If Your Friends Tell You Horse Feathers is Average Live, Your Friends are Wrong

12/05/2014

Horse Feathers is great rainy day music. (They’ve been a staple for me in the weather we’ve had the past few days in the Bay.) But I was warned they give only an average live performance. With that looming in the back of my mind, I walked in to their show at Great American Music Hall. What they gave was a performance that was anything but average and left my comrade, who knew nothing about the group before that evening, saying that this was the first live show in a year worth going to.

The architecture of the building is gorgeously reminiscent of 1920s grandeur. People lounged at cocktail tables sipping whiskeys, enjoying the syrupy voice of opener Sara Jackson-Holman. Her haunting crooning complemented the speakeasy ambiance.

Horse Feathers took the stage, their flannel and facial hair not disguising their Portland roots. Some people abandoned their tables and crowded toward the stage. They opened with “Violently Wild,” an upbeat tune with darker lyrical stylings, typical of front man Justin Ringle. What made the show exceptional was the almost tangible alternate-reality the band was able to create with their music. They transported me to an idyllic rural barn, perhaps similar to the one in which they recorded their newest album So It Is With Us. The band was approachable; music scene veterans mingled in the crowd before and after they played, which made the whole event feel intimate.

For a folk performance, there was no shortage of breakdowns. The band was accompanied by two drummers with two full drum kits, which gave the live performance more punch and energy. Sara Jackson-Holman also returned to stage to join Horse Feathers for their entire set. At one point, the guest drummer broke out a saw, which he played elegantly, a characteristic the tool is not typically known for. The night was filled with vignettes and intimate moments that musicians seek to create in their live shows; they pulled it off effortlessly. At one point virtually everyone grabbed their significant others and simultaneously began swaying linked together with a hug from behind.

When the set ended, the band was off stage and back on in a half-sigh for the encore before the full effect of their absence had time to register. They romanced us all a final time with “Belly of June” and sent us back to reality, from the rural barn dreamland to the reality of the wet streets of the Tenderloin.

Photo by John Clark