Building on the bountiful “Best of 2007” boasting rights brought by the album Cease to Begin, Sub Pop recording artists Band of Horses brought a sold-out winter tour to Nashville’s Exit-In on a blustery Tuesday night.

The stacked bill for a packed house began with Horses’ guitarist Tyler Ramsey tempting us with reflective ballads, followed by Cass McCombs doing the singer-songwriter thing with strong psychedelic echoes. Despite bleak skies and punishing winds outside, the bands on the bill transformed a black box bar into a warm gathering much like a summer festival—where strangers quickly became friends, dancing together, swinging their arms, and singing along.

Balancing tracks from Begin with favorites from the equally stellar debut Everything All the Time and a few choice cover tracks credited to Creedence Clearwater Revival and JJ Cale, the Horses’ 16-song set simmered in a sweaty cauldron of delightful sonic diversity. In the band’s unbridled energy, we saw that sweat glistening in and dripping from frontman Ben Bridwell’s beard as he blazed a lyrical path to pop paradise.

With the six brethren of the revised and revamped lineup crowding the stage, the tightly-knit chemistry of the ensemble provided tantalizing testimony to how much the indie universe has grown into a post-everything pantheon that can be as inclusive of this cosmic alt-rock Allman Brothers as an Arcade Fire and all that band’s inevitable imitators.

In this regionally-rooted cosmos of reverb, the blessed bandleader defied emotional gravity to take us to the galaxy of good, where he worked the crowd like a guitar-wielding Gandalf, gifting us with the epic magic of eternally charged and emotive anthems like “Is There a Ghost” and “Ode to the LRC.” The innocent grins exchanged between Bridwell and bassist Bill Reynolds were only matched by the shit-happy smiles on the floor, a glow flowing amongst the fans that didn’t stop after “The Funeral” furnished what Bridwell called the “fake last song.”

That a mere night at a show could somehow open the mind to a mountaintop vista is only more evidence of Bridwell’s vast pop vocabulary and all-encompassing musical vision. The way Bridwell trades instruments— moving without much hoopla from pedal steel to banjo to guitar—could be a metaphor for the starry-eyed arc of his near-mythic career. We’re all loving the back story on this bearded bard—he went from homeless post-punk hobo to starting a record label from saving tips and spare-change stuffed in a broken speaker as piggy bank. Forming Band of Horses after the underground success of his previous band Carissa’s Wierd, Bridwell’s brought some blissfully bright lights to the dark, dark world of Bush-era rock and roll.

Many critics have commented on the “instant classic” quality of these two albums, marked by the Southern surrealism of the lyrical flourishes or the way that Bridwell can bounce from haunting romantic ballads to simply rocking out with all balls to the proverbial wall.

One moment, he serenades his sweetheart with poems from the planet sappy, wildly wooing us with tracks like “No One’s Gonna Love You” and the even sweeter “Marry Song.” But then he just lets loose, taking us from such softness to then kill the quotidian with unequivocal mystery where Rob Hampton and Ramsey add more layers to the guitar-driven beauty. Ryan Monroe’s work on keyboards and vocals fill out the sound, and thankfully, Reynolds’ bass and Creighton Barret’s backbeats keep this elated and ever-evolving project close to the ground.

As we removed the roof of the place with the pure energy of tracks like “Wicked Gil,” “Islands on the Coast,” and the closing cacophony of “The General Specific,” we forgot whether we were at the club or stitching together the future of indie rock at a quilting bee or simply getting down at a family reunion and back porch barbecue.

Even the well-earned Neil Young comparisons cannot capture the unique fullness of what this band has accomplished with its two records and appropriately appreciated live shows. While the temptation exists to merely categorize this moody magic as just one moment in a new Southern rock movement shared by artists like My Morning Jacket and Kings of Leon, Band of Horses bust the borderlines and trash the talking points, taking the fan base to the great beyond. –Andrew William Smith, Photos by Landin King

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