Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell loses his voice during the band’s Sydney Opera House debut

Seattle formed quintet Band of Horses have long been favourites on Australian shores, and tonight the band made their long awaited Sydney Opera House debut, as part of their Splendour in the Grass visit and off the back off their brilliant LP Why Are You OK. It would go on to be a show that was memorable for the wrong reasons, as lead vocalist and guitarist Ben Bridwell struggled through the set – both vocally and emotionally – ultimately leading to a show that had all their fans leaving with mixed emotions.

Everything seemed normal as the band first arrived on stage, to a pre-recorded piano track; Ben talked briefly about how he’d gotten tattooed in the venue earlier in the day (“a first for the venue?”, he wondered), and wanted us all to know that he was the biggest Drones fan in the room. The group’s lead singer Gareth Liddiard had been the band’s support act under the new guise of MK-Ultra, a trio comprised of Gareth alongside Dan Luscombe and Steve Hesketh from The Drones. So they’re essentially The Drones without a live drummer. The group played tracks from the band’s back-catalogue such as “Jezebel” alongside some of Liddiard’s Strange Tourist solo material. Solid stuff, though admittedly not that much different to anything we’ve heard before, even without the live drums. Given they’re one of the greatest bands on the planet, however, this is far from an issue. I’ll take some live Drones tunes any day, and it was a thrill to hear some re-interpretations being developed.

After thanking his favourite band, Ben talked about how nervous he’d been in the lead up to the performance, and jumped straight into “The Great Salt Lake”. Here, something became very clear very quickly: Ben had lost his voice. Not entirely, mind you, but he was struggling to hit those beautiful notes and stunning falsettos that we know him and the band for. And the frustration hit him hard, because I don’t think he expected it – no doubt the night would have been approached differently if he had. What followed was a heartbreaking set for fans of the band, as he continued to battle through the set, playing a mix of tracks from all their records, doing his best to make it through it. The crowd were as supportive as they could be, and we pushed through it with him, as he continued to tell the crowd “I will not give up on you”, in a way that couldn’t help but break your heart, while he kept telling himself to get it together. But as any vocalist knows – sometimes when the voice is gone, it’s gone.

Lesser artists would have called it quits and walked away, and while his frustration was palpable, he kept going. No moment was this frustration clearer than during “Factory”, towards the end of their main set, as Ben, seeming to be attacked by both the mic stand and a music stand, forced it to the ground with a few expletives along the way, as he was playing the slide guitar – but again, he didn’t stop playing, nor singing. “We can do it, we can do it, I know we can”, he said, as he channeled The Little Engine That Could, and though it was imperfect, he did.

The band made it through 10 tracks, a two track encore, and an additional encore featuring MK-Ultra. There were moments that stood out, too. A stand out from the new record, “In a Drawer” went well, as did “Throw My Mess”, five songs into the night. During the latter, it seemed that Ben was able to get it together; the band’s supporting harmonies propping him back up and getting him on his feet (or, his vocal chords). You could see the relief on his face… but it didn’t last long. By the end of the main set, he passed it over to Tyler to sing “Country Teen” in its entirety, and then walked off stage to “figure out how they were going to continue the show”.

Ben and Tyler came back on to perform an acoustic version of “No One’s Gonna Love You”, which was again imperfect but a beautiful moment all the same as the crowd helped Ben get through the song, as they did for “The Funeral”, which followed – the crowd rising to their feet in support of Ben and the band. We know how good this band could be – I’m sure the majority of the crowd had seen the band before – and we felt for them every step of the way. I’m sure some felt ripped off, and many would have been disappointed, but there was no anger. No shouting for our money back. Ben even said he’d pay people back out of his pocket if anyone wanted it. This is a group who have been thrown down to our country for a few days, expected to do all these shows on jetlag and no sleep – not to mention epic events like Splendour in the Grass thrown in along the way… it’s amazing that gigs like this don’t happen more often. Though it’s fair to say that few rely on the vocal splendour of just one man so fervently.

So many reviews are ultimately meaningless. A few words written about a band who have played a million shows, perhaps with a slightly different setlist, in a different venue, to a different crowd. But some gigs are worthy of the words typed for them, standing apart from the rest as being one of the most memorable shows you’ll ever attend. For better or for worse, this was one of those shows, and leaving the Opera House with mixed emotions, it was hard for me to feel disappointed. And I certainly didn’t feel angry. I just felt sad, as no doubt did the band. They wanted so hard to deliver, but no band nor artist is perfect – and this set only proved that even a band as good as Band of Horses, like the rest of us, are beautiful in our imperfections.

SETLIST:
The Great Salt Lake
Is There a Ghost
Detlef Schrempf
In a Drawer
Throw My Mess
NW Apt.
Islands on the Coast
Factory
For Annabelle
Country Teen (Tyler)
Encore:
No One’s Gonna Love You (Ben and Tyler)
The Funeral
Encore 2:
Effigy (CCR Cover) feat. MK-Ultra

Band of Horses performed at the Sydney Opera House on 25th July 2016.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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