A mere 87 miles from Madison, nestled in the land of world-famous overalls, American folk band Dead Horses is part of Oshkosh’s growing community of artists.
Dead Horses has become a prominent fixture in Wisconsin’s blossoming music scene. With an American folk aesthetic enhanced by a youthful twist, not unlike the early work of fellow midwesterner Sufjan Stevens, the band will be playing Madison’s High Noon Saloon Thursday.
The performance, which begins at 8 p.m., will also feature Canadian indie rock band Current Swell (known for their track “Young and Able”) and The Sharrows.
Frontwoman Sarah Vos’s emotional crooning is backed by the rich acoustic melodies of Tim McIlree on fiddle and mandolin, Peter Raboin on acoustic guitar and Daniel Wolff on double bass. The group’s formation casually began in 2010 but naturally evolved alongside their hometown’s musical tradition.
“We met through the scene in Oshkosh … First playing a weekly gig for fun,” Vos said.”We rented a little space in Oshkosh and practiced almost every night, hanging out and playing tunes. We started booking gigs every chance we got, playing to anyone who would listen.”
The result has been two full-length LPs, including their most recent release in October 2014, Space and Time. In many ways the Oshkosh and Wisconsin communities have directly influenced Dead Horses’s accomplishments. Some Sconnies influenced the band from afar — Vos cites Bon Iver’s album For Emma Years Ago as having a “tremendous influence” on her — while others directly affected their development. For example, a Kickstarter project raised more than $10,000 (transcending their $7,500 goal) to help cover recording costs of Space and Time. Vos said the growing local music scene has had personal significance for Dead Horses.
“The music scene in Oshkosh is very community oriented … I have watched the music scene [there] grow tremendously in the last three years or so,” Vos said. “Our album release at the Grand Theater in Oshkosh … was also very special. The Oshkosh community means a lot to me personally, and playing in such a beautiful place to so many special people really meant a lot.”
This sense of community has been an integral part of Vos’ life since childhood. The daughter of a preacher, she grew up chowing down at church potlucks with the vast Fox River nearby, listening to her father’s sermons and belting hymns. These facets of her childhood manifest within the band, providing a foundation for community-oriented creating and spiritual lyricism.
Given Vos’ upbringing and a band name tributing fallen war horses, it comes as no surprise Dead Horses chose American folkgrass as their defining genre. Described as “the music of the people,” the visceral instrumentation and deep-cutting tracks associated with folkgrass convey the struggles and triumphs of the human condition. Vos hopes to remain honest when tapping into the “heartspeak” and “collective ego” of the tried-and-true genre.
The “collective ego,” demonstrated best in tracks like “Cosmos,” is also apparent in Dead Horses’ dynamic.
“I think the greatest challenge, and most important thing, is to keep treating ourselves, each other, and everyone else with love and respect. The relationships I have with Dan, Pete and Tim and all of us together … are so special and we all have a lot invested,” Vos said.
But Dead Horses doesn’t intend to be the exact reincarnation of classic folk artists like Bob Dylan or even the fellow golden-haired songstress Stevie Nicks. While these greats may serve as inspirations — the band has covered “Landslide” in the past — Vos said her recent favorites include Radiohead.
Though certainly proud of their Oshkosh beginnings, the band is happy to return to Madison after having played a memorable concert at the Majestic for the Wisconsin Bluegrass Bash.
Vos said she is looking forward to two things: the people and the vibe.