(Note: This is kind of long, so please be sure to click below to see the whole thing, including three videos from the show of Horse Feathers performing and one of the Sweet Harlots.)
I don’t know whether PDXchange Program organizer Henry Abel considers his inaugural show — Portland-based quartet Horse Feathers, Tuesday night at the Tower Theatre — to be a success or not. I know he was, understandably, concerned about ticket sales, and to me, it looked like the Tower was pretty full on the floor, but pretty empty in the balcony. I don’t know how that pencils out.
But I can tell you this: From the show-goer’s perspective, PDXchange’s first night was a smashing success. From top to bottom, everything ran smoothly, looked good, and sounded amazing. Horse Feathers, in particular, put on a stunning performance that I only wish had been a few songs longer.
Abel’s a detail-oriented guy, so it’s no surprise to me that the general public could see no seams at this show. There were T-shirts emblazoned with the program’s logo for sale, displayed neatly across a table manned by three well-dressed young men (who also make up the local rock trio We Are Brontosaurus). The PDXchange logo was also stenciled on a guitar case on stage and projected onto a screen behind the performers, where it danced amidst a tasteful light show all night. Two banners from Deschutes Brewery — a major supporter of the series — flanked the stage. Outside, Abel had set up free valet parking for folks who biked to the concert. At the end of the night, Tower ushers handed each exiting patron a flyer advertising the program’s next show: June 3, The Helio Sequence.
Most striking was the use of the orchestra pit in front of the stage. Abel removed a few rows of seats and had stairs custom built to give those who wanted to stand a place to do so. And that pit lives a few feet below the theater’s floor. So after Horse Feathers’ fourth song, when the crowd in front of the stage grew, even the tallest guys didn’t block the view of the people in the first row of seats.
Little details like that that elevated PDXchange’s opener from a great show to an exceptional experience.
Now … the music. I arrived a bit late and missed a few songs by local duo the Sweet Harlots, but those I caught sounded better than I’d ever heard from the band. The harmonies from Laurel Brauns and Amy Mitchell were spot-on, and when guests joined them on stage — Moon Mountain Rambler Jenny Harada for a few songs, and Horse Feathers’ Sam Cooper for a couple more — they fit in perfectly. The band closed with a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio” and a rewrite of Okkervil River’s “Westfall,” displaying Brauns’ exquisite taste and ability to make a song her own.
As for Horse Feathers, they were every bit as wonderful as when I saw them 18 months ago at a small bar in Portland. Despite being afflicted with a collective cold, the band displayed a supple touch, lifting founder Justin Ringle’s sublime (but shy) songs to a place where rustic folk music and orchestral pop perfectly intertwine. On their own, Horse Feathers’ string section — cellist Catherine Odell and violinist Nathan Crockett — are experts at layering elegant texture onto Ringle’s tunes. But joined by members of the Central Oregon Symphony, the string swells were all the more striking, especially on “Mother’s Sick” and “Thistled Spring.”
Unlike so many indie-folk outfits, though, Horse Feathers has more than just a few tricks up their sleeve. The band showed off its vibrant pop side with “Belly of June,” the well-received first single from its new album, “Thistled Spring.” And they proved themselves to be the kind of free thinkers you’d expect from a Portland band on the punk-leaning Kill Rock Stars label when they built songs like “Falling Through the Roof” and “Dust Bowl” from gentle whispers into clanging whirlwinds. Relatively speaking, of course. (“Whirlwinds” might be a strong word. More like “dust devils.”)
Multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper was a sight to see, making whatever sounds he could to add to the songs. At one point, during “Cascades,” he played a banjo while holding a drumstick in his teeth and slapping a cymbal with his hand, all while sitting next to a keyboard that didn’t do a whole lot of work until its mournful arc during the band’s encore, a cover of Welch’s “Orphan Girl.”
Cooper’s act wasn’t just for show; each note, each beat seemed necessary, nothing seemed forced or out of place. And Horse Feathers is a band that proves you don’t have to be loud — or even audible all the time — to mesmerize. This was a band that values subtle dynamics playing in a room that does the same. And for that, kudos all around, to Abel, the Tower and the artists. It was a superb night.