Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Hot Buttered Rum/Blue Turtle Seduction :: 01.09.09 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
There's a tendency in bands to stick to what they know, stick to what they've been rewarded for, either with applause or money. Since it's their livelihood it makes oodles of sense not to rock the boat once it's cruising along, but the best bands, the ones we remember past a few songs or a few years, tend to strive towards freshness in some aspect at all times. They might not always reinvent the wheel but they slap on badass rims or figure out a cool bootlegger turn each mile they progress. It's a riskier road than simply sticking to basics but the reward for listeners (and presumably the players themselves) is an active aura of engagement. There is motion and life in risk taking, and this dynamic was deliciously present throughout the pairing of Hot Buttered Rum and opener Blue Turtle Seduction at The Fillmore.
While HBR and BTS have come up in the jam scene both transcend the genre's jamming-centric, culty tendencies by freely embracing influences far afield from the usual ground water, drawing from Africa and hip-hop, punk and hot jazz, '70s AM pop and '90s mainstream soul. Neither group fits well into sound bite descriptions except perhaps "rock & roll," in the expansive, anything goes way it was meant between 1965-1975. It's hard to imagine Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Clash, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or Electric Light Orchestra being the commercial powerhouses they were in today's market. These are just a few of the artists these two Northern California bands have evoked to my ears, and each is hitting their stride in a way that makes it easier and easier to put them in the line with such greats. Genre cracking rules breaking isn't rewarded like it used to be, so it's extra refreshing to sit through an evening with two full-blooded bands eager to throw caution to the wind.
Finding HBR's Nat Keefe and Aaron Redner busking out front, my heels lifted a few inches as I ascended the stairs into Blue Turtle's bubbling soup. I was instantaneously struck by the maturation of the cuts from 13 Floors (see review here), where the already complex flavors have intensified and grown more cohesive. That's no ding against a great record but it made me want to pass the hat to get a fund started for another studio session while irons are hot. If these guys ever snag an empathetic, inspired producer like Jon Brion, Thom Monahan or Danger Mouse they're going to make a stunning album; all they need is a lil' sonic nudge and I think a lot more ears will prick up. In the meantime, we get tight, edgy live shows like this one, where after a minute or so I closed my eyes and just simmered in the throbbing colors, listening to the mandolin's brightness mutated into a harmonious drone while the rhythm section hummed tectonically and the clear, sharp voices of electric guitar and harmonica climbed along the horizon's edge. When the group sing brought us back to earth it had the feel of a nail gun driving points home – intense, hard, effective. There's less folksy aspects to BTS all the time, and that's all for the best since a certain rusty modernity suits them. The more rough edges they leave on their sound – like this nicely jagged gig – the more I dig it.
However, they ain't bad when they shine like chrome, too. There's a disco soul that emerges from time to time in their jams, a swirling headiness that makes one want to glitter up and suck on a candy pacifier. It always arrives unexpectedly, often jumping up from a very composed bit, where the sheer incongruity makes "disco" a less dirty word. They fold in a symphonic feel akin to Queen or ELO in the tails of such jams, a bigness that makes people dance their cares away. The darkness in their music always gives way to some light (however feeble and flickering), and while I'd entered The Fillmore with a Peanuts style black cloud hanging over my dome, I was feeling warmed and rainbowed after a few minutes with BTS. The sun fully emerged during set closer "Get Down Moses," a late period Joe Strummer jewel the band has seized as their own, weaving in a Krautrock-y jam in the middle that's equal parts dub and prog, and genuinely howling on the vocals – as old Joe would surely have it. The crowd roiled and bobbed during this number, especially when the chorus reemerged after the jam, fists flying high as the heat of our bodies reflected off each other and the band bowed looking pleasantly drained.
|Blue Turtle Seduction :: 01.09|
Although long ago tagged as a "string band," Hot Buttered Rum only fits that description if one stretches past bluegrass and folk into contemporary Mali,'70s Brazil and Paris in the 1920s. HBR's strings tangle in strange ways beyond Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs (though they do trad real well, too). They make Ghana and Georgia seem much closer on the map than you might figure. In HBR, one hears Django Reinhardt sit down with Jerry Garcia, comparing licks and missing digits while these youngsters swirl their legacies like vanilla and chocolate. One of the most sincere compliments I can offer a band is, "Your music is hard to place." Given how easy it is to sketch the DNA of so much contemporary music, to guess at the dyads is fucking exciting. With the addition of drummer/musical trickster Matt Butler (Everyone Orchestra) and keyboardist Asher Fulero (Surrounded By Ninjas), it was clear out of the gate that this was to be a night of recombinant sonics, reconfiguring known ground and forging ahead into new territory.
I think down deep every band wants to write songs that lots of people all over the world want to sing. No matter how artistic or outré they fancy themselves, most, if they're being honest, want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Hot Buttered Rum has long had some of that Cat Stevens/Paul Simon mojo but tapped into a drummer with Steve Gadd's unerring swing and a keyboardist with Bill Payne's sympathetic ear it was apparent that HBR is growing some serious widespread potential. The clickishness of the jam world often bristles at the notion of mainstream success but few things would make me happier than for a band like Hot Buttered to waltz onto radio and show them what a real touring, practicing, music-loving band can do. Throughout this gig I was hit by how well their material, especially the new stuff, would slot in next to The Eagles' "Take It Easy," Dobie Gray's "Drift Away," Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" and similar airwave staples. Listening to the audience add their voices to the majority of tunes - including some well chosen covers like a Talking Heads section complete with aerobically clad dancing gals and some breathless, slicing funk attack – it wasn't hard to see why folks take this music into their lives with such enthusiasm. It's fun and uplifting, or cathartic as hell on the slow burns.
|Matt Butler - HBR :: 01.09|
You are family/ You are kin/ We respect you and we love you/ And we need a mandolin.
As they sung this line, I was taken with the cheek of how they alluded to the departure of longtime mandolin/violin player Zac Matthews at the end of last November, but also thought, at the risk of being blunt, "Nah, I don't think you do." While the band they've been certainly required mandolin, I'm not sure the band they're rapidly becoming does. The drive of Butler's percussion and dapple of Fulero's keys offered inroads into HBR that another string player simply can't. What might have been fine campfire ditties in earlier incarnations are evolving into populist sing-alongs of the first order. And the superb, Traffic-like pastoral rock exploration in the first set was wholly sparked by these new instrumental presences. I intend no disrespect to Matthews, who I personally really dug in HBR, but the air of freedom surrounding the band today is something worth noting and accentuating.
This whatever-will-be-will-be vibe permeated the second set, which opened with an exquisite double bass solo from Bryan Horne, the unsung heavy hitter in HBR, and then expanded to find Butler directing the impromptu Orchestra while BTS drummer Adam Navone ably beat the skins and Railroad Earth's Tim Carbone (an enormous gift to music in the cosmic sense) lent his violin voice to the mix. The ensuing free-for-all, stoked and strangled with acrobatic zeal by their new millennial conductor, was by turns dirty and pretty, funky and free floating. When a solo or sudden shift synced it was like lightning being called down, and the look of pleasure on everyone's face during this teetering romp was a joy, pure and simple. Even when Butler's ephemeral concoctions are a mess they still overflow with flavorful effervescence.
|Redner & Carbone - HBR :: 01.09|
The remainder of the night saw guests coming and going through country miles, highlife jump and a few stretches that'd given Chuck Berry wood. At no point was I sure what the next turn held, and I was happy for the mystery of Hot Buttered Rum - 2009 Edition. They're able to take an everyday lyric like "I'm walkin' around in old downtown/ just lookin' for something to eat," and spin a tale of universal, lackadaisical appeal, etching out music from real experiences and giving it just the right amount of poetry to make one hum. With a new studio album, helmed by Tim Bluhm (The Mother Hips), in the works and Butler looking to stick around for a spell, it's only fair warning to say this is going to be an interesting year for Hot Buttered Rum and anyone lucky enough to bend an ear their way.
Hot Buttered Rum :: 01.09.09 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
Set I: Desert Rat, Tear My Stillhouse Down, California King, Amanda Lynn, Turn the Wheel, In These Parts, Life During Wartime, Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place), Burning Down The House
Set II: bass solo, Every Stone We Lay*^#$% > jam*^#$% > Banjo Rock 'N' Roll*^, Hugs, Not Handshakes > Swing & Sway, Brokedown, Sexy Bakery Girl, Limbs Akimbo*#, I've Got A Feeling^, Summertime Gal*^
Encore: Beneath The Blossoms
Entire show played with Matt Butler on percussion and Asher Fulero on keys
* w/ Matt Eakle (David Grisman Quintet) on flute
^ w/ Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth) on fiddle
# with Perry Sayoma Quarshie on percussion
$ w/ Adam Navone (Blue Turtle Seduction) on drums
% Everyone Orchestra jam conducted by Matt Butler
Continue reading for a few more pics...
Christian Zupancic - Blue Turtle Seduction
Blue Turtle Seduction
Aaron Redner - Hot Buttered Rum
Asher Fulero & Aaron Redner - Hot Buttered Rum
Bryan Horne - Hot Buttered Rum
Nat Keefe - Hot Buttered Rum
Hot Buttered Rum & Friends
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