Photo by Rick Ebbers
When his band Buffalo Gospel finished recording its new album, We Can Be Horses, Ryan Necci commemorated the occasion by tattooing a buffalo – what else? – on his right bicep. After a difficult few years that included the end of his marriage, the mark of the buffalo seems to symbolize a fresh start for Necci and his band. Needless to say, the divorce was rough, but in its aftermath, Necci began to recognize what was truly important in his life. Family, friends and Buffalo Gospel became his priorities. Accustomed to writing from the perspective of others, Necci began to look inward, using songwriting as therapy. “It’s really the only way to get this stuff out,” Necci says. “It’s cheaper than going to a therapist.”
A few months after the divorce, as he was turning his troubles into song, he showed some new material to local folksinger Heidi Spencer (who shares vocal duties with Necci on Horses), hoping to record an EP with her. Impressed, she encouraged him to keep writing and make it a full album. The result is a collection of melancholy Americana that traces the arc of a broken man trying to put himself back together. For the most part (opening track “Song Of The Ox” is an upbeat exception), the songs are slack and bare, rising and falling – but barely – like telephone wires along a country highway. The words are those of a man struggling to connect his past with a troubled present, hoping for a future in which things can be different: We can be horses. Indeed, hope is the album’s overriding message, leaking into even the darkest moments. You can almost hear Necci giving up in “When God’s Away On Business,” as rats drink his wine and “dance along the wooden floor/where you and I had danced before.” But Spencer’s steadying vocal accompaniment and the gentle, buoying violin give the song strength.
Necci, who admits he isn’t very good at guitar, surrounded himself with a veritable supergroup to record the album. Besides Spencer, there is journeyman guitarist Allen Coté, percussion from Kyle Keegan (Necci says he’ll never play with another drummer) and pedal steel by Field Report’s Ben Lester, a late – but critical – addition. The seasoned group brings a quiet professionalism to the songs, adding only what is necessary to each track. Ryan Ogburn’s mandolin propels the swelling “Letters To Georgia,” and Coté’s corrosive solo brings an edge to “The Eastern,” one of the album’s sole rockers. Spencer’s vocals are a treasure throughout, adding her voice to Necci’s in a way that feels effortless and natural. All eight musicians (including bassist Brian Wells and violinist John Patek) will take the stage Saturday at Linneman’s, performing live for the first time as a unit.
Necci has put some of his troubles behind him with We Can Be Horses, and hopes that whatever comes next might be lighter, more upbeat. He knows one thing for sure: He won’t be stopping anytime soon. Tattoos are permanent, after all.
Buffalo Gospel plays tomorrow with Jonathan Burks at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn at 9 pm. Cover is $5 or $10, which includes a copy of We Can Be Horses.