Horse Feathers seems to have an affinity for churches. I saw the indie folk group play a few years ago at a church-turned-venue in Pullman, Wash., and last weekend during Musicfest Northwest they played at The Old Church. But when I saw them last Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver, it fit especially well. Like a Unitarian church, Horse Feathers’ music is full of ambiguous holiness.
“Of fickle faith / cynics that seethe, how their children are cursed, / cursed to believe,” frontman Justin Ringle sang out near the end of the set, while violins and percussion swelled around him. Ringle’s lyrics tend to explore tensions between faith and doubt, cynicism and utter beauty. At Friday’s concert, the universal appeal of these tensions came through as a crowd of young, bearded Portlanders and elderly, bearded Unitarians from Vancouver sat together, rapt in the complexities of Horse Feathers’ music.
The band swept its viewers up into heights of emotion, from the joy of the reeling “Belly of June” at the beginning of the set to the suspense of the quiet, ominous verses in “Better Company.”
They’ve built a bigger sound since last time I saw them perform, having traded in their cellist for a bassist and sparse percussion for a full drum set. The changes kick the volume up a little and push the band in a slightly poppier direction. But Horse Feathers’ sound is still there, the gentle vocals, nuanced string arrangements and dry, precisely picked acoustic guitar melding into a dynamic wall of sound.
That unique sound is what makes Horse Feathers so exciting. In 2013, we have plenty of pseudo-folky indie pop bands, but not many real folk groups doing innovative things with old traditions. Horse Feathers is one of those few bands, and their creativity and impressive musicianship shines through especially well when they play live shows.
If you have a chance to see Horse Feathers play anytime soon, do it. Or even better, wait until you can see them play in a church where their music will fill up a dimly lit sanctuary with its odd worship.