Band of Horses return to the Ryman for their unplugged encore 

Get Me to the Church

Get Me to the Church

The Ryman Auditorium, which opened its doors as Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892, has an international reputation for inspiring greatness, due in part to its iconic run as home of the Grand Ole Opry. Nearly every Saturday night from 1943 to 1974, WSM broadcast the stars who defined country music for the world, live from center stage at the Ryman. The venerable venue survived a demolition threat and two decades as a museum, reopening as a performance hall in 1994. Since then, fans and artists of all persuasions have flocked to let the Mother Church of Country Music cast its spell on them.

Pan-American indie rockers Band of Horses already began to shift toward more rootsy sounds on 2012's Mirage Rock, and when they sold out a two-night stand at the Ryman last April, they hoped to capture some of the room's magic in a live recording. The resulting album, Acoustic at the Ryman, had a lot to live up to: Neil Young, Marty Stuart and Emmylou Harris are among those who have released outstanding live albums or concert films of Ryman performances. The trick was to put on an ambitious show that stood up to the legendary aura of the building, and the heroes and heroines whose spirits still haunt its hallowed halls.

"We weren't too prepared for it — it wasn't like we came in and said, 'We can just knock out 45 minutes of acoustic stuff every night, and it'll be an easy undertaking,' " frontman Ben Bridwell tells the Scene. For the special all-acoustic set that would open Band of Horses' two Ryman shows, the group picked 11 originals spanning their four studio albums, plus a cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You," made famous by Gram Parsons. Many of the band's songs, especially early hits like "The Funeral," were born with electronic effects in their DNA; to come off in an intimate acoustic setting, each song had to be rearranged from the ground up.

"It was nerve-wracking!" confides bassist Bill Reynolds. "That was the first time we'd ever played 'The Funeral' with bowed bass and piano — we didn't even do that backstage. We were literally flying by the seat of our pants." Motivated by that element of risk, the group turned in a hearty and heartfelt set, leaning heavily on keyboardist Ryan Monroe's piano and their often-overlooked ability to harmonize.

Given the top-shelf performance, bringing it to the fans was a special concern for Reynolds, an experienced audio engineer who ran his own studio prior to signing on with Band of Horses. He also mixed Acoustic at the Ryman. "I've been doing records long enough to know that only about a third of what I hear in the control room makes it to the listener," Reynolds says. "I played this onstage, I knew what the crowd felt like, and then when I went to mix it, I knew what it sounded like."

The few stereophiles who bought SACD players in the early Aughts might recognize the name Direct Stream Digital, or DSD, but few outside the pro audio world are likely to be familiar with the ultra-high-resolution audio technology. After a trial run, Reynolds was sold on using a new DSD recorder as his master tape, from which all copies of the record were made once tweaked by a mastering engineer.

"You know when you take a picture and you compress it, and it looks blocky?" says Reynolds. "Think about sending [an audio version of] that to the mastering guy and asking him to make it sound better. He can't, because it's already been compressed. When you send him DSD, and he transfers that to MP3, he has the highest resolution to work from." Whether fans pick up Acoustic at the Ryman as a 24-bit digital master, a 180-gram vinyl LP or a regular CD or MP3 download, they'll find a high-grade performance, supported in full by the Ryman's renowned acoustic character — a warm, subtle ambience that becomes like another band member for any artist who plays quietly enough to not overpower it.

I was in the audience for the second acoustic show (if you hear a sneeze, that's probably me), and found the acoustic set revealed skill and dedication to craft that are too often obscured by indie-rock bombast. I figured it would be worth coming back to see them on another all-acoustic run — and they must've agreed, because that's exactly how Band of Horses is promoting Acoustic at the Ryman. Bridwell wouldn't have it any other way.

"That mystique, knowing that you're sitting in the same spot where your heroes have sat back there — the whole vibe is not lost on me, ever," says Bridwell. "I have a feeling, or at least I hope, that thing will never leave me."

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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