I first fell for the music of Portland’s Horse Feathers with their 2006 debut Words Are Dead. Justin Ringle’s high keen combined with Peter Broderick’s precisely melodic, intricate (but never fussy) arrangements to create what I called at the time “a kind of audible Impressionism… conveyed in the sound, not sense, of the voice”. As a record, it still stands as one of the very best folk-inflected albums of the past decade, but as their live show proved it’s no longer an accurate reflection of what Horse Feathers encompasses.
That’s largely because in the intervening years Broderick’s sister Heather joined on cello, before both Brodericks parted ways with the band. Now Ringle is accompanied by Nathan Crockett on violin and musical saw, Catherine Odell on cello and Sam Cooper on everything else (for this show, violin, mandolin, banjo, drums, and harmonium, sometimes more than one at once). And as good as 2008’s House With No Home and this year’s Thistled Spring are, I have to admit that part of me mainly wanted to hear how Horse Feathers would handle the sparser material from their debut.
Most of their show in the cozy basement of the Drake Hotel consisted of more recent material, but an early rendition of Words Are Dead highlight “Mother’s Sick” was enough to highlight the ways that Horse Feathers has changed — and improved — over the years. As much as I still love the recorded arrangement, it almost sounds a bit spindly now compared to the live version that fleshed out the original banjo and violin melodies with cello and guitar. Before this show, I might have told you I loved “Mother’s Sick” because of the specific instrumentation and performance of the album version, but Horse Feathers proved me wrong. It’s simply a great song, and now it was more vivid and gorgeous than ever.
And although vivid gorgeousness was the overriding impression of Horse Feathers’ live show, they showed off a more varied body of work than you might expect. From a surprisingly storming “Falling Through the Roof” to the swooning “Belly of June”, from the mournfully soaring “Curs in the Weeds” to a stately, solemn “This Bed”, the band didn’t just display the different aspects of their work, they nailed them with precision and verve and not a little beauty. The only slight misstep was the way that the just slightly too-loud guitar obliterated the beautifully compact violin melody in “Finch on Saturday” every time Ringle strummed.
As good as Ringle’s songs are, and as talented as this band is at performing them, the darkly moving cover of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” that served as their encore was ample evidence that Horse Feathers are just as skilled at adding surprising new shades to others’ songs just as ably as they are at bringing their own to richly colored life. Three records in without a single dud and with a fantastic live show, Horse Feathers shouldn’t be playing smaller venues for much longer.