Hot-Buttered Rum String Band, Sweetwater, Mill Valley, CA- 4/30
The Sweetwater, an unassuming Western-style saloon in the sleepy hills of Marin is not your ordinary bar. Its simple maroon awning belies the ghosts of legendary performances that haunt within its wooden rustic depths; David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Rowan, and Mike Marshall have all graced its stage, and many can claim it as their neighborhood pub. Little did they know the impact they had on the Mill Valley youth who managed to evade the long arm of the doorman.
Wednesday night I witnessed that impact these greats had firsthand while taking in the intelligent and thought-provoking bluegrass stylings of Hot-Buttered Rum Sting Band. Rolling fresh into town from a month-long tour in Colorado, the quintet was coming home and energetic about playing the stage where many in the band first witnessed magic as kids.
Hot-Buttered Rum String Band is Nat Keefe on Guitar, Bryan Horne on stand-up bass, Zac Matthews on Mandolin, Aaron Radner on Fiddle and multi-instrumentalist, Eric Yates. A younger ensemble next to many other touring bluegrass groups, what HBRSB might lack in age, they make up for in earnest, talent, and original songs.
The first song out of the gates was a bouncy up-tempo bluegrass tune, "Goin’ Up." Erik Yates on banjo handled the lead vocals. His range and strength of voice on this tune foreshadowed his performance for the night to come. Guitarist Nat Keefe took a small solo on top of the percussive plucking of Brian Horne’s 18th century bass aptly named "Dark Chocolate" and Zac Matthews on mandolin. A harmonized dip vocally for the whole group brought about the end of "Goin’ Up." As the crowd and band settled into the room they brought out "Green Drop."
Yates slipped on his accordion as Horne’s thumping led the charge in this tune that showcased the groups skill in timing with several quick tempo changes. A solo that started with a mandolin was passed around to Yate’s accordion, and finished with fiddler Aaron Radner. Glances amongst the group came often as they would bend the time on the song, slowly bringing it to a halt briefly, only to have it rubber-band back into high gear behind Horne’s queue.
Next up was "Flask Alas." A witty tune penned by Yates, the song vividly paints the plight of a crewmember aboard Captain Ahab’s destined ship in Moby Dick. It was one in a host of songs that displayed one of the group’s most promising strengths: evocative storytelling through original songwriting. Another that stood out in this respect was "River Song", a Zac Matthews melodic piece about truly tuning into the simplicities in nature and life, such as a bullfrog’s croak in the distance. Also, "String’s Breathe" fit into this category.
"String’s Breath," dedicated by Yates to his grandmother who was in the crowd, is a lilting lullaby built on its tenderness and precision harmony. A slowly swinging movement in the music framed the evocative images drawn by Yates lyrics. "Every moonshine vision, heart’s confession, is a string’s breath away from being real" lingers with a listener long after the chorus passes the singer’s lips. Bassist Bryne Horne’s confidence was evidenced in the wide smile that crept across his face as his fingers walked down the neck of his "buttery" sounding cello. He finished and enthusiastic shouts of approval came out of the crowd.
Two songs later, HBRSB played "Reckless Tex" to end the set. This last song was another original, and it stood out in a few ways. "Reckless Tex" is political satire at its most cutting, taking jabs at President Bush’s hawkish policies. Yates on banjo had a hard time keeping a straight face will singing the lyrics, "Out on the plains of Texas, a village has lost its idiot." The song placed the listener in the saddle next to a cowboy who is leading a doomed cattle drive right over the edge of a cliff into a ravine. Deep rolls of laughter came from the audience with each line.
Although this song went over well with the Marin crowd (who tend to lean just a bit to the left), HBRSB played it in Colorado, where according to Nat Keefe, it was not as big of a hit. Still, in a time when musicians are under ever increasing pressure to limit their speech on political issues, HBRSB unapologetically called it as they saw it.
This is not their only song to deal with a controversial and political topic either. Although it wasn’t played Wednesday, "The trial of John Walker Lindh" is another HBRSB song about the young American boy from Marin captured in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban last year. It highlights Walker’s absurd situation without making light of it. With some artists composing such boisterous songs as "Iraq and I roll," HBRSB’s take on current events since 9/11 doesn’t going over the top, and drives home a powerful message.
Despite tackling some serious subjects, HBRSB proved they knew how to let loose also with 5 covers in a twenty song show. Whether a penny whistle duet on Paul Simon’s "Gumboots," George Michaels "Faith" adapted as bluegrass, the bouncy reggae of Bob Marley’s "Small Axe" or the Garcia classic "Sugaree," the choice of songs to cover never grew stale. Already proving they have what it takes in the original songwriting department, HBRSB had some fun with each cover and made it their own.
The second set featured seven other original tunes, with each song spotlighting the strengths of a particular band-member. Matthews driving percussive strumming on mandolin during "Horseshoe" backed up solo’s taken by Yates on flute, Keefe on Guitar, and Radner on fiddle. Each solo was brief, but energized and precise with vocal harmonies coming often.
"Immaculate Rain" featured Nat Keefe’s clenched voice while weaving a story about a family of musicians. Yates flute solo (his fourth instrument of the evening) brought the song to a time and key change as the melody changed into a more jazzy feel. By the time Radner took the vocal reigns, the tune had an entirely new feel, but by the end they all brought it back and finished the story.
After almost two hours of fine musicianship, HBRSB brought the show to a close with the audience moving in sway to their final tunes and calling out for more. At a time when bluegrass is experiencing a resurgence on the musical landscape, HBRSB is forging its own place through original tunes, vivid story-telling, fun covers. In addition, each player is already an accomplished musician while always being careful to give back to the group, and not hog the spotlight.
Scanning the faces at the end of the night, I couldn't be sure, but I believe I saw some younger looking individuals in the audience, dancing the night away, who might have evaded the doorman's scrutiny. Who knows what impact HBRSB will have on them.