I’m not a person who cares a lot about birthdays, I have enough fun year-round, I don’t need a special day to have a good time. (Staying home last year with a bottle of wine and three episodes of Supernatural was one of the best.) But if Ha Ha Tonka’s Milwaukee show falling on the anniversary of my birth helped get more people out to see them, then that was just fine with me. Of course I should have known that the group I was with would not let that the band remain oblivious to that information. Halfway through their set they called me up for a lovely version of “Happy Birthday” and a round of hugs and kisses. It was all very sweet, but I felt awkward just the same.
It also felt strange to be seeing them for the first time on a CD release tour that started back in September. I’d hoped to tag along on more dates, but with a full-time merch girl, a light guy and a sometime fifth member, there simply wasn’t room in the van. It made me miss the good ol’ days of 2010 when it was just me, the boys and tour manager James Dean. Tonka has always been moving forward though, and their new record Lessons is evidence to that. If Buckle in the Bible Belt was their explosive freshman year, then Lessons is their senior class project, in the gifted and talented class. I have a hard time saying it’s their best record yet, though it certainly is, it’s just that I remain ever faithful to Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, their darkly brilliant sophomore release. The infectious “Staring at the End of Our Lives” is the song you put on repeat while “Rewrite Our Lives” is the one that that sticks with you. The latter is a sister song to the former, while also part of the Synthetic Hearts trilogy in the record’s second half. “Lessons” album-wide theme, in addition to its repeated phrases and imagery, make it a required committed listen.
Other than the new songs, the set really hasn’t changed much. The catchy rockers from Buckle, “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” and “Caney Mountain” as well as eternal acapella “Hangman” and its follow-up “Pendergast Machine” (sadly the only song they still do from South) have been part of every set for as long as I can remember. Previous release 2011’s Death of a Decade gives us “Usual Suspects” and “Westward Bound,” though sadly my favorite song from the record “The Humorist” wasn’t in tonight’s set. Still, since it had been several months since I had seen them, it was hard to complain about anything, especially when people I didn’t know kept buying me beers. That’s one advantage of having your birthday recognized on stage.
Ha Ha Tonka