If, a few years from now, you want to be able to say I saw one of the most influential rock and roll bands of our time while they were still playing in small clubs, you may still have a small window of opportunity. I went to the show by Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses at TT the Bears, a fairly small rock club in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Tuesday, and walked away thoroughly convinced that they won’t be playing places that small for much longer. They are definitely among the best bands I have ever seen play live, and word spreads fast about something like that. Bingham already has an Oscar for best song and the tracks they played from the upcoming album to be released in September lead me to believe it may well be showered with accolades, as well.
If you didn’t already know the band, you might not have expected much had you been there when they walked out on the small stage. They came out into this small dark club, having to duck so they didn’t hit their heads on their way to the stage. They were dressed unremarkably, with only Elijah Ford, the bassist and keyboardist looking like he’d made any effort at all. The rest were dressed for work in jeans and work shirts. Ryan wore Carthart work pants. It turns out that this was appropriate attire, because go to work they did! They played hard, loud and superbly, really into the music and committed to giving the audience the best show they could.
(Here’s a video of their performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, to give you a little bit of a sense of how they sound. More on the show and the band, after the clip.)
Ryan is a thin, wiry young man, and you can see the veins and muscles in his neck and arm swell as he belts out lyrics like, “When the day is done, I was born a bad man’s son!” Elijah Ford, with his Fedora, stylish jeans, and pendant was the epitome of cool, and turned out a rocking rhythm. Matt Smith is essentially the embodiment of the archetypal cool percussionist, keeping it all in time without missing a beat. Corby Schaub rocks his electric guitars like a sixties guitar god, but here’s the thing about him; He rocks the mandolin the exact same way! Who knew the mandolin could rock like that?
You’ll most likely find Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses in the country music bins of your local record store. I’m not saying they don’t belong there, but I am saying they rock! Any other band should be flattered to be in their company. Ryan’s music evokes some of the country legends, it’s true. You’ll hear a little Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and the like. But he also evokes the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and other Rock greats. To me he doesn’t quite fit because the country music bins are full of the new pop. Country is riding high on the charts and that has meant that a larger and larger percentage of it is made to formula, with cliched lyrics. It’s a genre people choose, not a genre the artists seem to feel. Ryan’s music is not formulaic and his lyrics are not cliched. Artists like Ryan are often referred to as Alternative Country, we might also also call it country/rock if we wanted to be purely descriptive, but that evokes artists from the 70s that it isn’t really helpful to compare this band too. Rock/country?
Labels are often not useful in describing music, only in marketing it, so I will not dwell on analogies or possible influences. Let’s just say that he does his thing!
Jon Landau‘s 1974 characterization of Bruce Springsteen as the future of rock and roll is now the stuff of legend, but I feel that kind of exuberance about Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses now, so I can relate!
Bingham’s music is alternately socially relevant, deeply moving, or a straight forward rush of good-old, good-time, Rock n’ Roll energy. He played tracks from the new album, Junky Star, on Tuesday and they are brilliant! Place your advance order as soon as they start taking them!
TT the Bears is a small venue, and from the back against the wall you’re probably only about 150 – 200 ft away. It was amazing to see this band in that setting. They do it well. But I also got a taste of how they will handle a big venue the day before in Gilford, NH at the Meadowbrook Pavilion, and they rocked that, too. The album coming out in a few months, may well be their breakout album, so like I said, if you can catch one of the last dates they’ll be playing between now and then, do. Then you, too, will be able to say I saw them when….
UPDATE: There is another review of the concert, with some fantastic photographs, on the melophobe site.
UPDATE 2: To the extent that you can even find a record store anymore, don’t go looking for Ryan’s albums in the country section!