Ha Ha Tonka @ Drake Underground

. : : October 18th, 2010 : : .

I walked into the Drake Hotel characteristically early.

I don’t like missing any songs in a set, even an opening act. So if doors are set for 8pm, you can expect me to be in line somewhere between 7:45 and 8:15. As I’ve re-discovered this year, time and time again, you never know when you’re going to fall in love with the opening bands. I try and make it a habit to avoid checking out the openers before going to the venue, so I arrive relatively carte blanche. I don’t want my experience tainted by shitty-sounding streaming MP3’s or poorly recorded versions of songs in a cheap studio or friend’s basement, and then decide that maybe, just this once, I can skip THIS opening act, and come to regret it later.

Sometimes I’m let down by the opening band, but more often than not, I enjoy their performances (to varying degrees, of course). Sometimes I even leave the show as a bigger fan of the newly discovered band than the one that encouraged my attendance. Seeing Ha Ha Tonka open for Rocky Votolato was not one of those times, but only barely.

The evening started when, upon entering the Drake, I found myself in a mostly empty room. That is, except for the men lingering around the merchandise table. Clearly Ha Ha Tonka, I thought to myself. Maybe I should go over and say hi, or wish them good luck with their set? But engaging in a conversation with a band you’ve never heard of can be an awkward affair. What if, happy to talk to anyone other than they people they just spent twelve hours in a cramped band with, they engage in a conversation? It would be rude to outright say, “I have no idea who you guys are, sorry.” But it’s easy to get stuck in a lie with a “I think I heard a couple of songs of yours a while ago. You know, the one that goes do-do-do-do-dodo-do? Not bad.” Not knowing what exactly their sound is, it’s not safe to discuss any possible influences. Asking them what their thoughts are on Elvis Presley‘s underrated later works might not go over well if they’re a screamo band who listens to Slipknot cds on repeat all day. It’s a fine line to tow, and best just to avoid it. Although it’s really awkward to be in a room so small, so devoid of people, that you don’t engage with the people you came to see — and they know they came to see you.

Knowing I was likely to be early, I came somewhat prepared to stave off such awkwardness (actually, specifically for the boredom of waiting for the show to start, but yay for multipurposeness!), and broke out a little Acer netbook I picked up in the spring and started to scribe my introduction to the Rocky Votolato blog post. Often, I write the first drafts of opening paragraphs featuring background stories, or details of events leading up to the concert before the performance actually happens. I’ve found that starting these introductions, either on my Blackberry or netbook, helps increase my overall turnaround time in getting my recordings online and available to download. After a few minutes of me clicking away on the tiny little keyboard, I felt a bit like a tool who couldn’t even break away from his computer long enough to go to a concert. Also, I didn’t want my battery to die before the subway ride home (a prime time to start the meat of the blog post — the show itself), so I put it away and nestled into my usual recording position.

A gaggle of girls and a couple of their boyfriends had since entered the room and sat themselves down right in front of the stage in a circle. Interestingly, and a bit surprisingly, they didn’t get up during Ha Ha Tonka’s set at all, even though to their immediate left, another group of girls were dancing wildly and fancy-free. I would have been worried that I might get my fingers stepped on, or kicked in the face, but nope — there they sat and remained, even after Ha Ha Tonka took the stage and immediately made fun of them for “having a picnic” in a concert venue. More on them later.

Ha Ha Tonka opened up the set with Made Example Of from their forth-coming album, which proved to be a picture-perfect introduction. The energetic song had an infectious melody, and a soaring chorus that stuck with me throughout the evening. But Ha Ha Tonka quickly proved to be much more than an admittedly wonderful one-trick pony. Just as quickly as they exploded with electric-paced indie pop, the band switched gears to southern-influenced country/rock, and perhaps most impressively, songs featuring four-part harmonies that harken back to the days of barbershop quartets. The band had exceptional stage presence, winning over the stragglers at the back until a respectable crowd had gathered up front, and interactivity. The bassist even stepped off stage and plopped down in a seated, cross-legged position on the floor with the picnic-ers DURING a song, and continued without missing a beat. I kept waiting for them to get the hint he was obviously sending them, but they didn’t catch on. Oh well. He decided to try and bring them back into the set by borrowing on of their scarves, wrapping it around his neck, and then returning to stage to finish out the song. They giggled and gossiped, but nope…still sat there. Awkward.

Luckily, the remainder of the venue’s attendees gave the band the warm welcome they deserved, and the band continued to play their hearts out in return. It was a great set that definitely caught my ear, but before I could get back to the merch table and have that conversation I put off earlier in the night, the band was swarmed with new fans. Good for them. I hope they make the trip back soon — perhaps in warmer weather, so the picnic-ers will be regulated to city parks and backyards.

01. [introduction]
02. Made Example Of
03. Carney Mountain
04. Thoreau In The Woods
05. World Climbing
06. St. Nick on the Fourth In A Fervor
07. Hangman
08. Pendergast Machine
09. All The Usual Suspects
10. The Outpouring
11. 12-Inch 3-Speed Oscillating Fan*
* w/ Rocky Votolato on backing vocals and harmonica

[info.txt // flac fingerprint ]

Made Example Of (Live In Toronto) [MP3 sample]

Thanks to Ha Ha Tonka, Rocky Votolato, Barsuk Records, and the exemplary Drake Underground.

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