Going into last night's show, it was easy to imagine a situation where Ha Ha Tonka would steal the show from the headliner, Rocky Votolato. It's not that the southern gentlemen of HHT would try to be contentious or territorial. It's just bound to happen when you pair the Springfield, Missouri band's spirited, boot-stomping rock next to Votolato's hushed, introspective folk ballads.
Columbia, Missouri's Casey Reeves opened the show with a set of breezy acoustic numbers. Accompanied by a keyboardist, and strapped with a harmonica and guitar, Reeves strummed out contemporary folk tunes that toed the line between well-built Americana folk and contrived coffee house confessionals. The keyboard arrangements added much needed substance, and you had the sense that a full band would bring the songs a little more life.
By the time Ha Ha Tonka hit the stage, the seventy or so folks at Off Broadway were ready for the band's riveting spiritual-rock redemption. Wasting no time, HHT started the set with "Caney Mountain,"
the opening a track from its 2007 album, Buckle in the Bible Belt. And judging by the claps, shouts and stomps, it was clear that the majority of the crowd at Off Broadway was treating this show as a welcome back party for the band.
The set mixed older material with newer tracks from 2009's Novel Sounds of the Noveau South. The band managed to road test some newer, unreleased material too. One song sounded like the funkiest HHT tune to date; it showcased the hermetically sealed, locked in grooves of drummer Lennon Bone and bassist Luke Long.
In fine HHT fashion, about halfway into the set, the band members stepped out from behind their respective instruments for the a cappella segment of the show. The rhythm section of Bone and Long held down the low end, while Brian Roberts and guitarist/mulit-instrumentalist Brett Anderson hit the highs. As the band belted out the traditional spiritual, "Hangman," the immaculate four-part harmonies gave you an idea what it would have sounded like if the Band cut their teeth in the Ozarks as opposed to Woodstock, New York.
HHT's final stretch was the perfect sprint to the finish line. As a tip of the hat to fellow Springfieldians Big Smith, the band hammered out a rousing version of "12-inch, 3-Speed Oscillating Fan." And in rather risky fashion, the band closed the set with another new song called "All the Usual Suspects." Thanks to Rocky Votolato's searing electric guitar work, and Anderson's infectious mandolin riffage, the new song served as the perfect closer and arguably provided the most rocking moment of the night.
Perhaps knowing it would have been hard to follow HHT's stirring set with a bunch of quiet folk numbers, Votolato enlisted Lennon Bone to sit in on drums. The addition definitely complimented Votolato's sound. With Votolato's impeccable guitar chops and harmonica prowess matched by Bone's swaying backbeat and vocals, the duo easily carried the work of three or four musicians. Like HHT, Votolato played quite a few new songs. After summoning Brian Anderson on the stage for his mandolin services, Votolato and crew swayed into "Fool's Gold," a brand new alt-country swinger that had plenty of heads a-bobbing.
Eventually, Bone left the stage and Votolato went on to do what he does best: churn out quiet, pensive confessionals over fluttering guitar work. On "Sparkler" he fervently plucked away as he eased out his delivery with emotional inflection. On the self proclaimed "religious ballad" "Alabaster," Rocky strummed with purpose as he blew out wish-washy melodies on his Mississippi sax. It may have only been a Tuesday night, and almost half the crowd was outside at this point, but you could tell Votolato was definitely keyed in.