It’s Independence Day and what could be a more American way to celebrate than with a rock ‘n’ roll concert from one of the nation’s most All-American bands? Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses have been playing as an opening act for the first half of the summer on a country tour in an understandable effort to reach new audiences that only recently discovered the Texas troubadour through his Oscar-winning song “The Weary Kind” in Crazy Heart. But this is most definitely a rock ‘n’ roll band on the ascension, so it’s fitting that they decided to headline a Fourth of July show on their home turf.
Bingham hails from West Texas and was based in nearby Austin for much of his career before taking off for the bright lights and more moderate climate of Los Angeles. Can’t really blame him there, as the heat of a South Texas summer can be pretty brutal. But there’s a triumphant homecoming vibe in the air and a packed house that’s ready to rock. The Band of Heathens play a decent opening set, but the most exciting part is when an amateur fireworks show from the parking lot occurs toward the end. The crowd eagerly awaits the headliners.
As Bingham and his Dead Horses take the stage, an electrifying vibe crackles in the air. This crowd is fired up. The band opens with “Day is Done”, the opening track from their 2009 breakthrough album Roadhouse Sun. It’s a down and dirty rocker, which gets the crowd going right away, with many of them singing along. This is clearly a band with a dedicated core following that is growing at a fast rate. The 29-year-old Bingham has an endearing vibe that makes the show seem like one big house party. He’s got one of those gritty and amiable voices that resonates with bluesy authenticity and a friendly manner. And his band aren’t just a group of sidemen: Lead guitarist/mandolin player Corby Schaub, bassist Elijah Ford and drummer Matthew Smith help Bingham form a quartet with chemistry and seem like they’re in it for the long haul.
The chemistry shines throughout the evening. “Dollar a Day” from 2007’s Mescalito keeps a party vibe going with an upbeat lament about hard work for low pay. Roadhouse Sun may have sold better, but Mescalito is every bit as good and the crowd seems to be equally familiar with both albums. “Dylan’s Hard Rain”, one of the band’s catchiest tunes, shines in the warm summer air with its bouncy melodic groove. Guest Doug Moreland joins the party on fiddle for “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So”, which has a sparkling jam featuring the fiddle and banjo. Morgan stays on for “Sunrise”, which starts at a simmer before building into another hot jam that gets the ladies dancing and singing along. Bingham is a great songwriter steeped in Americana tradition, but he and his pals have some hippie in them too, because they clearly like to do some jamming. The energy of the jam conjures the first “USA, USA!” chant of the evening from the hard-drinking crowd at the end of the tune.
The band builds on the momentum with the majestic “Bluebird”, which blends Beatle-esque, Zeppish and Black Crowes flavors for a great psychedelic sound. It’s one of the top highlights of the show as the song builds into another stellar jam, with bassist Ford laying down a thick groove which Schaub and Bingham riff over beautifully. Thy follow that with the infectious “Ghost of Traveling Jones”, a groovy honky tonk number that keeps the good vibes flowing. The chemistry of the band continues to impress, with a momentum that never wanes and a sound where the whole seems like more than the sum of the parts.
“Hard Times” brings things down a notch but is ever so timely in this foul economic era. Bingham is riding high since his Oscar win, but it’s plain to see he continues to sympathize with the national plight, singing “Good folks have tried and tried / To make a livin’ on your minimum wage / Your coming up short nearly every day.” It’s a zeitgeist song and the band’s tight sound benefits further from some great slide guitar. A surprise highlight follows when the band continues the theme with “This Depression” from their impending new album coming out in September. Bingham shows an amazing knack for taking a new song and making it seem like an old classic with his heartfelt vocals. The cathartic lyrics about a romance that can help transcend tough times is easily a candidate for one of the best and timeliest tunes of 2010. There’s another great jam toward the end with a smoking guitar solo from Schaub.
It’s now becoming one of those stellar shows where the band can seem to do no wrong. Bingham is really feeling his oats on the rousing “Change Is”, jamming out some more slide guitar while boogying around before reaching out one hand to jam some piano as well. Another new song, “Direction of the Wind”, has some strong political lyrics to give listeners food for thought and make it seem like the new album could well be Bingham’s best work yet. Bingham and Schaub then play as an acoustic duo for an obligatory yet splendid reading of “The Weary Kind”. If you’re someone who felt touched by Crazy Heart’s powerful tale of love lost and redemption found, the film’s masterful theme song can still make a person feel a bit verklempt, even amidst a 4th of July party like this.
“We’re gonna take ya out with a little song about West Texas,” says Bingham by way of introduction to “Southside of Heaven”. The great opening track from Mescalito is met with big cheers, clearly a fan favorite. The song builds in masterful fashion, starting as an acoustic guitar and harmonica tune before kicking into a rocking jam that sees the crowd bouncing again with energy. One young lady with a bodacious endowment sits on her friend’s shoulders and flashes the band for a good thirty seconds, which only seems to drive the song higher.
It’s been a rocking good time with what increasingly looks like will be one of the best blues rock bands going for at least the next decade. There are lots of great blues-rock musicians in Austin, but few singer/songwriters of Bingham’s caliber. The encore is another triumph, beginning with “Sunshine”, which uses a heavy groove and some deep slide guitar to build another jam that takes off into classic rock heaven. With Bingham’s bluesy licks over the thick low-end, the sound starts to conjure visions of Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and even Guns ‘n Roses before shifting into an up-tempo, feel good rocking outro. The band tops it off with “Bread and Water”, a high-energy ode to all the most well known towns in the Lone Star state. Bingham and Schaub both play slide here to conjure a charged sound that gets the crowd singing and bouncing yet again.
Fans should make it a point to catch Bingham and the Dead Horses while they’re still playing mid-size venues because this feels like a band that will soon be moving up to an arena level.