Rocky Votolato/Ha Ha Tonka; October 14, 2010; The Triple Rock, Minneapolis
I find it funny how when Ha Ha Tonka is opening for a band I’m not a fan of, for instance Lucero or Murder By Death, they play Madison, but when they are opening for someone I really want to see, like Langhorne Slim and now Rocky Votolato, they skip right over my hometown, forcing me to travel. And honestly, I don’t mind at all. It’s no secret that I love those boys. Tonight’s journey started in front of Memorial Union at 4 PM where I boarded the Megabus on a $3 ticket. Yep, really. Well, actually $3.50 including the service charge. I’d heard about these ridiculous deals, but this was the first time I’d actually gotten one. My other trips were merely a good deal. What made it even better was that the band was heading to Chicago the next day and could drop me in Madison on the way back.
The bus ride went smoothly and I arrived at the venue at 9 PM, start time, only to find the Ludo show had just ended and doors for the next show were to be 10 PM. Looks like a late night, at least I had the next day off. I returned at 10:30 after two tasty beverages down the street at the Nomad, to find Ha Ha Tonka already on stage. Luckily, it was only the first song, but it was one of their new ones “Made Example Of,” and I was bummed to have missed even part of the show. I was even more bummed when they played my absolute favorite song “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart” next as I was waiting at the bar for a beer. They hadn’t played a show since Iowa City nearly a month earlier, and this was the first time I had seen them a little off their game. The rust showed during one of Brett Anderson’s songs, “We sort of lost our way in the middle of that one,” lead singer Brian Roberts laughingly apologized at the end. Still there was no shortage of the energy that makes HHT one of my favorite live bands.
Even after having seen them an admittedly ridiculous 15 times already this year, they can still surprise me (which is why I keep going to the shows). Tonight it was during “Hangman,” the old traditional that they do a stunning a canella version of. I’ve heard them do it probably two dozen times, but tonight bassist Luke Long sprinted off stage during the opening verse, returning with a fresh beer which he popped in perfect time during a moment of pin drop silence. The audience and the rest of the band cracked up, but they were soon able to finish the song. The other surprise was the gorgeously meditative “Thoreau in the Woods,” one of the final tracks on their terrific 2009 release Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. Seldom played live, someone had requested it tonight and got their wish. It made me happy too.
When HHT’s booking agent first told me that he had been contacted by Rocky Votolato about the band opening the tour I was surprised. I have Votolato’s last three records, and would never have paired the quiet, contemplative singer-songwriter with a high-energy rock band. It worked better than I would have imagined. Votolato played several songs by himself before inviting drummer Lennon Bone out to join him. Despite the fact that they had only met that day, those songs went very well, and they were already planning to practice more together the next day. Votolato’s fans are obviously very devoted and there was no shortage of requests shouted between every song. Much of the set came from his new True Devotion, a CD which didn’t make much of an impression on my initial listens, but had grown on me in recent weeks as I crammed in preparation for this show. My favorite of his is still Makers, which probably not coincidentally was the first one I’d heard. The title refers to Makers Mark, and the titular track reflects longingly on “filling and refilling the glass with Makers.” I was delighted when he introduced the record’s most light-hearted number “Aliens,” which recalls Joaquin Phoenix’s memorable scene in the movie Signs, “He reminded me that the only way to keep aliens from reading your mind is to wear a tinfoil hat and wear it all the time.”
The only disappointment with his entertaining set was that I didn’t get to hear my favorite song from that record, the arch and aching “She Was Only in It for the Rain,” despite making my request both to Lennon and in response to a Votolato Twitter post. Oh well, I guess he just doesn’t like that song. Despite the frustrations of the night, it was still worth the effort and the $3.50 bus ticket to see the opening night of the tour. Now I only wish I could see a show further along the tour, when they’ve gotten more comfortable as tour mates.
Ha Ha Tonka