By Barry Gilbert
Rockers took over the stage for the third night of Twangfest 16 at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on Friday, and they were greeted by a sellout crowd, the largest in recent memory.
As the hour crept past midnight, the audience remained strong, active and loud for Ha Ha Tonka. And the Ozark band once again delivered a smashing set of music that mixes an indie rock vibe, Midwestern sincerity and Southern mysticism that no other band can match.
Ha Ha Tonka had to be on its game, because it followed co-headliner Langhorne Slim (the two acts are touring together), who brings boyish charm and energetic angst to a deepening catalog of rich music.
Opening was Kasey Anderson and the Honkies from Portland, Ore., a straight-ahead, four-man group of three-chord rockers fronted by Anderson, who connected to the crowd right away. His St. Louis references were delivered with self-aware irony: He knew he was pandering, so did the crowd, and both parties enjoyed it.
“We like your city a lot,” he said. “It’s bigger than we thought it would be.”
Anderson, abetted by the guitar work of Andrew McKeag, roared through several songs from his most recent CD, last year’s “Heart of a Dog,” including the highlight “Sirens and Thunder” featuring McKeag’s slide guitar.
An extended “Outlaw Blues” closed the set with help from Mark Spencer of Son Volt, who sat in on guitar.
Slim is touring behind his CD “The Way We Move,” which was released this week. Like his previous work, it brims with songs of love sought and lost, and the battle to stay free and vital. Onstage with his band the Law, Slim is all sweat and movement, barely stopping between songs to take a breath.
Opening with the manifesto “I Will Survive,” Slim changed the pace five songs in with the touching “Song for Sid,” a tribute to an older friend: “Where do the great ones go when they’re gone?”
Other highlights included “Colette,” “Coffee Cups,” “Be Set Free,” and the closing numbers “Past Lives” and “And If It’s True.”
St. Louis favorite Ha Ha Tonka is special. The band’s four players — Brian Roberts (vocals, guitar), Lucas Long (bass), Brett Anderson (mandolin, guitar) and Lennon Bone (drums) — all sing, and their four-part harmonies inform most of their songs. However, their usual late-set, a capella performance of the traditional “Hangman” remains a highlight, in no way diminished by repetition. On this night, it was followed by the equally dazzling “Pendergast Machine.”
With three studio albums to its credit, Ha Ha Tonka has a deepening repertoire of distinct songs to draw from, and the crowd sang along to many of them. The band opened with “St. Nick on the Fourth in a
Fervor,” “Caney Mountain” and “Westward Bound” and never looked back.
The band closed with “The Humorist” and returned for an encore of “Gusto” and the propulsive “Usual Suspects.”
A second callback featured what has become the “St. Louis encore,” a cover of Ram Jam’s 1977 hit “Black Betty.” The song actually has much older roots, dating back to 1930’s field recordings and a version by country blues pioneer Leadbelly in 1939. As such, it fits right in to Ha Ha Tonka’s Southern gothic world.