The gentle Americana of Portland’s Horse Feathers has attracted an older, more reserved audience tonight and when lead singer Justin Ringle informs us that we’re all in this together, requesting that fans move towards the stage, the response is minimal. Despite this desire to observe from afar, what the Manchester crowd experience is not as gentle as the band’s folky discography of their past suggests.
2006’s debut Words Are Dead established the early formula. Ringle’s softly lilting vocals combined with fragile acoustic tones and the addition of Peter Broderick’s swooning violin made your heart ache. Peter’s sister Heather joined the collective for the next album, providing more complex cello tones to proceedings on House With no Name; it was atmospheric and compelling stuff and each subsequent album seemed to add more textured layers to the organic themes which Ringle and his compatriots embraced. The Broderick’s left the collective in 2008 to pursue individual projects and sadly the UK did not have the opportunity to experience the band’s evolution for many years. Thankfully that ended tonight.
It’s perhaps significant this evening therefore that the band avoid the debut album completely, opening in upbeat fashion with first track off new album Appreciation. ‘Without Applause’ is essentially a cool soul number and although we’re lacking the groove provided by the keys on record, there is still a jaunty tempo provided by the more forceful percussive and funky bass elements that the band have never really attempted before. On this evidence you could actually be forgiven for thinking that their latest release isn’t even a Horse Feathers album at all!
The single ‘Don’t Mean to Pry’ follows. The acoustic tones are more familiar but Ringle’s vocals are self-assured. The fragility is replaced by a more sonorous tunefulness. The swooning violin has evolved into a more forceful entity, the bass lines are more upbeat and the percussion pleasantly but dominantly driving the whole affair forward.
‘Belly of June’ reminds us of the folkier fare found on 2010’s Thistled Spring but the track selection seems pertinent. It shimmers with a new-found confidence and the addition of Robby Cosenza’s drums provide an kinetic energy the album version lacks. Cosenza’s contribution throughout is significant indeed. Organic and full of dextrous flavour, it’s a powerful addition that provides additional delights on stage that the folkier fare on record wouldn’t necessarily accommodate.
Chat is kept to a minimum in-between tracks. We’re reminded of their unfamiliarity and fear about driving on the left during the UK stretch of their tour across Europe and it’s left to violin player Nathan Crockett to form enigmatic soundscapes which pleasantly fill the silence as Ringle re-tunes. It creates a brooding, cinematic atmosphere to proceedings which the Jeff Mangum song, ‘Engine’ enhances. The Neutral Milk Hotel man called the track a children’s song at the time, but in both Mangum and Ringle’s hands the ambiguous imagery and sombre acoustic melody conjures up a more sinister atmosphere. The track almost seems out of place when it’s lined up next to the more assertive cynicism of ‘Altamont’, ‘Broken Beak’ and the record these brilliant songs come from. This evening is all about this hugely satisfying sonic shift, which rejects the brittle, pessimistic version of Americana inherent on its predecessors, replacing it with a musical approach that flips the finger to expectation and has fun doing it.