Band Of Horses singer/guitarist Ben Bridwell can promise a couple of things to people who see the group Sunday at the MidPoint Music Festival. First off, expect the unexpected.
“One thing that I do like about this band is I don’t know that we’ve ever played the same set list twice,” Bridwell says. “Over 12 years, I’m sure there have been times when we mistakenly, like unbeknownst to us, maybe copied (a set). But it seems fresh. And every day brings a new opportunity or a new vibe of whatever town you’re in or whatever the venue is. I feel like we try to pay really close attention to that. (I’ll even) research set lists from previous visits to make sure it’s not like (an earlier show) and we don’t open up with the same song as last time.”
The other thing Bridwell can say with certainty is that Band Of Horses is the best it’s ever been as a live band.
“I feel like we’ve only gotten stronger, as a live band especially,” he says. “We can be powerful and aggressive, and we’ve all grown with each other like that. But we can also be nuanced and a bit sweet. So I feel like we’re at peak form.”
The recently released Why Are You OK is the third album featuring the current lineup. Over the course of making the first two Band Of Horses albums — 2006’s Everything All the Time and 2007’s Cease to Begin — Bridwell cycled through a half dozen musicians, creating the impression that Band Of Horses might essentially be a solo project operating under a band name, even though some of the other musicians shared writing credits on songs. The next two albums poked plenty of holes in that notion.
On 2010’s Infinite Arms, keyboardist Ryan Monroe and guitarist Tyler Ramsey each brought in a song, while Bridwell and Ramsey co-wrote the tune “Older.” And the song “Blue Beard” was credited to all five band members (including drummer Creighton Barrett). Bassist Bill Reynolds stepped up on 2012’s Mirage Rock, earning co-writing credits on five songs, while Ramsey pitched in on a pair of tunes.
This was exactly what Bridwell had wanted to see happen when he formed Band Of Horses in 2004, shortly after the demise of his previous group, Clarissa’s Weird.
“I know my limits, and I don’t seem to get much better with my playing abilities,” he says. “I mean, I can write songs, but my playing ability has never really matured. I’ve always known that I need a lot of help. (Finding) that great help with talent and attitude, ambition without cockiness, finding that right balance, it just took awhile.”
The more collaborative Band Of Horses produced good results on Infinite Arms and Mirage Rock. The former album landed on many critics’ year-end best albums lists and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Commercially, it easily outdid Cease To Begin, debuting at No. 7 on Billboard’s album chart. Response to Mirage Rock wasn’t quite as enthusiastic, but the album was favorably reviewed and solidified Band Of Horses’ place as one of the better bands on the Americana/Roots Rock scene.
But for Why Are You OK, Bridwell was ready to change up the creative approach again, and he took more control over the songwriting process.
“I wanted to return a bit to home base. So I did spend more time going inward and not sharing as much as I possibly did the previous years,” Bridwell says. “I talked about it with the guys and they were with me every step of the way. They were like, ‘Oh, let him scratch his back a little, scratch his itch, and then we can kind of fill in where we’re needed.’ And the beauty of this band is no one has a defined role. Anybody can step up or sit back depending on what the song calls for. They stood behind me the whole way.”
Bridwell also went into the new album with a decidedly different idea for how he wanted Why Are You OK to sound. Mirage Rock was recorded mostly live in the studio and had a lean sound. Bridwell didn’t want to go down that path this time.
“I wanted to overthink this one,” he says. “I wanted a denser sound. I wanted it to be more lush. I wanted it to be pored over. I knew going in that this was going to cost an ass-load of money. I knew it was going to take an ass-load of time. But I was up to that challenge because I thought we needed to do that.”
Bridwell was right about needing time to make Why Are You OK. Produced by Jason Lytle of the band Grandaddy, work on the album spanned about a year.
Released in June, Why Are You OK has been well received critically and debuted at No. 10 on Billboard’s album chart. It’s immediately apparent that the new album was going for a different vibe, as it opens with “Dull Times/The Moon,” a two-part epic that starts out lush and dreamy before shifting into assertive and gritty Rock for “The Moon” portion of the song. The rest of the album falls between those two stylistic extremes. “Solemn Oath” builds from a folky start into an expansive rocker. “Hag” is cinematic, with a beautiful synthesizer riff surrounding the song’s vulnerable lyrics and downright pretty vocal melody. “Country Teen” has a ’70s California Country Rock feel. Throughout, the songs boast rich vocal melodies from Bridwell, nicely layered instrumentation that never feels overblown and song structures that often build in drama and heft.
Bridwell thinks this first round of touring behind the new album will be even more unpredictable, in terms of setlists.
“Once you have those extended (runs of) theater shows or club shows, you can try new stuff at sound check every day,” he says. “And this tour especially is going to provide us with that because we haven’t had that quite yet on the cycle, just repeated chances to learn new things. That’s extended to covers and reworking different versions of songs. I think this is going to be a really great opportunity for this part of the cycle to really stretch out a bit.”
BAND OF HORSES plays 9:30 p.m. Sunday on the Skyline Stage at 2016’s MidPoint Music Festival. Visit mpmf.com for tickets and details.