Ha Ha Tonka show review and photo by Brian DeSpain
Ha Ha Tonka completed three holiday shows, with the Outland Ballroom in Springfield, Missouri being their last after stops in Kansas City and St. Louis. We interviewed Brian Reynolds after the show, which you can find here: https://americanahighways.org/2022/01/11/interview-brian-reynolds-of-ha-ha-tonka/ This is a review of the show.
Except for a pandemic cancellation in 2020 and a catastrophic hard drive failure leading to 2017’s album Heart-Shaped Mountain having to be re-recorded, Tonksgiving is an annual event.
The “Queen City of the Ozarks” – Springfield, is where the band formed in 2004 during college, distilling a cross between Ozark roots and alt-country sounds.
Originally known as Amsterband, after the band recorded their first ablum Buckle in the Bible Belt, they were noticed by Bloodshoot Records in Chicago and signed to the label. The album was re-recorded with a new band name in 2007 to avoid confusion with similarly named bands at the time.
The theme of these holiday shows was centered around the tenth anniversary of the band’s 2011 album Death of a Decade. The album was played in its original order with an additional song which “didn’t make the final cut” rounding out to twelve songs. Then the band played other song selections from their catalogue bringing the total to twenty-one.
The signature electric mandolin of the band starts off with “Usual Suspects” and moves to the midtempo waltz of “Western Bound” with an inspirational vocalized chorus.
Brett Anderson’s mandolin licks prominently return with “Made Example Of” and with “Jesusita” four-part harmonies kick in for the chorus, another signature feature of the band.
In continued alternating fashion, “Lonely Fortunes” resumes with mandolin at the forefront on a song of regret about personal mistakes.
The more hushed and stripped-down number “Hide It Well” follows with the rarity of Brett Anderson taking lead vocals on “Dead Man’s Hand” continuing into the mellower half of songs on the album.
Given the last time so many song from Death of a Decade were played was on the 2011-2012 tour, the band had some dusting off to do. “We had a lot of fun relearning how to play some of these songs on Death of a Decade,” Reynolds told the crowd.”
“Problem Solver” a song of social insecurity around a girl, evidenced by these lyrics, follows: I know enough to know I don’t know myself yet / but she’s so confident, so sure of it / she said she’s got it all figured out.
The band delivers a driving bass line and kick drum with laid back guitar riffs and Reynolds’ brief moments of falsetto to mesmerize the crowd on the title song “Death of A Decade”.
“No Great Harm” is one of a few songs from Death of a Decade where indirect gospel influence is felt from Reynolds’ family church background. Musical instruments did not accompany church hymns. No doubt, strong vocal harmonies are in Reynolds’ musical DNA from that background along with those interludes of subtler songs.
The Mark Twain-inspired song “The Humorist” follows. Just past the three minute mark the song punches with those defining four-part harmonies.
Then Ha Ha Tonka steps back into the history of their hometown with “1928”. “it’s a song about West Plains, Missouri. This is a song which should have made it on the album,” Reynolds said. Three of the original founding band members grew up in the town.
With a shift to songs on other albums, the crowd responded with floor stomps and vocal participation to, “12 inch 3-Speed Oscillating Fan.”
Frontman Brian Roberts credited Mark Bilyeu and Big Smith for introducing the song to the band, written by a band in Iowa called Red Meat. This song is where Ha Ha Tonka is at their apex with four-part harmonies. Bilyeu produced the first recording of Buckle in the Bible Belt. Bloodshot released a 7-inch single of the song in 2009.
“Everything” from Heart Shaped Mountain precedes two new songs, “Just Like That” and another distinguished for being sung acapella, “Old Rye River.”
The band’s anthem about mischief in the mid-South (“I broke every law in Arkansas”) follows with “Rewrite Our Lives” from 2013’s Lessons closing out the regular set.
For encores, the band reached back to their first album with “St. Nick On the Fourth in a Fervor” and “Caney Mountain” in succession followed by a Beatles cover “Get By With A Little Help From My Friends.”
The encore cover has been a curious space with the band given that it has also included a song by Tears for Fears and AC/DC, among others. https://www.hahatonkamusic.com
Made Example of
Hide it Well
Dead Man’s Hand
Death of a Decade
No Great Harm
12-inch 3-Speed Oscillating Fan
Just Like That*
Old Rye River* (acapella)
Rewrite Our Lives
St Nick On the Fourth in a Fervor
With A Little Help From My Friends (Joe Cocker cover)