Ha Ha Tonka; July 23, 2011; Wicker Park Fest, Chicago
I saw Ha Ha Tonka a lot last year, pretty much once or twice a month for most of the year. This year I will probably end up seeing them even more than the sixteen times I logged last year, but it hasn’t been nearly as well distributed. There was the flurry of activity at the beginning of the year, SXSW, where I saw them a ridiculous six times in four days, my awesome week on the road with them out west two weeks later and then dates in Madison and Iowa City just after that. Now here it was the end of July and I hadn’t seen them in three months. I know, it doesn’t sound like a tragedy, but trust me it is.
It was a sweltering day, the early rain had burned off into oppressive heat, but I still wouldn’t have minded getting there a little earlier than I did. I wiggled my way close to the stage, only to spend half their too short forty minute set praying for the sun to drop behind the top of the stage. It was hot on stage too, but I’ve never seen them turn in a lackluster performance not matter what the circumstances. In fact, that may be exactly what I love so much about them. They always play hard, whether they are playing to six people or 6,000. Bassist Luke Long dumped half a bottle of water over his head early on, it may have cooled him off, but it made him even hotter.
Today’s set was a reverse of what I had gotten used to earlier in the year. It kicked off with debut record classics “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” and “Caney Mountain,” which usually show up as set closers, and ended with “Usual Suspects” from the new Death of Decade, their go-to set opener for the better part of a year. My absolute favorite song “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart,” a song so amazing I still get shivers every time I hear it, wasn’t part of the set, but that’s OK. I know I will hear it again sometime. Drummer Lennon Bone confessed that he had worried about that as they put together the set list, “what if Kiki’s here?” There weren’t any surprises, but that’s OK too. They won’t surprise me till they finally play “Surrounded” the unfairly forgotten gem from second songwriter Brett Anderson.
There aren’t many bands I could see play essentially the same songs and still enjoy it every single time. But I do enjoy it. It’s been worth every bus ticket, plane ticket and drive.
After the show when the merch was packed up (of course I jumped in to help) and the equipment loaded out, I was offered a pretty special opportunity. “Do you want to go see Chance in a play?” Lennon asked. I’ve met Lennon’s charming brother Chance several times, and knew he had a number of talents, but I didn’t know he was an actor. “Yes,” I replied immediately, “I really do.” We headed downtown to see The Last Act of Lilka Kaddison at the Looking Glass Theater. This was the first run of an intriguing play that had received its final rewrite the day before it opened. Chance played the lost love of the title character as a ghost and in a number of flashbacks, and he was remarkable. We found out later that David Schwimmer had been in the audience, but I was more impressed with the actor that I knew personally.
Chance Bone onstage after the show with one of his props