Hot Buttered Rum String Band
A Veggie Oil Trip for the Hot Buttered Rum String Band
La Honda, CA, a diminutive block of mundane shops hocking crass baubles, rests alongside Highway 84 almost exactly halfway between I-35 and the legendary coast highway 1; between the industrial city and the great whites. If you visit La Honda’s fire station, those on shift will orate about the town’s history, closing their speech with the following admission "La Honda really became more than a spot on the California map when Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters moved into the area."
An immemorial time ago, VW buses and forlorn youth tarried along the I-35, searching for the turn-off to lead them to the counter culture movement’s Valhalla. Now the 84 has become a body toning trip, endlessly dotted with bicycles and runners. "It all looks like a bunch of jackstraws," Jerry Garcia might have averred. Spend a sunny weekend driving through the redwoods and you will see grimacing faces battling tree lined hills to lose one more calorie, often stopping at the Merry Prankster Cafor a respite. A beguiling tableau, and one with enough irony to drown a large feline.
Perfect symmetry commenced my first impression of the Hot Buttered Rum String Band playing newgrass and singing about dovetail joints at the Merry Prankster Cafn La Honda. What else can you do but marvel at seeing a band, in its infancy, in an area synonymous with all things hippie? La Honda was the provenance of the scene, where blues, bluegrass and rock became a lysergically-suffused matrix, giving birth to a throng of ingots (better known as jambands). These subsequent ingots now form a thriving form of commerce, catering to waving hundred dollar bills and designer clothes clad masses. Not unlike the cafhe Hot Buttered Rum String Band was playing in.
Yes, symmetry like the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.
Even though the Hot Buttered Rum String Band’s La Honda performance would be my first, I had known several of the members earlier in their performing careers. As a high school senior I had ventured to the Anza Borrego desert, truck loaded with camping equipment and other more Hunter S. Thompson besotting fare, to see San Diego’s heralded jamband Oversoul. A band to which Zac Matthews (now mandolin) and Bryan Horne (now on an upright acoustic bass lovingly dubbed "Dark Chocolate") were members. We cordially shook hands between the acoustic first set and the electric second set, but senses were dulled and inebriation muddling.
Weeks later the San Diego Reader wrote about the performance. The critique discussed how the band had violated several BLM (Bureau of Land Management) ordinances. The San Diego Reader’s tale became even more repugnant as the article unraveled. Accusations were made about concert-goers feeding acid to deer and birds. About how the BLM had found decrepit deer, floundering through the area with "contorted eyes." Ken Kesey, he of the 1954 LSD laden Stanford psychological tests, couldn’t have dreamed up a scene with such inequities.
"Hey have you heard any of our Colorado shows yet?"
"No," I reply, my tangential reverie obviated.
"We’ll have to get you some of those shows," multi-instrumentalist (as in banjo, flute, clarinet, accordion, microwave and the kitchen sink) Erik Yates duly states.
"We have really gotten better with our playing, our knowledge of bluegrass, our jamming. Everything," guitarist Nat Keefe chimes in. "I would love people to think of the Hot Buttered Rum String Band as similar to [the Strength in Numbers supergroup release] Telluride Sessions’ but with a unique vocal voice."
I guess I had been away for some time. The La Honda show had been fairly austere, some three years ago, and they were merely a trio at the time. The most recent music I had heard was from their live album "Live at the Freight and Salvage." While the album underscored the band’s multifarious talents, exploring tonalities ranging from Dawg music to traditional bluegrass, they were merely a quartet upon its recording and were still discovering their own voice. The addition of Aaron Redner on violin has distended the band’s size to five, and has arguably changed their music even more.
"There are two conservatory musicians in the band now," Keefe opines "and I think that the addition of Aaron [Redner] has made us deeper musically in every way because of his chamber music knowledge."
As Keefe’s ruminations trail off, Yates enters the space and concludes, "And our new studio record, which will be out in November I think will show the level we are at with our live performances."
To illustrate this point, they play a recent live recording for me. Midway through a rather shocking rendition of George Michael’s "Faith,"(sandwiched between Nickel Creek’s "The Fox") words such as unruly and rambunctious began pinging off my skull. I thought I was hearing just another one-trick pony: a bluegrass equivalent of Phish. Where were the nuances the band had just mentioned? Not until they began to extemporize did the band’s valuable uniqueness surface. They sounded wholly restrained. They used dynamics, even in the undulating unsure environment of live sound, to gestate the song’s meaning. Their original "the Crest," floated into being, rather than launching headlong into its rather cocksure hook. A slowed progression on "Nellie Kane" sounded like something pulled directly from Edgar Meyer’s "Uncommon Ritual." While the astute performance of "Lochs of Dread," a composition even the String Cheese Incident can’t play adroitly, ostensibly emphasized the band’s more refined direction. Pin those improvements on the chamber music background.
I reasoned that in the live setting the band would have to forego some of these aspects to make the audience "shake their ass and the mind will follow" to paraphrase George Clinton. You can’t keep touring if you aren’t keeping the ADD youth content. So the studio setting should present a more calming venue for refining the band’s inherent fugal concepts. A situation where spilled beer and banging broken glasses were eliminated. A place where interplay could be maximized.
With me noticeably intrigued, the band plops in another CD, this time from their recent studio sessions. As I expected, the entire group sounds clear, succinct, and effulgent. They use space and pacing in a manner shockingly similar to Bela Fleck’s various bluegrass supergroups. With the four and five-part harmonies ever present on the classically styled "Evolution," I became absorbed in how utterly original the music sounded and how utterly polished the whole thing came across.
Remembering something I had read, I asked, "Didn’t you record this album in a geodesic dome, solely using solar power?"
Matthews quickly answered my inquiry, "Yes we did record at Oz Farm, but we decided to archive that recording and maybe release it later. We liked the idea philosophically and the music sounds wonderful, but we are just a better band now. We went and recorded our new album as a quintet with Dave Dennison, which worked better than just adding Aaron [Redner’s] violin into the mix of the Oz Farm recording."
Which partially explained the tone and clarity of the new studio recordings. The name Dave Dennison should be well known amongst Grateful Dead aficionados and Garcia loyalists. Dennison has been a longtime engineer for David Grisman. His hands were at the knobs and dials for the majority of the Grisman/Garcia sessions. While logistical aspects of the Sam Bush/David Grisman release Hold On, We’re Strummin’ were the work of Dennison.
"We call him our sixth member, just because he has this deep background with this type of music. He knows exactly how we want to sound and how we should sound because of his Garcia/Grisman work," Yates promulgates about Dennison’s importance, and then continues "We had him with us doing our sound at Horning’s Hideout."
Ah yes, Horning’s Hideout. The Hot Buttered Rum String Band opened with a seventy-five minute set for String Cheese Incident at Horning’s Hideout. The proverbial watershed moment, if interested parties wish to start a timeline/running history of this band. They had never played for close to 5,000 people before, much less 5,000 people with a taste in music commensurate to their sound.
"While I loved playing on the main stage, later we played for 300 people in this geodesic dome with swirling colors and a stunning light show. People were bouncing all over the place. We played from 1:00 am until 4:30 am. They cut the power, and then we played acoustic, with the geodesic dome supplying pretty good acoustics. I loved every minute we were up at that venue," reminisces Matthews.
Not to say the band hasn’t had some high impact gigs before. They have played the High Sierra Music Festival the last few years, however Horning’s Hideout represented the first time they had opened for one of their musical brethren, a band they earnestly admire.
A thought Yates explicates, "For a band as big as they are, they are remarkably humble and true to themselves, which I really respect. I think our band hopes to follow that."
In many ways the Hot Buttered Rum String Band, despite their acoustic tableau, have a bounty of commonalities with the String Cheese Incident. Beyond music, the most profound similarity is a keen perspective on various environmental and political views. The now expunged geodesic dome recording hinted at this ideological common ground. The group’s decision to release their albums independently and to create their own management team furthered the corollary. The recent purchase of the Biobus sealed it.
Prior to the conclusion of the 2003 Spring Semester, several students at Middlebury College in Vermont pooled together $1,500 to purchase an old diesel school bus for a summer trip to California. The students, wanting to explore alternative energy ideas, followed the schematics in Joshua Tickell’s alternative fuel bible "From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank" and converted the diesel engine to run solely on recycled vegetable oil. Beyond the environmental aspects of the project, the students now had an engine that they could operate for no monetary cost. Simply by stopping at various fast food restaurants along the route to California, they would find enough oil to run their bus indefinitely. Most of the restaurants were elated when the Middlebury students asked to take their oil, as the disposal of such waste materials often comes with a properly exorbitant monetary cost. Even Long John Silver promised a lifetime supply of oil for the bus.
Before embarking the Middlebury students painted the bus with a pastiche of colors and styles, and planned on elucidating their veggie oil engine to anyone who would listen.
When the students reached California, they subsequently sold the bus to the Hot Buttered Rum String Band. The Biobus story had already reached a bounty of publications, but upon selling the bus, USA Today decided to run a feature on the Middlebury students and those who purchased the bus.
The Hot Buttered Rum String Band in USA Today? Millions everywhere waking up at various hotels throughout the country would be sitting on the john reading about this band. You can’t buy better publicity, especially at the going rate of free.
"Do you have a hard copy of that article?" questions Matthews.
"No, I don’t," I respond. "But how does it feel to have this bus now?"
"Well, we have a tour bus that’s free!" Yates exclaims. "Politics are a part of this band just like anything else," Matthews continues, "and we really believe in certain ideas. When we heard about the Biobus being sold, we felt it wed our opinions, our needs, and everything else into one package. Now we aren’t going to preach about it. We aren’t going to tell people they need to do this, though we wish they would. But as we tour to other places, hopefully people will ask about it and discover a new way to run their engine which won’t be dependent on foreign oil interests."
And in this retro-bus, tour they will.
Likewise, true to the place where I first saw them, the band will perform benefit concerts for Friends of Garcia River(www.frog.org) and at various political rallies. They’ll continue to sing their track "Reckless Tex," which quotes Nostradamus and portrays President Bush as the village idiot. So what if they get booed, as they did in Colorado? They can always play "The Trial of John Walker Lindh" to assuage the crowd.
Now that deserves a guffaw.
"Quirky? Whimsical?," I muse, searching for a single word summary to reify my opinions.
Those two are close enough, I guess. In the idiosyncrasies, however, the Hot Buttered Rum String Band will unequivocally acquire a rabid fan base. You can count on it. A band like these five is sartorially made for the freethinking tribes. They belong in the pages of the UTNE Reader. And they will reach these heights while chugging across America’s heartland; the scent of veggie oil flowing from their bus’ tailpipe, the band’s crusades nailed to the dash, and chamber music exactitude heading the foray.
In this day and age where "unique" has been expunged from the modern vernacular, that will be a hell of a sight to behold.
_Christopher Orman is a penurious freelance writer currently residing in Austin, TX. He spends most of his time reading verbose Physics texts, cogitating his navel, and searching for a trashed, cheap diesel van to convert into a veggie van. _