Originally published on KDHX.org
“We’ve never shied away from writing about the place we’re from, the people we know, the stories we’ve heard. The Ozarks seem to be an endless well to draw from and we like touching on those themes. It’s a fascinating place,” Brian Roberts tells me over the phone from Sawhorse Studios in St. Louis.
Lately, his band hasn’t had time to hide. After headlining this summer’s sold-out Open Highway festival, Ha Ha Tonka returned to St. Louis last week to begin laying the groundwork for a brand new studio album to be released sometime next year. They also perform this coming Friday, November 27, at Off Broadway to celebrate the release of their new 12″ live album, “Live in STL at Off Broadway.”
The Midwestern quartet has released four acclaimed albums in their ten-year fellowship, but Roberts says a live record was always on the band’s to-do list. “Our original drummer (Lennon Bone) retired so we knew those were going to be his last shows and we wanted to try and capture his energy. I like a lot of live albums because they’re unique — there’s always some magic there,” he says. “You can really come to love a live album for entirely different reasons.” And when you listen to HHT’s initial endeavor, it sounds like they had no trouble keeping the magic going.
Recorded live by studio engineer Jason McIntire during their Off-Broadway Thanksgiving show in 2014, the event was a powerhouse performance to a sold-out venue. The band also didn’t shy away from making the crowd a part of the record. “We wanted mics set up in the room to get that energy,” he says. “The crowd is such an integral part of any live show, you should be able to hear them.”
If you’re already a stalwart fan of the band, the live album will be a welcome document of a special night at a special venue for the group. And if you’re new to them, it can act as a precursor to the type of dynamic show the band is legendary for, whetting your appetite for some high-octane, American rock ‘n’ roll.
Comprised of seven songs, the new record is a sampling of material from each of the band’s four albums, with an additional, previously unrecorded cover of Ram Jam’s version of “Black Betty.” Though they occasionally broke that song out when they were experiencing the energy of a great crowd, Roberts tells me this might be the last time they play it, “It might be a good time to retire it, but I’m glad we captured it.” “We were all pretty keyed up and it gets a little trippy,” he says. Laughing, he adds, “I don’t think we realized at the time that it has a 90-second intro.”
Whereas each album is a slightly different experience, turning by degrees from southern-tinged rock to angry folk ballads reborn, the live album is an entirely different animal, primarily because it captures them at their most vulnerable — and their most athletic. Lead guitarist Brett Anderson whips around working-class solos with the best of them, while bassist Luke Long redefines the low end and carries the groove. Full-steam ahead, no-holds-barred vitality permeates the entire track list, with nothing as little as a sour note put out to pasture. “Caney Mountain” starts off the onslaught, with Roberts and company harmonizing the opening lyric, before bashing into the tune with a galloping drum beat, acoustic guitars riding close behind.
With the second track, “Lessons,” I wonder if there are some lessons the band still has yet to learn. “Trying to avoid late night Taco Bell is one,” he laughs. But ever the perfectionist, Roberts brings it back around to a serious note. “I know I’m always frustrated when I make a mistake and I should know better, but knowing that you can always improve and better yourself is the main message of that song,” he says. “Rewrite Our Lives” is another hook-laden tune with a central message about having more past than future. “That’s a little bleak,” he says, taking note that the line doesn’t seem to coincide with the band’s usual have-fun attitude. “I hope we have more future than we do past, but I’ve always been amazed that we get to do this. We’re so lucky we get to do this for almost a living,” he confesses. “I really just want to carry on. I love these guys, the fans, the music we’re making. I just want to get bigger and better.” When it comes to the final song on the live album, “Usual Suspects,” Roberts is modest about its success. When I refer to it as “their biggest it,” he takes issue. “It’s our biggest half-hit. It gets picked up more for commercials and shows, but we’ve always been one of those bands that have never had that breakthrough single,” he says. “And I don’t really know how to go about doing that, we’ve never really tried to go for that.” But with a new album in the works, maybe it’s time their love of country translated into the country loving them.