Portland-based band Horse Feathers is touring in support of its fourth album, Cynic’s New Year. Singer Justin Ringle’s voice excellently conveys emotion with its high tenor, although the default setting seems to be lingering somewhere closer to heartbreak. Live, their act is heavy on fingerpicked guitar, banjo, and strings, with the occasional bowed saw to liven things up. With lyrics like “Beauty and loss, they are one and the same,” Horse Feathers’ songs could easily be downers, but the instrumentation and delicate harmonies help keep things moving. The set was heavy on songs from Cynic’s New Year, and the energy level peaked somewhere around a slightly enthusiastic stomp of the foot in time by Ringle, but it was perfect for the new release’s set of dreamy, delicate songs.
While I’ve had my qualms with the crowds at Lincoln Hall lately, the fans for Horse Feathers momentarily reaffirmed my faith in Chicago’s concert-going scene. The room was filled mostly with DePaul students — at least in the front part of the room, I was one of the oldest people there, by my estimates — who were so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop during the show. There was a lot of gushing from fans over the set, but quiet gushing — hushed whispers, excited gasps whenever a favorite song was played. It was a perfect environment for the delicate tones of Ringle and company.
Openers Brown Bird are new favorites of mine, after discovering them late last year with the release of their new album, Salt for Salt. David Lamb (guitar, banjo, percussion, vocals) and MorganEve Swain (upright bass, cello, violin, vocals) performed an intense set of songs, driven by Lamb’s guitar playing and the menagerie of percussion equipment clustered at his feet. They easily won over Horse Feathers’ fans, between Swain’s carefree vocals and Lamb’s gruff near-growl. (And also his beard. That beard deserves its own fanclub.) I can’t ever quite put my finger on why I love Brown Bird so much. Something about their music just pulls me in, to the point where I can’t decide if I want to be in the band, or if I just want to drunkenly sing along on the choruses.
A lot of their songs focus on tight, close harmonies between Lamb and Swain, both of their vocals having just enough edge to keep things interesting, maybe even dangerous sounding. These are songs with an edge, don’t let the folky sound fool you. Brown Bird brought out MorganEve’s brother Spencer to play violin on instrumental track “Shiloh”, which is probably as close to a droning folk tune as you’re going to get. The song revolves around a repeated series of notes led by the guitar, then around a low moving part from the cello. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, and Spencer Swain really added an additional layer with his intense, screaming violin playing.