Langhorne Slim/Ha Ha Tonka; July 26, 2010; The Varsity Club, Minneapolis
I inevitably feel sorry for the bands that have to follow Ha Ha Tonka. They are such a terrific live band, and their electric energy fills the stage. Usually the band that follows them doesn’t have a chance, until now. This tour with Langhorne Slim is the best pairing yet I’ve seen for my favorite southern Missouri boys. Unlike HHT where each member commands equal attention, in Langhorne’s case he’s the center of attention.
Which is not to say his band isn’t great. I’ve never seen a faster, more frantic, banjo player in my life. I mentioned to David Moore after the show that it looked like he’d wiped some of the blood off his banjo since the last time I’d seen them. Back in January it had been a spray covering the body of the instrument, now it was just a smudgy smear under the strings. After I complimented him on his frenzied style, he told me how sometimes he has to duct tape his fingers when they turn into raw meat. While not as conspicuous, his rhythm section is also pretty great. But it’s Langhorne and his hyperactive stage presence that steal this show. He’ll sing a song from the top of the bass drum, or down on his knees, or uncomfortably bending over since he didn’t straighten the stand from the latter. His records have a powerful addictiveness that’s reflected in the live show. Every time I put one in the CD player it’s weeks before it comes out again. The newest of these, Be Set Free, may be his best. Songs like “You’re Wrong,” “Say Yes,” and the terrific “Cinderella,” with its interband call and response, all get stuck in my head for days at a time.
This was the ninth time I’d seen HHT this year and since most of them were opening sets or SXSW shortened time slots, they’ve been playing essentially the same tunes each time. In these situations the songs are all geared toward people who have never seen the band. I’ve seen their stunning a capella version of “Hangman” win over a whole room full of people, well, the ones who were listening at least. The powerfully addictive “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” from their first record Buckle in the Bible Belt remains one of their best live tunes. In fact, one of Bloodshot’s owners calls it one of the top five songs he’s released. Of course, I’d argue that “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart” tops it. Too bad the band doesn’t agree with me, when they needed room for Brett’s new song that was the one that got cut. I insisted after the show that I wasn’t going to come see them on Friday in Madison when they open for Lucero (likely another band I’ll end up feeling sorry for) unless it was back in the set. I’m pretty sure they knew I was bluffing.
I'd heard the Varsity Club was the best place to see a show in Minneapolis. Considering that the source is prone to hyperbole I wasn't sure that would be the case, but the gorgeous Varsity with its marble floors and white tablecloths was indeed an awe inspiring venue. Perhaps the only place better might be the Kitty Kat Club just around the corner where the bands and I re-adjourned for the last half of the Melismatics set. When the Posies’ Jon Auer joined them onstage the night went from memorable to legendary.
Ha Ha Tonka