Band Of Horses Stand On The Verge In Cincinnati

I’ve been lucky over the years to catch early, small club shows by the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Lenny Kravitz, Beck, the Verve, Radiohead, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Garbage, the Strokes, the Vines, Kings of Leon, Pearl Jam and countless others.

The thing about those shows is that you can never know in the moment that what you’re seeing is a band on the verge, because at the time it just feels like you’ve witnessed an awesome show. And then the next thing you know the band you thought only you and a handful of other friends were into about is playing the local amphitheater or showing up on a “Twilight” soundtrack.

I say this because I saw one of those shows Tuesday night (July 13) right here in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was the third time in the past two years that I’ve seen South Carolina’s Band of Horses, and while they were great the other two times (in the historic Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky and at Lollapalooza last year), there was something about their 90-minute set at a club called the Inner Circle that felt like a breakthrough.

From the first time I heard their 2006 Sub Pop debut (the cleverly named Everything All The Time), I was hooked, and the next year’s Cease to Begin cemented it. The band mostly drew from those two albums during Wednesday night’s show (while skipping their gorgeous “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” ballad “Life on Earth”), which was sold-out and had the kind of palpable buzz most bands dream of.

From the first notes of the ethereal “Is There a Ghost” (one of the band’s many haunting, driving instant classics), the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd was locked in, harmonizing with tall, bearded and neck-tooed singer Ben Bridwell as he reached up high into his standard-setting falsetto range. Through the equally cinematic “Great Salt Lake” and into the joyous stomp of “Weed Party,” Bridwell, who in previous appearances appeared a bit stand-offish and uncomfortable on stage, smiled and soaked in the adulation.

Not a jammy act, BOH breezed through their three-minute bite sized chunks of Nugget-dusted country rock, layering some grungy pop onto the new song “Compliment” from the just-released major-label debut, Infinite Arms. Like many of their best tunes, it mixed the stomp of ’90s grunge with the urban cowboy pluck of the original space cowboy, Gram Parsons.

The new single “Laredo” felt like a dusty AM radio classic, one that the Eagles might have released if they had a young Matthew Sweet on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, while other tunes felt like pop songs for drinkers in a bar where the band hid behind chicken wire. A new one called “Older” fell into that category of the perfect cry-in-your-Shiner-Bock-shuffle. “Cigarettes, Wedding Bands,” with its swaying la-di-da-like “they lied at night, they lied at night, while they lied” chorus took on an Alice In Chains death rattle and the new classic “Factory” kind of reminded me of what the Shins would sound like if they’d listened to nothing but Flying Burrito Brothers albums as kids.

And then the band got to what could have already been their “Bittersweet Symphony,” their “Wonderwall,” their “Fell In Love With a Girl.” I’m not saying “No One’s Gonna Love You” is a perfect pop song, but it should already have been on a dozen soundtracks to indie romances, where I see it playing out over the sad breakup scene where Zach Braff walks around in the rain brokenhearted. Where is John Hughes when we really need him?

It felt like everyone in the room was singing what may just be the most awesomely sappy mix tape classic of our era, a love song for the Twitter generation that has an expansive, almost orchestral sound, and an ambivalent lyric that professes undying love even as it lays out the “limb torn off” feeling of a love that is merely a ghost.

If Bridwell seemed a bit taken aback by the vigor with which the crowd sang the lyrics along with him to that one, he must have been positively stunned when they joined him again on the triumphant chorus of the pastoral epic “The Funeral,” joyously shouting out the lyrics, “And every occasion/ I’ll be ready for the funeral” in a song that see-saws between fragile acoustic strumming and a foot stomping grunge blast.

Through the spot-on encore jangle of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” and the boogie woogie rocker “Lamb on the Lam (In The City),” BOH played a near perfect set of songs that sounded great in a club, but felt like they belonged on a much, much bigger stage. I’m a sucker for a sad, Neil Young-style ballad, but to me it felt like one of the most satisfying rock shows I’ve seen in a long time.

Last summer, I lamented that the Kings of Leon had graduated from this best kept secret stage to a bigger one and they now belonged to the world. For their sake, I hope BOH do also, because their grungy bolo-tie pop gems deserve to be drunkenly mangled by tens of thousands at a time.