Ha Ha Tonka at the SoCo Music Experience; September 6, 2008; Willow Island
It may not have been the best spot in the line-up, but Ha Ha Tonka’s opening set on Willow Island did position them on a bill with some really big names, including WuTang’s GZA, the Black Keys and the Roots. The vast, grassy outdoor area at the Alliant Energy Center was set-up like a miniature Lollapalooza with two temporary stages, several bars (which served only Southern Comfort drinks and beer), and an interactive tent where attendees of the free fest could try their skill at Rock Band and computer games, plus a few special touches. One of those was several sets of Baggo boards. The well-liked backyard beanbag game proved to be equally popular with this crowd, and all five games were full most of the day. The other was a sod carpeted lounge area with SoCo umbrellas, inflatable couches, and gigantic foam-filled bean bag chairs you could lose yourself in. If I had one of those in my house I would never sleep in my bed again.
Unfortunately, despite all the big names on the bill, the only band I was even the least bit interested in was Ha Ha Tonka. This was at least their third trip to Madison in the last year, and they will be back this Friday for a show at the Annex with Backyard Tire Fire, yet this was the first time I had seen them. One of Bloodshot Records’ recent signees, I had initially dismissed them as Kings of Leon wannabes. There’s still some merit to that comparison, they do like to rock and they do love their harmonies, but ultimately their set was far more affecting than the Leon boys had been either time I’ve seen them. To be far to those more hirsute rockers, those times were an early afternoon set at the ACL festival and opening for Bob Dylan in the vast Sears Centre. Neither of which is the ideal place to win over listeners.
With the field in front of the stage basically to ourselves and two dozen others, we had the chance to get closer to the band than we would at any point later in the day. The thing about the Ha Ha Tonka boys is how genuinely likeable they are. Lead singer Brian has a boy-next-door charm about him that was only magnified by his plain white T-shirt, aw shucks grin, and strawberry blond hair. Lead guitarist Brett is the darkly handsome type, quiet but expressive. Bassist Luke is, well, a bass player. I could tell he was nothing but trouble from a mile away. He was also the comic relief, making comments that had to occasionally make the band wish they hadn’t given him a microphone. “Two more songs and I’m dropping my pants,” he claimed. When Brian noted that they actually had three more songs left, he amended the statement, “Four more songs and the pants are coming off.” Drummer Lennon was the sweet-faced guy behind the kit smiling contentedly throughout the set, maybe to disguise the hangover remnants from a birthday celebration the night before.
Most importantly, they all can sing, and I mean really sing. There were hints of it early in the set; Brett’s backing vocals that perfectly harmonized with Brian’s lead for example. But it wasn’t till they went acapella for the old traditional “Hangman” that it became clear how damn good they sound together. Unlike the Fleet Foxes they realize that there is such a thing as too much harmony. Equally inspired was their somewhat surprising cover of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty,” which Brian introduced as “seeming appropriate” for the SoCo Fest. I didn’t see that one coming, and I certainly didn’t anticipate liking them as much as I did. I wish their next trip to town didn’t have to be the same night as my next house concert. Hopefully I can get them to play the basement sometime soon.