I first met Rick Wood at Twangfest in St Louis. “I hear we have something in common,” he said, shaking my hand, “I do house concerts too.” At that point I had only done a couple, and I had no idea how he knew about them. His connection to Twangfest and local radio station KDHX gave him access to bands that I could only dream about having, many who were on my wish list from the time I first had a wish list. Over the years we’ve gotten to be friends, and we each promised to make it to a show at the other’s house some day. I got to his place first, and it makes sense that it was for Ha Ha Tonka. When he asked me for their contact info he said he wanted to have them play or take them to a Cardinals game. I figured there was no way there was going to be a show because they are all huge baseball fans, lead singer Brian Roberts especially. They are originally from the Ozarks in southern Missouri and three of the four follow the red birds, but mandolin/guitar player Brett Anderson is a Kansas City Royals fan, which means he is subject to ridicule from the rest of them. To the point that their main criticism of Man of Steel, which they had seen as a band outing the day before, was that he was wearing a Royals shirt in one scene.
Wood has the luxury of a very loyal built in crowd, and most of his shows sell out whether many people have heard of the band or not. A fact I am exceedingly jealous of. So while it wouldn’t make sense for a band to play my house and then a club, bands routinely do that in St Louis. The only people who were at both Rick’s house tonight and Off Broadway the next were me, Rick and a big Tonka fan who lives in St Louis that I had told about the house concert. Tonka has a new record coming out in September and most of those songs haven’t been played for US audiences (the band had just returned from their second European tour the month before). For their first set tonight they concentrated on the songs from Lessons. I’d had a chance to listen to the record quite a bit courtesy of an advance copy, and the songs were just starting to sink in. Opening track “Dead to the World” sounds on the record like it is about to bust into an Irish jig at any moment, while live it is a straight ahead rocker. Other early stand-outs are “Pied Piper” and the title track.
The second set focused on their other three releases. From the first record it was the usual suspects, “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor,”“Caney Mountain” and the omnipresent acapella number “Hangman,” which they have never failed to play. Second release Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South has been my favorite since its release. A brilliant but moody middle child, its songs aren’t as upbeat as its predecessor or the record that followed, and the only track that has stayed in regular rotation is the unlikely “Pendergast Machine.” However for longer sets they do sometimes add the brilliant “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart” back to the set. Lead singer Brian Roberts had greeted the crowd by welcoming them to the first house concert they had played. “Can you believe he just said that?” drummer Lennon Bone whispered to me as he made his way to the stage. They had played my house in 2010, and yes it was to an underwhelming crowd, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In the second set Roberts corrected his mistake and dedicated the gorgeous “Heart” to me. Totally forgiven B.
Third release Death of a Decade has proven to be full of fan favorites and live staples. Opening track “The Usual Suspects” is an infectious, mandolin driven celebration, while Mark Twain ode “The Humorist” is a smart showcase for their amazing harmonies. In fact their harmonies are the best of their many charms; it’s the rare case of a band where every member should have a microphone. Sitting at the merch counter in the back of the room for the show I had a great view of the band and a chance to appreciate what a perfect house Wood has for doing this. I wouldn’t trade the basement for it, but it’s a great space and I’m happy I finally got a chance to visit.