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Band of Horses climbing ladder of success 

In September 2006, then Seattle-based Band of Horses played Tremont Music Hall — or, to be precise, the club's modest Casbah room. The local promoters were hoping for a couple hundred people that night, given that it was a Friday and the weather was kind. Still, they were used to over-estimating Charlotte draws and putting on shirt-losing shows, operating more on the principle that bringing quality indie acts to town was enriching the scene if not their wallets. They'd have been happy recouping the $2,000 guarantee.

But by the time Sub Pop label-mate Chad VanGaalen finished his set, the Casbah had overflowed its 325-person banks, and the venue was turning folks away. When Band of Horses finished playing almost its entire repertoire -- the 10 songs that made up their recently released debut, Everything All the Time, a few new songs, plus a couple covers -- they'd won over another in a series of growing rooms.

Fast forward nearly three years, and Band of Horses returns to Charlotte for the first time, playing a sold-out show at the Neighborhood Theatre on June 17. Now based in Mount Pleasant, S.C., the state where Irmo-born band leader Ben Bridwell grew up before migrating to the Northwest, Band of Horses is recording its third record at Asheville's Echo Mountain studios (with producer Phil Ek again) and rehearsing for another summer of high-profile Festival spots.

The band declined Creative Loafing's invitation to chat, so instead we consider some of the reasons behind Band of Horses' success.

Bi-Coastal Exposure

Originally just called Horses, the band formed in Seattle in 2004 out of the ashes of Pacific Northwest dream-pop darlings Carissa's Wierd (sic). Bridwell had never written a song before then; when he and Horses' cofounder Mat Brooke (who left shortly after the debut's release to form Grand Archives) found themselves at sea after Carissa's demise, Bridwell learned how.

A set of demos soon made the rounds, building buzz, as did critical acclaim for Horses' sloppy-but-big-hearted live shows where arena-rock-sized anthems played (initially) to a couple dozen fans at the bar. Bridwell had also helped an old acquaintance from the Irmo days -- Sam Beam -- land a Sub Pop deal, and Beam returned the favor by taking the yet-unsigned band out on regional tours with Iron & Wine. The newly-renamed Band of Horses drew increasingly bigger crowds with the exposure, and soon signed to Sub Pop as well.

So, when Bridwell pulled up stakes in 2006 and headed back to the South, he left behind a built-in fan-base in Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, Vancouver and Seattle. Unlike the Northeast corridor or the mid-Atlantic states, where you can't toss a bass-rig without hitting a town full of venues, the West Coast is a much harder touring nut to crack, especially if you're from back East. Back-to-back dates can take days and multiple fuel stops to reach, and booking, despite the Internet, can be a crapshoot.

A New Southern Rock

Writing in Crawdaddy last year, Ben Westhoff remembered this about Band of Horses' beginnings: "When (they) arrived on the blog-rock scene a couple years ago, everyone agreed on two things. Number one: They were awesome. Number two: They were the second coming of Built to Spill."

In part that was due to Ek, who'd given BtS its signature panoramic sound, and in part because Bridwell was initially so unsure of his singing chops they ran his voice through canyons of reverb. The difference between bands, which wound up expanding BoH's fan base, was that Bridwell's lyrics weren't the koan-like mind benders of Doug Martsch, but pretty much your standard stoner ponderings and party anthems ("Weed Party" being the obvious combo-platter). Enveloped in the epic sounds of the Pacific Northwest, a song like "The Great Lake Salt Lake," for example -- which some assumed couched some deeper, historical narratives beneath its surface -- turned out to simply be about "some fuck-ups" the band ran across.

But Bridwell's songs were also grounded by his Southern roots. Once relocated back here, Band of Horses consciously mined that vein for 2007's follow-up, Cease to Begin, and did it well enough that they brought on board many Southern rock fans who wouldn't have known who Built to Spill was, let alone attended a show.

"Horses were onto a whole new kind of Americana, one that was informed by Pacific Northwest indie rock as well as Southern, fist-pumping party anthems," long-time BoH follower Brian Barr summed up in the Seattle Weekly. But after seeing the band 18 months later, Barr couldn't help bemoan elements of the expanding fan-base. "Everyone was in love with them... (but) all those drunken oafs... were taking video with their cell phones and making comments to their friends about the 'weed parties' they'd had before the show."

Ben Bridwell, Sex Symbol

A decade ago, a bushy-beard-and-tats rocker clad in jeans and a pearl-snap Western shirt probably wouldn't have floated as many female boats as it does today. But the bearded are no longer assumed to be homeless or insane, and sexy is no longer just the purview of the sophisticated and mysterious. Turns out you can just stand there, smile and play your guitar, and still make the ladies swoon.

"He's not like a Mick Jagger, but as a front man I was just really drawn to him," says The Virginia Reel's Kristin Garber, who caught Band of Horses in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2008. "He was very kind to the audience, he was always smiling, he seemed actually happy. He seems like a real Southern gentleman. I thought, 'I need to find myself a nice Southern man who is a little bit rock & roll, has some sweet tattoos, and who is also genuine and happy!'"

As it should be, though, the music closed the sale for Garber.

"If he looked exactly like he looks now, but was, I don't know, DJing techno music -- no way. Screw the tats."

Band of Horses plays the Neighborhood Theatre on June 17. Thrill Jockey's psych-rockers Arbouretum open at 8 p.m. The show is sold out.

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