I’ll bet you never knew that the New York music scene has its very own, grown-up version of story time. I didn’t either, until I went last week to Tuesday’s “early show” at the Mercury Lounge. From 7-9pm, the historic rock venue was host to a happily hushed, mellow crowd—so contentedly attentive that both Lay Low and Horse Feather, the two featured acts, commented that it was the quietest show they’d played thus far. In a business that usually deals in extreme audio experience this may sound like a musical thumbs-down, but every now and then the artists, the evening, and the audience are ripe for something calmer, something quieter—songs that beckon you in from the busy street with a whisper instead of a shout.
Tuesday’s show was just such an occasion. Icelandic singer/songwriter Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir, otherwise known as Lay Low, opened the evening with a delicately intimate set. Reflective lyrics of those familiar twins, love and loss were offered with fresh perspective and a wry sense of truth. Sigrúnardóttir‘s voice has a surprising sensuality that contrasts her girlish demeanor. Her songs are melodically whimsical, structured with more than just a nod to 1960’s pop-country hybrid. Using an approach á la Cline or Raitt, these heavier themes rise above the anticipated self indulgence of girl-with-a-guitar melancholy and offer a glimpse of heartache through sustained self-awareness. Where the recordings, particularly her newest album Farewell Good Night’s Sleep, are produced to highlight the country throw-back sound, hearing her live and alone with a single guitar brings the material’s intimacy into sharper focus.
Sigrúnardóttir spoke only a little between songs, mentioning the recent volcano in her country with some apology to those in the audience whose flights might have been affected, and confessing with a shy smile that, “at times I don’t know… English…” But with expertly crafted lyrics like “I’ve made you cry and I’ll make you cry with the things I do/I made you laugh and I’ll make you laugh without trying to” it’s hard not to be skeptical about that last statement. Lay Low cast a soothing spell over the audience, strumming her stories to a group sitting cross-legged on the floor, absolutely ready for each new tale.
This may not be the kind of warm-up most bands prefer for their audience, but Horse Feathers were appropriately appreciative. By the time they started the first song, the attentive crowd had grown in size and intensity but a sense of focus remained, amplified by the band’s own work onstage. The four musicians that make up Horse Feathers speak to one another through concentrated listening, and watching them bring their songs to life it’s easy to see why. “Drummer” Sam Cooper is also the banjo player, mandolinist, and fiddler. Violinist Nathan Crockett picks up the saw from time to time, and cellist Catherine Odell keeps beat with a tambourine even as she draws her bow across strings. Indeed, the only minimalist in the group was lead singer Justin Ringle, who made singing while playing guitar look like a cake walk by sheer proximity to his ambitious collaborators. Oh, and did I mention that they all sing! Thick harmonies overlapped, while weaving together and then apart, in and out, working as part of one large, mesmerizing musical octopus.
Horse Feathers are part of a new breed of multi-membered one man bands, bringing a different kind of shock value to live performance: the musical magic show. We stared in awe as they juggled, somehow creating a symphony from just four pairs of hands. One might accuse them of showing off if it weren’t so beautiful. After a dream-like set that infused the room’s hush with electricity, Horse Feathers delivered a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” as an encore, stretching into the sweet sorrow of the song and leaving their listeners with gratefully aching hearts. The evening ended and we filed back out of the club and into the business of life, carrying with us the sense of gentle comfort those stories offered.
Listen up for music from Horse Feathers on BTR! And, If you’re smart, you’ll go out and catch a story hour of your own!
Horse Feathers– LIVE!
May 14 – Hi-Dive – Denver, CO
May 15 – Kilby Court – Salt Lake City, UT
May 17 – Solar Culture – Tucson, AZ
May 18 – CASBAH – San Diego, CA
May 19 – The Fold In Bootleg Theater – Los Angeles, CA
May 20 – The Cellar Door – Visalia, CA
May 21 – The Crepe Place – Santa Cruz, CA
May 22 – Sophia’s Thai Kitchen – Davis, CA
May 23 – Bottom of the Hill – San Francisco, CA
May 25 – The Tower Theater – Bend, OR
July 23 – Hillside Festival – Guelph, ON, Canada
July 24 – Hillside Festival – Guelph, ON, Canada
July 25 – Hillside Festival – Guelph, ON, Canada
July 31 – George Wein’s Newport Folk Fest – Newport, RI
– Britt Sondreal