Live review: Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses at the El Rey Theatre
In Ryan Bingham’s song “Hard Times,” he sings of making good moments from bad, and that’s exactly what happened Saturday night at the El Rey, where a boisterous capacity crowd cheered this young country-rocker’s bleak confessionals as though they were top-down summer jams. Addressing the audience with a splash of surprise in his weather-beaten voice, Bingham at one point compared the concert to a “pre-Super Bowl party”; earlier, his rhyme of “Tijuana” and “marijuana” had inspired plenty of spirited whoops.
Credit “Crazy Heart.” Last year, Bingham won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for “The Weary Kind,” his theme song from the Jeff Bridges film about a washed-up country star. That Hollywood attention has greatly expanded Bingham’s following, as has his partnership with producer T Bone Burnett, who cowrote “The Weary Kind” and oversaw Bingham’s 2010 album, “Junky Star.” (Burnett’s other clients include Willie Nelson, Elton John and Elvis Costello.) Where Bingham’s first two efforts played mostly to an alt-country core, “Junky Star” has connected with younger, more varied listeners. Place the record in your cart on Amazon and that site will recommend recent discs by Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon to go with it.
A rodeo rider during his teen years in Texas, Bingham engaged those new fans Saturday with a two-hour set longer on bleary rock than on the spare acoustic balladry of such Lone Star State forebears as Townes Van Zandt and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The songs offered images of emotional strife and economic hardship (“Depression” neatly collapsed the distance between the two), but Bingham’s three-piece backing band pushed the music beyond those confines. “Hallelujah” had a vintage-soul vibe, while “The Other Side” -- from Bingham’s 2007 debut, “Mescalito” -- recalled the low-slung blues of “Exile on Main St.” by the Rolling Stones. For “Southside of Heaven” and “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So,” the musicians upped the tempo, channeling the homespun exuberance of a string-band hoedown.
Volume is an asset for Bingham, whose extravagant rasp and weakness for cliché can make his more stripped-down material sound like a parody of Cormac McCarthy. (“Man come to shake my hand, rob me of my farm,” he sings in “Junky Star's” hushed title track, “I shot him dead and I hung my head and drove off in his car.”) During his encore Saturday, Bingham performed “The Weary Kind” accompanied only by Corby Schaub on mandolin, but after the lived-in power of what preceded it, the tune felt both flimsy and overwrought. Wisely, he followed with a version of his song "Sunshine" that shared a mountaintop-metal groove with Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks." Bingham’s heat-seeking audience pumped fist accordingly.
-- Mikael Wood
Photos: Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses perform at the El Rey in Los Angeles on Saturday. Credit: Christina House / For The Times