails following a jet.
Dybvig took to the piano for “Where I’ll Be,” also from “Cynic’s New Year,” as Ringle closed his eyes and leaned into the melody of the fan favorite. The violinists pulled their bows across their strings to create a lonely country-vibe. “Bird On a Leash” was warm and catchy with more studied drum accents, while oldie “Finch on Saturday,” from 2006′s “Words Are Dead,” featured, from Ringle, fatalistic lyrics like poet James Wright’s: “Remember we are born to die, she was born to cry, cry, cry, herself to sleep.”
“Thistled Spring” cashed in on its fan-forged success with perfectly-timed keyboard and violin polish that melded into Ringle’s voice and verse, “A blossom that’s bloomed, in a house that’s a tomb, trapped in the rhododendron fumes, bit by the spring.” “So Long,” about Ringle’s hard-working blue-collar family, spun into a poppy, full-band sing-along, perhaps the most satisfying, if a touch too accessible moment of the evening.
“Cascades” featured more welcome heavy bass from Dybvig’s drums, which, with deft precision, he layered under the pre-chorus and chorus. “The Drought,” though enjoyable, suffered a tad with its tempo sped up, as compared with the album version. For “Fit Against the Country,” Ringle invited Bauer (and his banjo) to join Horse Feathers on stage, and they all rocked the song to the rafters. With its working poor theme, wandering banjo and Neil Young-style rhythm, “Fit Against the Country” reminded me why its among the band’s best songs.
Horse Feathers left the stage and returned with “Curs in the Weeds,” from 2008′s “House With No Home,” for a one-song encore. Flight-of-the-Bumblebee violins phased into Ringle’s contemplative verse and honeyed timbre. All too soon, accompanied by a pained moan from the audience, Horse Feathers humbly quit the stage to greet their fans and wind down for the evening.