Hot Buttered Rum & Fat Maw Rooney, The Majestic Theater, Madison, WI – 12/4
There’s always something special about seeing live music in Madison, Wisconsin. The guitars howl with a bit more ferocity, the drums roll with a bit more of a stroll, the funk seems a bit stickier, and all the notes just seem to be cleaner, even more pure. The beautiful Majestic Theater is located on King Street, just off of Capital Square, and since it reopened its doors in September of 2007 as a music venue, it has become a popular stop off for many great bands passing through the Midwest and is a venue known for treating their artists and patrons well, providing an overall great atmosphere.
After taking a cold walk with a cup of coffee down State Street prior to the show, hitting up a couple record stores and treating myself to a hot meal from Kabul (Madison’s finest Afghani food!), I met up with some friends right down the street from the Majestic at the Great Dane Brew Pub to have a couple drinks before heading to the show. Hot Buttered Rum was playing their first gig without mando/fiddle player Zachary Matthews, and would be instead joined by Everyone Orchestra conductor Matt Butler on drums. All of us had seen HBR several times over the years, so it was no surprise that the topic of conversation was how they were going to adapt and what their new sound would be with a full kit behind the strings. Butler, having collaborated with them numerous times throughout the years via his Everyone Orchestra, would also be joining them on New Year’s Eve in Denver at the Oriental Theater. Tonight was to be the first night for HBR of a small run through the Midwest with Butler sharin’ in the groove.
Fat Maw Rooney
The Milwaukee based Midwest favorite Fat Maw Rooney opened the night and were welcomed by a great early crowd comprised of their Fat Heads, Butter Freaks, general Grass Hounds, the “on the scene” kids and those who were just trying to warm their bones with a little bit of Thursday night music and dance. Hosts and heroes of the wildly popular Fat Fest held annually in August and Jammin For Jamaica Charity Work Trip (building houses in Porus, Jamaica) in January, plus Operation Adaptation: A Festival for a Healthy Planet in April, Fat Maw Rooney is the perfect match for a band like Hot Buttered Rum as they both share in the mission of “greening the scene” and giving something back to the world community. Fat Maw Rooney is known for their spot-on four part harmonies, their dual guitar attacks, smart song-writing and their thick, rhythmic grooves.
Since their summer 2008 release of their first live album, Migration: Volume 1, it seems as though Fat Maw has become much more conscious of their live sound, taking extra time to allow jams to build and the pieces fall together, and finding themselves in a more mature and complete place than perhaps ever before the live album demonstrates this very same tightness and control and it seems as though they have a clear path to a great future.
Fat Maw started out with a nearly perfect rendition of Ralphy Stanley’s “O Death.” Sung by percussionist Ryan Necci with a voice that is as full of Soul as it is of Sorrow, it filled the room with a shiver that seemed colder than the night and echoed perfectly over the main floor and into the balcony as the accompanying harmony added the perfect amount of darkness to the fearful song.
“Tanglewood,” always a fan favorite with its maddening composition and audience participation, included a deep and thick jam that peaked out quickly before dropping down into the talented hands of bass player Kevin Rowe and drummer Kyle Keegan. Fat Maw’s rhythm section proceeded to lay down what was probably the overall best groove of the night, albeit early, starting out simple and then taking it back up to the top with Peterson and Craig Baumann (guitar) adding intricate structure before eventually taking it over again into a frenzy of dueling guitars.
“Grassroots,” which serves as something of an anthem or calling card for the band, came next and really got the crowd dancing with its tight harmonies, catchy chorus line and wicked jam. The band continued on with a great version of their “Unload My Head,” again sung by the always passionate voice of Ryan Necci, and with the classic Wisconsin-appropriate drinking songs, “Love and Whiskey” and “Bourbon Street.” All in all, Fat Maw delivered an excellent and quite diverse set of music to start the night out and prep everyone for HBR who was soon to follow.
Hot Buttered Rum with Matt Butler
Hot Buttered Rum came onto the stage soon after Fat Maw was done and dove right into the night showcasing their new (albeit temporary?) line-up by giving Butler a nice, tight drum solo which segued into “Every Stone We Lay.” After a short introduction of Butler as drummer for the night and an accompanying cheer from the crowd, HBR came back with their classic “Guns or Butter” which included a nice little improvised section in the middle that sort of set the pace of the night. Butler, a master of rhythmic intuition and improvisation, fell into the HBR groove right off the bat, laying down tight rhythms with bass player Bryan Horne and adding a bit more funk to the already funky strings of HBR.
The room had filled up nicely and the people were beginning to hop. There was noticeable confusion from some who missed the announcement over why HBR was now one string lighter and one drummer heavier, and I even heard a comment from a passerby saying “Aren’t they supposed to be a string band?” before returning to his personal rendition of the white boy boogie’ out on the dance floor. It didn’t really seem to bother him however, but understandably would throw the unknowing for a little loop.
Two covers made up the middle of the set, Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” and Bob Marley’s “Small Axe,” both classic HBR selections and both received warmly by the now rocking crowd. “Busted in Utah” came next in the set and it was here where I thought the band really started to cook. Butler had officially found the groove and it seemed as though the rest of the band was right there with him as well. The drums really filled the song in nicely and it took on a new sort of feeling than their common version of the song (with Matthews). What before was something of a standard newgrass number, and perhaps one of their more well known songs, now became a vehicle of funk as Butler and Horne fell right into each other to create a nice flowing rhythm that opened up into a rich and hearty jam. They closed the set with “Beneath the Blossoms” and headed back stage to get ready for the rest of the night.
Although I felt that the addition of Matt Butler went well for the band, it would have been interesting to see HBR with him again towards the end of the run. The sound was tight and there weren’t any major blunders or noticeable miscommunications, but one could tell that they were still feeling each other out and learning each others’ respective space. Eye-to-eye signals dominated the night, but it seemed to bring them all the more together, often bringing them to laugh openly on stage with one another, a sight which is certainly infectious for most any crowd. Overall, things were shaping up to be pretty solid with the added drums into the once strictly strings mix.
The second set started with a high-energy “Desert Rat” and proceeded into a funky take of “Up On Cripple Creek” with Horne and Butler laying a solid foundation for Nat Keefe, Erik Yates and Aaron Redner to trade solos with ease and for the audience members to shake the last remaining bits of snow from their set-break/smoke break hair and beards. “Six Weeks,” “Song In A Can” and “Summertime Gal” came next in the set, followed by the always hilarious “Metrosexual” which helped keep the night going strong and making everyone forget a little bit more about the cold night awaiting them at show’s end. The rest of the set was comprised of the nostalgic “Stories We Could Tell,” the bluegrassy “Amanda Lynn,” “Tear My Still House Down” and The Beatles’ “I’ve Got A Feelin’”. The latter of which got the crowd rocking one last time as Keefe and the whole gang laughed and smiled throughout before launching into “Banjo Rock n’ Roll” led by Yates’ fiery banjo work which capped off the night.
The encore perhaps best reflected the band’s current feelings about their new direction now that Zachary Matthews has left the band, playing both “What to Do” and “Bit By Bit.” All in all, although not a normal’ HBR show, it was still a fun, musically rich, energetic good time. No matter which way the band ends up going, after seeing their show in Madison with Matt Butler on drums and being “one string short of a banjo,” it looks as though they’re going to keep on rocking, keeping old fans happy and turning on new fans across the country. Personally, I’m looking forward to it.
Hot Buttered Rum will be mostly staying in the west coast for the coming months (with a short trip out to the east) while Fat Maw Rooney will be headed to Porus, Jamaica for two weeks come mid-January. Both groups will be headed into the studio in 2009.