Monday, June 15, 2009

Ha Ha Tonka/Treaty of Paris/The Old Stable Hands; June 15, 2009; Schubas

Few bands have charmed me as quickly and thoroughly as Ha Ha Tonka did. Initially I dismissed them as Kings of Leon wannabes with a silly name, but then I saw them play. Since that first eye-opening show last fall I have seen them a number of times and never been disappointed. This CD release show, their first sold-out show ever, was no exception.

Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South is nothing short of a revelation, a slow-builder that with repeated listens reveals itself to be much smarter and more intense than their first release. I’d been lucky enough to get the record several weeks in advance of tonight’s show and had taken the time to get to know it. While the first listen was unimpressive, by the tenth I was hooked, and the next two dozen… well, the fact that I drove back to Chicago for a second night in a row at Schubas on the tail of Twangfest says it all.

Several of the new songs had been part of their May 1 show in Madison at the Frequency, but tonight nearly the full record got the live treatment. “Pendergast Machine” turned into an impressive vocal workout with Brett singing the guitar parts, it was so different from the album version that it took me a minute to adjust, usually bands wait a little while before messing with their songs. Two of my favorite songs on South come near the end of the record, and they seem all the better for the wait. One was not part of tonight’s set. “Surrounded” is Brett’s third turn at lead vocal on the record. I usually prefer Brian’s stronger vocals but this song is so perfect for two minutes, and then it’s gone. Likely it would have gotten lost in a live set, but I’d still love to hear it.

However the record’s last song “Thoreau in the Woods” was. The whisper to a scream and back vocals make for a dramatic end of the night closer. It was only then that I realized I’d been grinning like an idiot for their entire set. It would have been hard not to when in addition to the new material they also featured their whimsical “Caney Mountain” with live accompaniment kept on beat courtesy of Lennon on headphones. Eventually they may get tired of covering Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” but I hope it isn’t for a long, long time. Which also happens to be how long I intend to keep seeing them.

Tonight’s sell-out was probably assisted quite a bit by Chicago’s Treaty of Paris. Swarms of twenty something girls crowded the front of the stage for their set, and sang along with every word. Their set had been billed as acoustic, which apparently means that lead singer Mike Chorvat strums a few songs on an acoustic guitar before putting it away for the rest of the night, relying on the two electric guitars for melody. The Old Stable Hands claimed to be “Amsterband fans from way back,” referring to Ha Ha Tonka’s even worse previous name. They also seemed pretty generic until they pulled out their spot-on cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and then I was just unnerved. I really like either of them, but basically all these bands did wrong was stand between me and the band I came to see.

The Old Stablehands

Treaty of Paris

Ha Ha Tonka

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