. : : October 2nd, 2011 : : .
My first exposure to Ha Ha Tonka was as a support act for HaterHigh favourite, Rocky Votolato about a year ago. It was great to finally see them return to the Drake Underground, where the band would now be headlining the evening on the strength of their latest LP, Death of a Decade.
I was originally struck by their juxtaposition of old and new into something that’s unquestioningly uniquely their own. Although at the heart of the band they are the southern rock group Kid Rock wishes he could be, they also bring in various other influences, including (most impressively) the old barbershop quartet style of vocal harmonies.
I was interested to see how the successful opening band would translate to headliner, especially considering the length of time that had past since they were last were, winning over Votolato’s fans. The turn out wasn’t quite a sell-out, but definitely more than respectable — especially for a Sunday evening.
The band opened with an older track, St. Nick on the Fourth With A Fervor, from their Buckle In The Bible Belt LP. Starting off with a thumping bass drum and the aforementioned four-part harmonies, it really is the perfect introduction to the band for new listeners. The song builds into a roaring fury before quickly extinguishing as quickly as it engulfed. The band leapt quickly and effortlessly into another track from the same album, Caney Mountain.
It was clear statement: although touring in support of the new album, the band wouldn’t forsake the old favourites. Those who might still be unfamiliar with the newer tracks in the audience, myself included, couldn’t possibly have had even the briefest moments of waning attention when the set list did eventually turn its attention to the Death of a Decade songs. It’s one of my big taping commandments: thou shalt stay as still as possible whilst thou recordest that band over yonder, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself unconsciously stomping my feet several times throughout the night.
Another surprise highlight of the night was when guitarist Brett Anderson took over lead vocal duties from the band’s regular front man, Brian Roberts, and nailed Dead Man’s Hand. The great performance was as poignant a reminder as any that any one band member could just as easily be fronting the band as any, but Brian’s throaty growls during Westward Bound showcased just why the oh-so-talented band members are willing to play second fiddle, vocally.
But it’s a damn close second fiddle — the group-performed a capella standard, Hangman, is always an absolutely flooring example of what’s so special about this little band from the Ozarks. And at this point, the set was only little more than halfway through.
By the time the band was called out for an encore, a particularly vocal audience member called out for 12-Inch Three-Speed Oscillating Fan — but that was already a foregone conclusion. The frantic, bluegrass ode to a familiar wind-maker shouldn’t be as fun as it is, but damned if the crowd wasn’t shimmying and dosa-doing one the dance floor, and it’s crystal clear just why it’s the bands go-to encore number.
No sooner did the last note ring out than I rushed off to catch the Rebekah Higgs concert happening upstairs at the Drake Lounge, but Ha Ha Tonka’s performance stayed with me much longer. I’m excited for them to return again soon, and if you’re itching for a foot-stomping, hand-clapping good time, made sure you take the opportunity to check the band out when they next make it to your town. It’s an itch Ha Ha Tonka is sure to scratch.
01. St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor
02. Caney Mountain
03. Problem Solver
05. Dead Man’s Hand
07. Westward Bound
08. Death of a Decade
10. Hangman [traditional]
11. Pendergast Machine
12. Lonely Fortunes
13. Close Every Valve To your Bleeding Heart
14. The Humorist
15. Made Example Of
17. Usual Suspects
19. 12-Inch Three-Speed Oscillating Fan
Big thank you to Ha Ha Tonka, Collective Concerts, and the Drake Underground for a great show.