Words & Images by: Adam Gromfin
Hot Buttered Rum - Urban Meltdown
11.17 & 11.18 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
It was just a note, yes, but that first slide down the bass' fingerboard spoke volumes. As Hot Buttered Rum started its Urban Meltdown in San Francisco with "Sweet Honey Fountain" — a favorite from their high-altitude collection — band and fans alike found themselves in familiar musical territory. This was, after all, the same song that opened last winter's festival, but one component was missing — the altitude. After a series of visionary festivals (or "Meltdowns") hosted in the shadows of Half Dome and El Capitan, Butter traded their semi-annual Yosemite weekend for a two-night Urban Meltdown in more accessible San Francisco. The decision surprised some, delighted others (particularly the throngs of fans who flew from far and wide), and left all asking whether Butter's aptitude for progressive high-altitude festivals could map onto an urban landscape. The optimists cheered, the naysayers nay-said, and the band (with vibrant community in tow) proved that an Urban Meltdown was still a Meltdown indeed.
Hot Buttered Rum :: Urban Meltdown :: The Independent
In many ways, the two-night sellout at San Francisco's Independent speaks for itself, with the craigslist ticket grovels and finger-in-air pacers further proof of the band's popularity and the weekend's success. And for many bands, two hugely successful shows would be the end of the story. For HBR, however, it was but the tip of the iceberg. True to form, the band came down from the mountains to create in the center of their hometown a festival atmosphere that bridged the two concerts with a weekend-long celebration of the thriving Hot Buttered Rum community.
Bringing the Festival to the City
A beautiful morning welcomed the band and fans (with coolers full of potluck goodies) to Saturday's HBR Community Picnic in Golden Gate Park. As the grills warmed, Lodi's burgeoning Overall Experience made their anticipated appearance at the kids' set that has become a staple of Butter Meltdowns. Short on talent, but long on heart, OE's instantly familiar old-timey sound proved the perfect soundtrack to the day's festivities. This particular kids' set — the first played by a guest band — gave the Butter Boys their first chance to watch from alongside their fans the next generation of Butter faithful dancing to good tunes. OE's gritty cover of Butter's "Well-Oiled Machine" — the title track of Butter's latest album — provided a natural segue into the sustainable-fuel vehicle show that displayed several green machines. Onlookers admired Butter's veggie-powered tour bus, Seana (bearing her "WEL OILD" vanity plate), and the fuel system that allows the band to travel the country on used vegetable oil and biodiesel. Clif Bar, the Berkeley-based energy bar company committed to ending global warming, supported the event by planting trees and investing in wind farms to offset the environmental footprint left by fan and band travel to both shows, rendering the Urban Meltdown an entirely carbon-neutral event.
Overall Experience (Hot Buttered Rum)
Urban Meltdown :: Golden Gate Park
The picnic concluded with a spirited and downright hilarious kickball tournament. All involved got into the groove, with a fan playing ref (in obligatory stripes and short shorts), others sporting homemade jerseys, and everyone else cheering along. Such family-friendly events have become, in many respects, the symbol of a band that prides itself as much on its community as it does on its music. These events easily break down the all-too-familiar fan-band divide, rendering all as co-equals in a shared community that doesn't bat an eye at the term "family." Not just a hokey term, that family is the sin qua non of the intense circular energy that has become the hallmark of Hot Buttered Rum shows.
Bringing the Sound to the City
As memorable as the family vibe of this transmuted mountain festival was, was the weekend's two sold-out nights of music that will burn brightest in the memories of those who got a ticket. A study in contrast, each of the two shows revealed a different side of Hot Buttered Rum, only further stoking the oft-debated question of whether Butter is a bluegrass band with rock influences or a rock band with bluegrass influences (and instruments).
Frankie Nagle - Lost Coast
Urban Meltdown :: The Independent
Friday night presented plenty of evidence that HBR is a bluegrass band, after all. Perhaps struck by the rather impressive opening set by the straight-ahead pickers in Lost Coast, Butter kept the grassy vibe going all night long. After stomping through a couple of fan-favorites, Butter invited most of Lost Coast and bluegrass phenom Mike Marshall (producer of Well-Oiled Machine) to sit-in for a rollicking medley of fiddle tunes. Like their jazz counterparts, bluegrass musicians never cease to amaze with their ability to tear through familiar tunes with unfamiliar folks, making it look easy, fluid, and natural all the while. The ten artists on Friday's stage were no exception, with fiddler Annie Staninec of Lost Coast hanging confidently alongside Marshall and Butter fiddler Aaron Redner. As the stage cleared of soon-to-be-returning guests, Butter jumped into its "Barnyard Suite" ("Fox" > "Cluck Old Hen" > "Spider" > "Fox"), showing off the sheer intensity and virtuosity of their three, four, and five-part vocal harmonies. The bluegrass show continued with a first-time-played "Orange Blossom Special" — an older tune popularized by fiddle maestro Vassar Clements, to whom Aaron is often (quite appropriately) compared. Lost Coast's Frankie Nagle (yes, she's really only 14!) returned to the stage with impressive vocal and banjo work on Bill Monroe's "Blue Night."
Butter honored their community at the start of the second set with "Community Billboard," sending shout-outs to the team of Butter Spreaders (street teamers) who helped promote the weekend, recognizing birthday and anniversaries in the Butter family, and promoting the very mountain-less next Meltdowns that took place on the shores of Oahu. After their always-impressive interpretation of the Dead's "Cumberland Blues," the boys took one of only a couple brief interludes from bluegrass to allow musical acrobat Erik Yates (banjo, flute, clarinet, accordion, tin-whistle, and more) to show off his pipes, first on his jazzy "Backrooms of My Mind," then on a duet with guitarist Nat Keefe on the Everly Brothers' "Stories We Could Tell." Mike Marshall (who juggled mandolin and fiddle) wound up sixth-manning most of the show, leaving the stage for only a couple tunes. For a good twenty-four hours, no one doubted that Butter truly is a bluegrass band.
Marshall, Redner & Staninec
Urban Meltdown :: The Independent
With Blue Turtle Seduction in the opening slot and a whole bunch of big Butter tunes still untapped, Saturday night had all the makings of a rock show. "Busted in Utah" was the odds-on bet as fans played that familiar game of guessing openers. Proving themselves consummate professionals, however, Butter emerged completely un-swayed by any expectations people might have had. Seizing a big Saturday night as their own, they opened with "Amanda Lynn" (another in the pantheon of Butter entendres) — a poppy new Nat piece that could easily be their first radio hit. Then, bucking all tradition, they dove into "Waterpocket Fold," which, based on West African rhythms Nat studied during his time in Ghana, is one of the most harmonically complex (and, perhaps, inaccessible) pieces in their repertoire. Not exactly the stuff of rock shows. Mandolinist Zac Matthews did introduce some rock flair, flexing his might on a powerful version of "Evolution" and again on signature Butter tune "Idaho Pines." Soon, however, the guys again slowed things down with Erik's always-chilling vocal work on his ballad "Queen Elizabeth." After a heart-felt introduction, and accompanied by a slideshow of touching pictures, Aaron left nary a dry eye with a gorgeous solo Bach piece dedicated to Missy Baron — a kindred soul at the heart of the Butter family who died in a tragic car accident at the beginning of the year. With that catharsis fully wrung, the band closed the second set with a psychedelic Edward Abbey–influenced "Desert Rat" that exposed in earnest the rock band many suspected was hiding beneath Friday's bluegrass veneer.
Nat Keefe - Hot Buttered Rum
Urban Meltdown :: The Independent
If ever a set belonged to just one in the quintet, it was Saturday's second set, which Bryan Chandler Horne (affectionately known as "BCH") dominated. In the end, it was not his Michael Anthony-inspired stage-clearing bass solo that left everyone in awe, but rather his jaw-dropping bass fiddle work through the complexities of "Irish Medley 2." Like the best bass players before him, Bryan has in spades the ability to hold together (sans drums!) tremendously intricate pieces, while keeping them thumpy and rockin' all the while. In that way, Bryan serves the foundational role not of a traditional bluegrass bassist walking a polka line but of a more complicated jazz bassist like Scott LeFaro (or, perhaps more familiarly, Phil Lesh). Much as LeFaro moved Bill Evans' first trio (and Lesh, the Dead) beyond the soloist-rhythm dichotomy into a situation in which all musicians were simultaneously creating movement — collective improvisation or "trioing," if you will — Bryan proved his ability to take Butter's talented quintet well beyond a collection of five soloists. More often than not, Butter is "quinteting," and Saturday's song selection — with its serpentine complexity — highlighted that feature beautifully.
Bryan Chandler Horne
Urban Meltdown :: The Independent
In the end, it was not well-placed rock songs that made for a rockin' Saturday. Rather, it was the proper placement — and masterful execution — of some very dense and knotty pieces that made for a truly impressive show. Hot Buttered Rum should be commended for having the guts (and confidence) to defy all expectations with that kind of song selection, while (only slightly paradoxically) satisfying all expectations for a raging show. It is that pidgin ability — to be at once (and quite successfully) both poppy and complex, soloists and quintetists, bluegrass musicians and rock stars, the guys in the spotlight and the guys shining the spotlight on their community — that so enamors fans with Hot Buttered Rum, and Hot Buttered Rum with their fans. And, as witnessed this weekend, those hybrid qualities render silly the genre debates. Butter proved themselves a band that can be whatever, whenever, wherever — at altitudes low or high and in landscapes natural or urban.
11.17.06 | The Independent | San Francisco, CA
1: Sweet Honey Fountain, Limbo In Lovelock, Virginia's Grin, Waiting For A Squall, Cheatem's Dream*^, Worth Waiting, Fox, The > Cluck Old Hen > Spider > Fox, The, Orange Blossom Special*^$, Blue Night*^, I'm Goin Up On The Mountain*^% > Sweet Honey Fountain@
2: Community Billboard, Cumberland Blues, Swing And Sway, California Snow And Rain, Woes And The Lows, The#, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight, Dear Old Dixie^, Stories We Could Tell, Kissin' Cousins, Backrooms Of My Mind#, Take Me Home#, In These Parts#
E: The Weight#,
* w/ all of Lost Coast
% w/ Frankie Nagle (Lost Coast) on vocals
^ w/ Mike Marshall on fiddle
# w/ Mike Marshall on mandolin
@ set concluded with Sweet Honey Fountain's closing line ("if you come with me, I ain't comin' down")
$ first time played
11.18.06 | The Independent | San Francisco, CA
1: Amanda Lynn, Waterpocket Fold, Evolution > Molly Put The Kettle On > Evolution, Guns Or Butter, Rather Be Blind*, Idaho Pines, Metrosexual, Queen Elizabeth, instrumental^, Desert Rat
2: Summertime Gal, Beneath The Blossoms, Irish Medley 2, Immaculate Rain, Thrill Is Gone > bass solo# > I Want A New Drug > Thrill Is Gone, Sifting Through The Ruins, Big Sciota, Return Some Day, Well-Oiled Machine, Feel Like Dancin', (You Make Me)
E: Honey Be, Busted In Utah
* w/ Glenn Stewart (Blue Turtle Seduction) on harmonica
^ Bach piece dedicated to Missy Baron; played by Aaron solo
# band left the stage for Bryan to take a long solo
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