Hot Buttered Rum String Band :: 02.05 :: Great American Music Hall :: San Francisco, CA

Mandolinist Zac Matthews shines a toothy grin and says, "If there's anything better than two mandolins, it's three mandolins. And if there's anything better than three mandolins, it's three fiddles." Coming out of a different mouth these words might be pure Hee-Haw shtick, but there's an overriding genuineness and pervasive sweetness from the entire Hot Buttered Rum gang that's disarming. The rush to cynicism is strong in these dark days. Being in their presence bypasses the easy negativity polluting our collective unconscious, their tales of butterless men, girls named Virginia, and black cowboy coffee taking us out into the open air, away from the press and push of our smog choked city lives. At least that's the effect they had on a gaggle of San Francisco bluegrass junkies anxious to put a lil' get-a-long in their giddy-up.

Bryan Horne & Erik Yates
When I first enter the Great American, opener Poor Man's Whiskey is working a groove in the floorboards with a boot stompin' energy that crackles to the back of the house. I curse the traffic and timeclocks that kept me from arriving sooner - at least I'm not among the downfallen faces and raised miracle-seeking index fingers outside of this sold out show. It is the first time HBRSB has headlined here, and they've filled it to capacity on a Saturday night. By the last notes, many of us leave knowing this won't be the last time they do.

Poor Man's Whiskey play Californicana, "a blend of acoustic music shaken with rock-n-roll attitude." With harmonica, dobro, and badass fiddle this is quality acoustic twang. They closed with their signature number "Whiskey Creek" which has Celtic roots showing beneath the Cali dye job. Like the headliner, they remind us that bluegrass is never snooty. It's music for folks with dirt under their fingernails and backs that ache from honest labor. That it can be played anywhere from a living room to a bus stop to a stage and still feel the same is part of its power. With skill and heart, music is waiting to happen wherever strings and high, reedy voices soar. The trick with bluegrass, and HBRSB already have it and Poor Man's are on the way to it, is to make it look easy. All the practice, the care in arrangements, and the endless picking become invisible and the songs breath, alive with fiery breath, as Bob Dylan might say.

There's a lot to like about Hot Buttered Rum and not much to dislike. They always seem to be yearning to be a bit better than the last time you heard them, stretching beyond their comfort zones in an exciting way. They are attractively scruffy, an appeal they share with current scene movers the Benevento/Russo Duo. Anyone who thinks that affability and charm are minor advantages hasn't been paying attention to the course of popular music in the past century. Their good looks and easy manner instantly put audiences at ease, and though I'd never seen them play a room as big as this before, they handled it like they were born to play to packed houses. Again, like the high level of musicianship, this probably didn't come naturally at first, but they make it seem that way now.

Bryan Horne & Erik Yates
What tugs my ear with HBRSB is their blend of instruments, textures, and tempos, often within a single piece. Aaron Redner's fiddle saws slow but Zachary Matthews' mandolin is a squirrel jumping branch to branch, while underneath them Bryan Horne's double bass slaps like a lazy morning wave. Multi-instrumentalist Erik Yates dots the whole affair with accordion, penny whistle, and flute, and in the eye of their storm lies the beautifully picked acoustic guitar of Nat Keefe. This show, more so than earlier listenings, brought to mind the groundbreaking newness that David Grisman brought to bluegrass in the '70s.

The question of whether or not this is even bluegrass comes up three times during the night. The answer is an unwavering yes IF one understands that bluegrass music isn't a static thing. These young players are part of the next evolutionary phase for the genre, the generation that grew up in the shadow of Hot Rize, Leftover Salmon, and String Cheese Incident. This is bluegrass growing lungs so it can move onto land from the waters that spawned it. There's still plenty of straw between their teeth, but they also show signs they've experimented with homegrown hay when they take the whole acoustic starship out into the reaches, as on the title track from their last album, In These Parts, which got a good kicking around at the Great American. It's a tough dance, moving in and out of tradition, finding the corridors others haven't explored yet, and then bravely stepping into those shadows. For the most part, they pull it off. That they try new things is rewarding in any case.

Bryan Horne & Erik Yates
For a band that started on a backpacking trip in the Sierras, they've come a long way. They're building a community that reminds one of the early days of the Cheese, where shows are both musical events and gatherings for likeminded folks. It's only minutes into their first set before the bubbles begin to drift down from the balcony, and the smiling Carole King look-alikes and stoned mountain men are capering and swaying like tall grass in warm wind. There's genuine kinship emerging here. Jerry Garcia often likened the Grateful Dead to a circus people could run away to for a night. I think he would like this band's carnival and their budding following (as well as their stunning cover of "Sugaree" that lit up the hall, easily the best new arrangement these ears have heard of this oft-played tune in years).

The company they're keeping doesn't hurt either. They brought out master mandolinist Mike Marshall during both sets. Marshall introduced a whole lot of us to the joys of unplugged exploration with his work on the pioneering Windham Hill label in the '80s, and now he's producing Hot Buttered's next studio release. They seemed more than happy to put their taskmaster to work. Nickel Creek's Chris Thile also joined them. Thile is simply one of the most hot shit instrumentalists I've ever encountered. Mandolin in hand, he resonates the same grand feeling that greats like Charles Mingus or Tim O'Brien exude - men who were born to do just what they are doing, an inspired facility for music that feels as natural as walking or breathing does to the rest of us. Throughout both sets, Marshall and Thile elevated what was already a pretty swell shindig to one of those nights one tells others about for weeks afterwards.

Without overstating things, their performance, part of the San Francisco Bluegrass Festival, was one of the best bluegrass displays of my life. The murmurs of those around me when the lights came up told me I wasn't alone in feeling this way. And keep in mind this praise comes from a veteran of New Grass Revival, Del McCoury Band, Hot Rize, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band shows too numerous to recount. Hot Buttered Rum String Band shows the foundation that builds the kind of reputation, the kind of fan love, that these groups have engendered. They may have a few thousand more miles to traverse in their vegetable oil fueled tour bus before all this potential is fully realized, but they don't seem to mind a day of it and that may be the very key to their success - finding joy in the journey itself.

Words by: Dennis Cook
Images by: Toby Voggesser
JamBase | San Francisco
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[Published on: 3/4/05]

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