Murder by Death/Ha Ha Tonka/Linfinity; May 11, 2010; High Noon Saloon
Ha Ha Tonka has been lucky enough to be a part of a number of extended tours, opening for bands bigger than them and hopefully expanding their fan base. These tours don’t always make perfect sense to a HHT fan, for example them hitting the road at the end of last year with St Louis’s Ludo who are popular with the young nerd demographic. Ludo’s young fans certainly seemed to like HHT, it was more that HHT’s fans weren’t so likely to be into Ludo. My problem with this seven week tour with Murder by Death was the same one as with their tour with Cross Canadian Ragweed, why take a band out on the road with you that is going to outplay you every night? I for one wouldn’t want to have to follow them, the songs are too smart, the harmonies too good and the energy too high. Luckily, Murder by Death seemed oblivious to these facts.
With a tour of this length, you start to make some friends and it was obvious that the three bands had enjoyed their time together, throughout the night members of other bands in addition to MBD’s wonderfully mustachioed merch guy would appear on stage. This first happened during the opening set by Brooklyn’s Linfinity as HHT’s Lennon Bone slipped behind a small second drum kit to add some extra percussion, later in their set Brett Anderson played dueling mandolins with Linfinity’s guitar player. The difficult to describe Linfinity straddled the line between drama and melodrama, their wide-eyed lead singer Dylan Von Wagner who alternated between crazed and perfectly normal guy gestured emphatically throughout the set. A good deal of their charm came from violinist Meagan Berson who had the ideal combination of skill and sass.
I’d never heard of Murder by Death before HHT headed out on the road with them, but I was in the minority tonight as the High Noon filled up with a mostly unfamiliar crowd. When they started their set I was initially intrigued by the lead singer’s smooth baritone, but it didn’t take long at all for me to get bored with their surprisingly samey sound. Even a song about Pirates didn’t entertain me. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Okkervil River’s magnetic Scott Brackett who had just joined the touring band two weeks earlier adding trumpet and accordion, I probably would have lost interest even earlier.
Of course, neither of those bands was the reason I was there. Despite the fact that Ha Ha Tonka has been playing essentially the same set for the last year (the curse of only having released two records), I always look forward to a chance to see them play and I’ve never been disappointed. So many groups these days don’t understand that there is such a thing as too much harmony, piling it on like syrup till the song is a sugary, sloppy mess. Every band member of HHT has a microphone, but in this case it’s a good thing. Even on their a capella four part harmony version of the traditional “Hangman,” for which they only use two mikes, sharing old school style, they keep the saccharine content low. I’ve probably heard them do it twenty times and I’m still impressed every time. That’s only the first of their well-chosen covers, perhaps even more inspired is Ram Jam’s “Black Betty,” on which bassist Luke Long, who’s looking more 70’s every day, shows off his skill on the Jew ’s harp. Set closer Big Smith’s happy-go-lucky “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan” has sing-a-long lyrics and a stick in your head melody. On this tour it turned into a party every night with members of both bands joining them on stage.
Luckily with the series of unfortunate events that befell them on this tour (two vans died, tour manager James Dean broke his leg), they had some nice folks to help them out. Linfinity has been loaning them their gear and adopted Lennon as a van-mate. Unfortunately this has lead to the creation of Rainbow Torso, a dance-techno project between Lennon and Bass player Grant Zubritsky, which unfortunately is every bit as terrible as it sounds. They’ve also had a tremendous boost from friends and fans who contributed money to cover the cost of their van-tastrophe. It’s no surprise to me of course, they are some of the genuinely nicest boys I’ve ever met, and ridiculously good-looking too, who wouldn’t want to help?
Ha Ha Tonka
Murder by Death