The Hackensaw Boys, House of Blues Back Porch Stage, Chicago, IL- 1/19
The Hackensaw Boys are one of those bands that remain comfortably on the fringe of Jamgrass scene. Similar to their record label mates, the Old Crow Medicine Show, the Hackensaw Boys are more rustic than Yonder Mountain String Band and Railroad Earth, yet more refined than the Schwillbillies or Split Lip Rayfield. On a message board posting, prior to Bonnaroo 2003, I was told to be on the lookout for this band and when they were one of the few playing that Thursday night (don’t skip on the Thursday night Bonnaroo shows, people!) I was hooked. And I was not the only one as they captivated everyone fortunate enough to stumble into that tent on that evening. Harmony, speed, and passion, the Jamgrass trident, the Hackensaw Boys displayed it all.
The next 18 months saw the band generate considerable momentum culminating in an opening spot for Del McCoury at the Ryman on 12/31/2004. After this show, the pendulum began to swing back as 2005 saw its vocalist and utility player Pee Paw depart for Modest Mouse. This would be the most noticeable departure but not the sole one as the band bid adieu in 2006 to its primary vocalist and guitar player Shiner as he pursued a solo career and its mandolin player Mahlon took a hiatus to begin his family.
A late 2006 summer show at Chicago’s Abbey Pub found the band decidedly different. And I didn’t like it. My girlfriend liked it less, wanting to know where all her favorite Hackensaws were, and as such, we departed before the show ended. Alas, when their 12/31/2006 show popped up on bt.etree it was with some trepidation that I downloaded it. To my surprise, Mahlon was back in the fold and to my utter pleasure there were a host of new songs introduced. And these weren’t just new songs; they were new songs that sounded great. So it was with guarded optimism that I entered their recent Chicago show at the smaller Back Porch Stage at the House of Blues.
Their current line-up: Mahlon (mandolin), Four (fiddle), Baby J (bass/harmonica), Salvage (charismo a percussion instruments of sorts ), Spits (guitar), and the Cooky-Eyed Fox (banjo) aggressively took the stage, perhaps with a chip on their shoulder, as they were playing second fiddle (pun intended) to a Neil Diamond tribute band that was commanding the main stage. They announced to the -filled crowd that there was room to dance; which was wasted breath, as midway through their first song everyone was stomping their feet and crowding towards the front.
A couple of songs into the set, they announced they’d be playing some songs from their new album that is set to be released this March. The new songs, primarily sung by either Four or Baby J continue in the grand Hackensaw tradition. Uptempo, boot-stomping songs played at the perfect Jamgrass balance between precision and fervor, after all a violin plays the song perfectly, a fiddle does not. While most concert-goers most look forward to “the hits,” the audience basked in the Hackensaw Boys new material, including the well-received “Just One Chance”, “Look Out Dog (Slow Down Train)”, “Too Much Time”, and “Put The Bottle Down”.
New music aside, the Hackensaw Boys played a plate-full of their hits to the displeasure of the dance floor which saw its hardwood tested often. The high-points of the set were the Mahlon-led songs, which transported the audience to a place in time (“Miner”), a place in Mahlon’s past (“The Parking Lot Song”), or a place in Mahlon’s heart (“Baltimore”). While the Hackensaw Boys have some other songs that feature more audience participation, these three songs served the set well as emotional centerpieces.
Audience participation has always been a trademark of the Hackensaw Boys, and with “Cannonball Breakdown” (another Mahlon gem) and “Ruby Pearl” (now sung by the Cooky-Eyed Fox) all us “northerners” got to hoot and howl and act like the crazy country fools we all are at heart. Other Hackensaw Boys favorites, including “Keep It Simple”, “Gospel Plow”, “Get Some”, and “Jonah” helped round out the set.
It is now quite evident that even with the departure of two of their founding fathers, the Hackensaw Boys are in no danger of becoming extinct, or worse, irrelevant. Spits is slowly rounding into Hackensaw shape, as the delicate and soulful voice of Shiner is not easily replaced. One could also argue that the band’s signature member was Pee Paw was irreplaceable, but with Four Hackensaw, they have a legitimate replacement.
Taking ample time to thank the crowd and introduce the songs, this was a band that knows that its fiscal future isn’t hedged on record sales but lays in the hands of its concert attendees. Well into the a.m., the Hackensaw Boys took their humble bows, seemingly already anxious to return to Chicago. We are anxious to have them back.