“What’s up, man!” cries Ben Birdwell to warm cheers, as he hits the stage. “It’s good to see you again! What’s your names?” A jumbled chorus of answers meets him and he grins. “Paul? Paul’s a good name. Hi Paul!”
It’s been seven years since Band of Horses went mainstream with third outing Infinite Arms and brought their brand of indie-country to the airwaves. Their stop-off at Leeds’s O2 Academy, behind fifth record Why Are You OK, allows them to flex their Southern-tinged muscle onstage – which they do to impressive effect.
They are supported by Texas’s Israel Nash, who at first glance, treads the same folksy paths once walked by CSNY. Therein lies the Missouri-born singer-songwriter’s strengths; opener The Fire and the Flood, from 2015’s Israel Nash’s Silver Season, reads like Neil Young with added lap guitar whilst Rain Plains is a fine, alt-country rumination that conjures up echoes of Crazy Horse. Elsewhere, LA Lately leans on the Californian sound best associated with Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, a languid, sun-soaked jam possessed of a sonic weightlessness – whilst a cover of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released is a sprawling, bucolic highlight and affirmation of his raw vocal talents.
Band of Horses navigate their material with a similar low-key fluidity; conversely however, they bury their rural edges under a wall of sound conjured with a blasé affluence. Anchored by drummer Creighton Barrett and bassist Bill Reynolds, Birdwell affords the material, such as the mournful maelstrom of Infinite Arms and the bouncy Compliments, an indomitable power through the aural onslaught created. For a band rooted in indie-country, they play loud and proud music; and from the overdriven garage rock of Casual Party to the twisty dynamics of The Great Salt Lake, it is joyously invigorating stuff.
Even at his most yearning, Birdwell’s impassioned delivery lends a superb lovelornness to proceedings that is oddly galvanizing. The soporific Long Vows, given a rare outing, is gracefully uplifting; the iridescent melancholy of No-One’s Gonna Love You soars; the elegant intro of The Funeral gives way to a primality that peaks in the stratosphere. Even the Pixies-indebted guitar chime of The End’s Not Near glides with purpose. By the time things are wrapped up with the piano-led party soul of The General Specific, Birdwell is profusely sweating, grinning from ear to ear. No wild horses here, it seems; only thoroughbreds, racing back to the top.