Some shows need to be spectacles where you (the audience) can escape your thoughts and worries for a couple of hours. Other shows need to be polished gems of virtuoso magic. And sometimes the evening calls for a show that’s less of a show and and more of a low-key party with 100 of your closest friends and some guy who happens to pick up a guitar. The latter was the case at Birdsmell (the solo project of Band of Horses front man Ben Bridwell) at LAB last night. Congenial, casual, rough-around-the-edges and charming. (And, no big surprise, sold out.)
Singer-songwriter Ryan Cates (formerly based in Asheville) opened for Birdsmell with a group of songs that ambled and sprawled, revealing poetic observations and snapshots of stories. Songs with phrases like “dubious reasons.” Songs that hid as much as they admitted. “This is a song about, I don’t know. It’s just a song,” Cates said by way of introduction. But none of his songs were just songs. The final offering, with the piercingly sweet line, “She’s an anchor / she holds the world in place,” was Cate’s shortest. And his most sublime.
Bridwell’s performance, studded with comedic self-recriminations and curses, was less sublime, more human. Charismatically human. “I got talking to some friends and I kind of forgot I was playing a show,” he joked. He described bassist Matt Gentling (his sideman on this tour) as “one of my musical heroes.” And talked about how Band of Horses’ career is linked to Asheville, from guitarist Tyler Ramsey to recording at Echo Mountain. “Those albums wouldn’t have been as cool if it weren’t for this town,” Bridwell said.
His one-man performance, with drum machine and a kick drum, sounded like stripped-down Band of Horses. Without the lush instrumentation and the atmospherics. But still, Bridwell’s voice is unmistakable, as are his songs: “Factory,” “Laredo” and “St. Augustine” were on the set list. Listening to those was kind of like witnessing a part of the musician’s creative process. Not the beginning, but some other step where the songs are still loose and open. New and malleable, not yet polished to a sheen. In their rough form they sounded wild, but also shot-through with joy.
Bridwell also mixed in covers, with little distinction between those he’d written and those that were favorites by other writers. “Black and Brown Blues” by Silver Jews was one. Another he introduced as his daughter Ivy’s favorite: “Cruise,” by pop-country band Florida Georgia Line. (That song won single of the year at last night’s CMA awards; last night was also Ivy’s third birthday.)
Gentling took the stage about 30 minutes in, fleshing out the haunting “Marry Song,” among others. His bass playing was both bouncy and solid (much like the show). Good without being worried about being good. Comfortable rather than flashy. That was neatly paired with Bridwell and Gentling’s ongoing debate about which of the two sucked worse — a competition that added to the entertainment of the evening, despite having no clear winner.