The members of Bowerbirds are “of the earth” in more ways than one. The group hails from rural North Carolina. Many of the songs on its recently released debut, Hymns for a Dark Horse (Burly Time), take as their subject matter things of this earth, and the destructive things humans do to them. And when the band plays live, as it did opening for John Vanderslice September 6 at Los Angeles’s Troubadour, its music is very organic. That term can be too easily hurled around in our currently environmentally concerned culture, but with Bowerbirds, it fits.
The reason Bowerbirds’ music comes off as even more organic live, even more ebbing and flowing like the seascapes the band sometimes sings about, is the members’ choice of instrumentation. First, the band uses a unique percussion set up. No full trap set here; instead, placed in the middle of the stage is a large bass drum, not unlike the one that chubby kids in the high school marching bands hoist around on their shoulders. Multi-instrumentalist Mark Paulson usually mans the drum, propelling songs along with a mix of resonant thumps on the drum’s skin and sharp stick knocks on its rim.
Then there’s the accordion, played gorgeously by Beth Tacular. The very physical playing of the instrument, with its midsection ever expanding and contracting, sets a visual tone of wooziness and waviness. The accordion’s warm, glowing sound, stretched and pulled along like a piece of taffy, adds even more nebulousness. Even when Tacular sets the accordion down, it’s only so she can go handle the drum while Paulson picks up a violin, another instrument with elastic properties not unlike human vocal chords.
In this mix, lead singer Phil Moore’s voice, the element I focused on most in my review of Hymns for a Dark Horse, doesn’t really stand out. On this night, it didn’t seem as strong and full-throated as it does on the album. Not that it mattered much. With everything else clicking along so vitally, the band got through most of Dark Horse’s standouts: the gothic “Hooves,” the expansive “In Our Talons,” the lush “Slow Down,” the epic “Olive Hearts.” I kept tapping my foot, trying to find the beat. When I had trouble doing so, I at first thought it must be because of some failing within the band to be able to play together correctly. But over the course of the set, I realized it was due to the band’s organic fluidity. In this way, Bowerbirds is a band like few others out there.