Written by Nate Rosing
San Francisco’s Hot Buttered Rum kicked off their spring tour last night at the Historic Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky, with the local acoustic trio, The Rubber Knife Gang, opening the show. Although I had heard the name “Hot Buttered Rum” through festivals like Bonnaroo and Telluride, I was completely unaware of this local outfit called The Rubber Knife Gang. In fact, I had never even heard the name thrown around, this coming from a guy who feels he’s pretty up-to-date on the local music scene.
It would be the first time I was seeing either band in concert, much less, the first time that I’d be hearing their music. Going into the show, the only thing I was really aware of, was that both of these bands played bluegrass music. It’s not that I had low expectations, which I didn’t, because after years of attending shows at the Southgate House, I have come to expect them to book bands that possess a certain quality on a weekly basis. I guess it’s that I didn’t know what expect by way of music or crowd atmosphere. Little did I know, that these expectations were about to become greatly exceeded, while I would come to discover that Hot Buttered Rum wasn’t your typical bluegrass band.
The night began in a much more intimate setting, with The Rubber Knife Gang playing to thirty or so people in the ballroom. The trio was born out of some friends, who used to get together on the weekends, riding dirt bikes and having bonfires. Although the idea for their band name was the result of a joke, these guys want you to know that the music they play is no laughing matter.
With Henry Becker on acoustic guitar, Todd Wilson on mandolin and John Oaks on upright bass, they play in the style that you would come to know as bluegrass, americana and roots music. At the same time however, they present something new, fresh, bold and original, making them stick out above your typical bluegrass band. They don’t look to this band as their full-time gigs, as they have their own personal lives to lead, but when it’s time to hit the stage for those few gigs a month, these guys are up there giving 110%.
Much of the material they played last night, came from their debut album, A Rubber Knife Life, although they opened with a new track, “Cincinnati Is My Home.” The album was recorded last year, with the members closely performing around microphones in Oak’s living room. Although that process gave the album a sort of raw, live and uncut feel, there was a good amount of professionalism with the addition of engineer Rob Fugate. The Rubber Knife Gang looks to record their follow-up this summer, most likely with a similar setup, and possibly adding in some new instruments, as well as swapping instruments.
Shortly before 10:15 pm, when Hot Buttered Rum took the stage, I looked around at the various instruments on stage. Normally I’ll do this at every concert I go to, because as a person who plays both guitar and piano, I’m interested to see what types of gear the band is using. I noticed the instruments you typically see in bluegrass music: the acoustic guitar, upright bass, banjo and fiddle. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that all of these instruments also all happened to be electrical. Usually with bluegrass music, you’ll have acoustic instruments being played into microphones.
There was also one instrument up on stage that I forgot to mention – the drums. Now this is something you don’t see all that often with this type of music. Up until this point, I guess I was expecting to here something a little closer to Yonder Mountain String Band, but what I got was just the type of band I’ve been missing since the String Cheese Incident went on hiatus.
By the time Hot Buttered Rum had kicked things into full gear, it appeared as though there was nearly ten times more people in attendance, then were here for the Rubber Knife Gang. Within moments of the opener, “Banjo Rock ‘n Roll”, I quickly realized that ultimately, Hot Buttered Rum is a jamband at heart.
Throughout all of the songs that were to come, I was trying to pinpoint all of the different styles of music I could hear. Sure I could hear the things I was expecting like americana, bluegrass, country and folk, but much to my surprise, there were even elements of reggae. For the most part though, it was jamband rock.
As I sat up in the balcony, going from listening to the band, to watching the free-spirited crowd dance and twirl around, I was beginning to feel things I haven’t felt in years.
The electric mandolin and fiddle playing of Aaron Redner, at times, reminded me of Michael Kang of String Cheese. Not that the two have similar playing styles, but when you’re not all that familiar with artists who play these instruments, you hear a solo and it just somehow gives you that same exact feeling you felt when you witnessed the first artist who made you fall in love with the sound of that particular instrument.
The same can be said for Erik Yates. Yates appeared to be the most diverse musician in the band, going from the electrical banjo, which brought to mind Bela Fleck, to the flute, bringing to mind Jeff Coffin, to picking up the standard electric guitar, and even closing out the show on the Dobro guitar, which brought to mind Jerry Douglas.
Joining the band on tour, and not typically in their lineup, was Matt Butler of the Everyone Orchestra on drums. Just by adding him to the lineup, Hot Buttered Rum had turned into more of a rock band, all the while still possessing all of the elements that kept them close to their roots. A number of times throughout the set, Butler broke out spoons and forks, to play on the washboard that also had a bell attached near the top, giving their sound something a little more different and unusual.
Aside from all of their original material that I was impressed with, the two highlights of the evening for me were their take on the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”, as well as the unplugged encore, “What to Do.”
The Dead cover was in a lot of ways similar, but Hot Buttered Rum made it their own as well, by replacing Jerry Garcia’s electrical guitar parts with the fiddle playing of Redner. For the encore, the band decided to unplug their instruments and not use any microphones for the vocals. The band huddled closely together at the front of the stage, while the audience gazed up at them, as if they were frozen in time. Towards the end of the song, Redner got off stage and played his fiddle solo from the crowd.
There were a number of albums available at the merch booth, including the must-have, Well-Oiled Machine. But if there’s anything I’ve learned by listening to the music of these types of bands, it’s that, while their studio recordings may be properly put together, it basically comes down to the live show and experience. Most bands like these build their success by touring hard on the road all over the country year-round, and playing a number of festivals, which is probably the best way to quickly spread your name to large crowds.
In recent times, when indie rock has been dominating the world, I guess I was led to believe that jambands were just finding a place to hide underground. I’m glad that I took a chance on a band that became much more than I expected. Clearly, the jamband movement is still alive and well, even in a place like Cincinnati.