Joe Pug w/ Dead Horses
The Mill — Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m.
Like most of us, the last two years have made the Dead Horses erupt with questions.
The band, made up of Sarah Vos and Daniel Wolff, ask their questions amid songs that are decidedly Midwest Americana. Some questions are pleas. Some are prayers. A short collage of questions collected from several of the songs off of last year’s full-length release, My Mother the Moon, are as follows:
“Won’t you sit for a while? Won’t you rest yourself?”
“How do I spend my numbered days?”
“Honey babe, did I do ya wrong?”
“I was broken, do you remember that?”
“Are we meant to house such suffering?”
The Dead Horses will open for Joe Pug at The Mill this Friday, Sept. 20. Tickets are $15 in advance; $18 at the door.
The duo has been performing together for nearly a decade, two constants in a band that has waxed and waned over those 10 years. They’ve released three full-length albums and opened up shows for fellow Midwesterners Trampled by Turtles and Mandolin Orange across the country. But their biggest opening gig arguably happened just last week in their home state of Wisconsin.
At Alpine Valley, the Dead Horses opened up for The Who. Yes, that The Who, whose performance came complete with a 48-piece orchestra.
The pair expanded for the show as well, bringing in a drummer, a cellist and a flutist. The pair remembers where they were when they first got the news about the show.
“We were playing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and we got a call from our manager. And she’s like, ‘Okay, are you seated?’ I remember Sarah saying, ‘What’s wrong?’” Wolff says.
“I thought there was something bad happening. I even said to her, ‘Is this bad?’ And she’s like, ‘I just need to talk to you and Dan together,” Vos says. “And I was like, ‘This sounds like an emergency.’ But she had waited until everything kind of confirmed to even tell us.
Even apart from opening up for The Who, 2019 has already been a milestone year for the band. They have released three singles, all recorded and self-produced as part of a residency they undertook at an old monastery in Appleton, Wisconsin. Co-founded by musicians Adriel Denae and Cory Chisel, the Refuge is a full-tilt artists’ space crafted inside the retired monastery.
“There’s painters and sculptors and musicians: you name it. It’s really cool because they have all these little dormitories where you can stay while you’re there. They have several different studios kind of set up, and they’re very DIY makeshift, but they’re really utilizing all the rooms there,” Wolff says. “So if you want a certain sound you can record in the chapel, which sounds amazing. Sarah did her vocals and guitar work in there, and that turned out beautifully.”
Caught somewhere between a deep understanding and emotional disarray, Vos’ lyrics, and the voice she delivers them with, evoke a life spent searching. Raised in a fundamentalist pastor’s home in Northern Wisconsin, Vos first learned about music in her father’s church services. That church eventually kicked her father and her family out, teaching her at 15 the complicated nature of religion. The music stuck, though. She moved to Milwaukee for college, but — disillusioned by higher education and discovering her own identity — she dropped out and moved back to Oshkosh. That’s where she met Wolff. They’ve played together ever since.
As a duo, they’ve worked to fill a lot of sonic space: Wolff often plays lead lines on his double bass, all the while harmonizing with Vos. Vos’ lyrics are deeply rooted in a literary tradition she first unearthed an admiration for in college. “Swinger in the Trees” works as a sort of hyperlink to Robert Frost’s famous poem “Birches.”
“It’s not like the song is about the poem “Birches.” It’s more so that I had faith in the heart space that I’m in when I’m writing it. So I feel like it’s cool to kind of pay homage to it,” Vos says. “But I also think that within art, there’s not really any completely new creation. We’re all kind of pulling from the same base. And it’s very sensical that you would be inspired by someone else’s creation.”
Right now, Vos says she’s reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
“That book is just so, so, so beautiful. That’s inspiring me right now. I think some of the more transcendentalist stuff like Walt Whitman, and even Robert Frost, that was something that I was really into in college and kind of when I was first discovering how deep of a love I have for nature and just being right in it,” Vos says. “I didn’t really grow up that way. I didn’t go camping until I think I was like 20. Now it’s one of my favorite things to do.”
Their opening slot at The Mill on Friday will feel oddly familiar to the Dead Horses: Their first gig as a duo was opening up for Joe Pug.
“About two years ago, Dan and I got together for our first practice as a duo, and maybe 20 minutes into the practice, we get a call from our booking agent. Joe Pug was playing the City Winery in Chicago and whoever it was supporting him couldn’t play anymore. And he asked us: Do you want to come open for him as a duo? You have to leave, like right now. Dan and I were like, ‘Hell yes,’” Vos says.
At this point, the Dead Horses are just trying to fill the space, both for themselves and for their listeners, attempting to prevent all the questions floating around from consuming us whole.
Remember the question: “Are we meant to house such suffering?”