By Barry Gilbert
I will stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table — or Steve Earle’s — and tell the world that Ha Ha Tonka is a great band. I can’t think of another band that simultaneously rocks as hard, writes as well and sings four-part harmonies as exquisitely as does this Ozarks-based quartet.
Brian Roberts, Brett Anderson, Lucas Long and Lennon Bone pulled into Clayton, Mo., last night (June 19, 2013) for their second house-concert date ever and wowed the 70 or so folks in Wood House Concerts’ kitchen/family room.
Lead-vocalist Roberts admitted it was terrifying playing within arm’s reach of an audience. Then he doubled down on the terror by devoting the first of two sets to new material: 10 songs from the band’s upcoming fourth album, Lessons, due for release on Bloodshot Records on Sept. 24. Most of the tunes had not been played previously in public, and some not since they were recorded.
But that was the second surprise. The first was the unusual move of beginning the show by playing an interview with the late children’s book author Maurice Sendak. The interview was conducted by NPR’s Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” in December 2011, less than five months before Sendak’s death at age 83. In the interview, Sendak talks about his then-just-published “Bumble-Ardy,” the story of a 9-year-old boy — well, a pig — who has never had a birthday party.
Unfortunately, halfway through the 18-minute interview, the audio became unlistenable (Roberts joked “we must have a bootleg copy”) and was cut off, with Roberts explaining that the new CD was inspired by the charm, wit and vibe of Sendak in that interview.
And, indeed, while the new songs reflect the band’s ability to tell stories that are rooted in particular places and times, they also (based on a first, live listen) appear a bit more personal and character driven — that is, the characters are dealing with personal challenges and learning Lessons.
The new songs also shine with what makes Ha Ha Tonka so good: the musicians’ keen sense of dynamics; the intuitive playing of Roberts on rhythm guitar and Brett Anderson on lead guitar and mandolin; the muscular four-part harmonies anchored by bassist Lucas Long’s bass voice; and Lennon Bone’s timekeeping on bass drum, snare, and an assortment of tambourines and shakers.
“Hangman,” the band’s signature, a capella version of the traditional folk song, kicked off the “hits we never had” segment of the show, a much-too-short sample that included “Pendergast Machine,” “1928,” “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart,” “12-Inch 3-Speed Oscillating Fan” (their tribute to Missouri band Big Smith), “Dead Man’s Hand,” “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor,” “Made Example Of,” “Lonely Fortunes” and “Usual Suspects.”
Ha Ha Tonka performs tonight (June 20, 2013) at St. Louis’ Off Broadway club, which was packed beyond capacity for its show in November. Roberts said the band will return to Off Broadway in support of Lessons on Nov. 22, the day after Thanksgiving.