"Well, hello there, you beautiful bastards, how are you?" greeted Ben Bridwell as he took to the stage at the O2 Academy, like he'd entered a bar full of familiar faces. And so the smooth Seattle Southern-rockers began, wry, unassuming and companionable. The further the gig progressed, the more the Horses' steady trot gathered to an invigorating gallop, before we all rode off into the sunset at the exultant conclusion. Support act, Israel Nash, concluded his set citing how "Good things happen when people come together." I think he meant it in the non-double-entendre, 'collective consciousness' sense. Band Of Horses embody precisely this on stage. After five albums and thirteen years, they still seem as pleased to see us as we are to see them.
You can't quibble over value for money at a Band of Horses gig. They played twenty-two songs - almost one hundred minutes of material, punctuated by little but an occasional, playful, self-effacing quip. Even the manifold instrument changes were done on the fly, whilst meaty behemoth Creighton Barrett remained imperious behind the drumkit and segued rhythmically into the next song without any breathing space. Their no-frills stage presence highlights their musicianship, a bullsh*t-free approach that makes you watch them play, not act. Frontman Ben pogo-es, beams and generates ferocious vocal power. Guitarist and BFG Tyler Ramsey, behind the full-foliage beard, towers tree-like - providing a subtle driving force. Ryan Monroe mans the keyboards like he's been given the controls to the Starship Enterprise and wields a guitar with infectious, schoolboy-ish delight. Creighton Barrett's thunderous, powerhouse flailings are evocative of John Bonham, yet his is also a delicate enormity. Bassist Bill Reynolds is the metronomic band anchor. It seemed like he stood stock still for every second of the set, save the seconds when he walked on and off stage.
That seventeen of the twenty-two songs were from 2010 or before says something about the band's recent history. Six tracks each from "Everything All the Time" and "Cease to Begin", four from "Infinite Arms" and their staple cover of Neil Young and Crazy Horse's "Powderfinger" were probably the best received. The remaining tracks came from 2016's "Why Are You OK", understandably leaving "Mirage Rock" out (an album the band itself has shunned). "Monsters" and "The First Song" eased us in with steady resplendence and slow grandeur, before "NW Apt" ditched restraint. Many up-tempo numbers, with three guitars plus bass on the go, were rockier and fuzzier than in the studio. Ben's glacier-clear vocals could be slightly lost in the mix, but we mostly knew the words and sang along, or blissfully didn't care, bathing in the sonic swell.
The halfway point was marked by a stripped-back acoustic trinity of "St Augustine", "Evening" Kitchen" and "Part One", progressing from solo Ben, through a mesmeric Ben/Tyler close-harmony duet, with the addition of Ryan-plus-balilaika for the third song. As well as giving the Horses a quick bit of time out in the paddock (not Ben Bridwell - he's got a bladder of steel), the quietude also meant we could appreciate their trademark crisp vocal beauty. It heralded the final run-in, where they went for it and 'don't spare the horses' was the obvious mantra.
Festooned with old favourites, they began the final onslaught with the understated beauty of "For Annabelle". "Powderfinger" brought heroic guitar solos from both Tyler and Ryan. "The Great Salt Lake" was probably the high point of the gig, the song's force as irresistible as the geographical process that fashioned that lake in the first place. Ben's prolonged, cartoonish, shakey-faced/wobbly-jawed 'oonnnnnnnnnnn' in the final chorus and silent pause made us grin, yet made their soaring re-entry afterwards more majestic. He drily lampooned the false suspense of encores, "We'll do one more - then we'll come back and do a couple more after that," launching into roof-raising "Is There a Ghost" to 'end' the set.
No Band of Horses set is complete without the quiet-loud-quiet emotional maelstrom of encore song one, "The Funeral" - a fitting finale in its own right. They brought on two of their road crew to join them on guitars and closed with "The General Specific". The crowd danced, Ryan hammered keys frenetically, Ben battered a tambourine and then they were gone, Creighton high-fiving each band member as they exited.
There's nothing pony about Band of Horses live. Get along for the ride.