As I scrambled backstage to locate a set list, I was greeted politely by Sarah Vos, the frontwoman and head songwriter for Dead Horses. Explaining I was "new" to the band and having a set list would really be a big help to write a proper review, Sarah handed me her own handwritten copy and responded, "Well, I really hope you like the show."
The genuine feeling I gleaned off that brief interaction validated the Dead Horses’ persona: They write about things that matter and do it in a very personal way.
The Milwaukee band has released three full albums starting with 2014's acclaimed "Space and Time." This was followed by 2016's "Cartoon Moon" and 2018's "My Mother the Moon," which was recorded in Nashville by Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo) and clearly incorporated a thicker twang than its previous effort.
Dead Horses took the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage and treated the large crowd to "Turntable," the lead cut from the group's latest release. It was clear they gelled nicely as a touring band, playing all but one cut from the 2018 effort. Songs "On and On" and "American Poor" worked well live, as well.
Performing as a quartet with Vos on vocals and guitar, Tim McIlree on mandolin, Daniel Wolff on double bass and Jamie Gallagher on drums, the band was playing loose but sounding tight.
Wolff’s walking bass often sparked a jazz vibe that was unique and somehow slid into the folk feel seamlessly. McIlree’s finer picking on "All I Really Need to Know" was notable; his presence was felt but it didn’t overpower. Vos’ vocals proved you don’t have to yell to get your point across even in today’s world. It was one of the few Summerfest shows that didn’t require earplugs standing next to the stage.
Billed as "opening" for Trampled by Turtles, a common tour mate, these two are often a package – and it's clear why. They share the same management and similar fan base, which was attentive and appreciative.
The barefooted Vos didn’t need to strut or prance around for the message to resonate. I laughed a little to see "Modern Man" slapped with the explicit label on Spotify. Heard live, the one swear word that earns the label almost seems innocent and fitting.
Dead Horses ended its hour-long set with a hearty version of the title track from "My Mother The Moon." In the end, it was a pleasant second time around the Summerfest stage that left everyone satisfied.