Horse Feathers Bring the Folk

November 15th, 2010

Horse Feathers – The Bowery Ballroom – November 13, 2010

Justin Ringle, the lead singer of Horse Feathers, had an unusual shout-out during their Bowery Ballroom gig on Saturday night. He gave it up for the shushers in the crowd: “I don’t mind if you talk. Go right ahead, but it takes a certain bravery to shush the talkers. So thank you, that’s a next-level fan.” The almost-apologetic move was the exact opposite of passive aggressive, and yet, like the band’s music, utterly effective. Those in the audience who were eager to be superfans shushed enthusiastically between the gorgeous indie folk songs and then, most important, kept their mouths shut thereafter.

Quiet is the best way to appreciate the Portland, Ore., group’s music. A direct descendant of Sam Beam, Ringle relies on the full quartet to flesh out his compositions. Horse Feathers fill in the sound with a violin, cello and, as called for in bands of this type, a utility infielder who somehow excels at mandolin, banjo and that delicate mode of drumming where a light touch of a mallet or sweep of a brush on a cymbal amplifies into full-blown dramatic exposition, a role quite admirably filled by Sam Cooper.

Horse Feathers took full advantage of the attentive crowd, creating a cozy, flannel-pajamas-in-winter feel in the Ballroom. “The Drought,” which Cooper called a “paradigm shift” as Ringle switched from acoustic guitar to banjo, was a clear high point, with warm red lights bathing the group, and the silent audience, not quite dancing, but still compelled to move in some sort of a “soul sway.” Another peak moment occurred when violin player Nathan Crockett switched to bowing the saw for “Heathen’s Kiss,” if only for the rare occasion to hear the eerie brilliance of the saw being well used in proper context. They went off script for a second encore, letting the shushers and shushed get their reward in the form of a fantastic, folked-up cover of Nirvana’s “Drain You.” —A. Stein