West Plains, Missouri, has seen more than its share of trouble. The town was burned to the ground during the Civil War. It’s had a string of dance hall explosions, failed banks, and tornadoes ever since. It’s the kind of backdrop tailor-made for an Americana rock band like native sons Ha Ha Tonka, who roared into Madison’s High Noon on what locals hoped would be the last cold night of the year.
There was hopefulness on both sides of the mic. Lead singer Brian Roberts has steered the band through a couple of iterations. Traveling now as a five piece, the band seems to have hit the bull’s eye and solidified their tight, rangy sound. Ha Ha Tonka rocks hard but never leaves the country altogether. It’s like partying with the Van Halen brothers AND the Van Zandt brothers.
“Colorful Kids,” an anthem for all the misfits in the world, is carried by Mike Reilly’s floor tom. Reilly used his toms nearly as much as the snare — all night. A mighty rumble. “Pied Pipers” knocked it down to mid-tempo and featured a casual, Leon Russell-style carnival piano line by James Cleare, who traveled back and forth from electric guitar to keys — often on the same number.
Half-way through the rowdy “12 Inch-Three-Speed Oscillating Fan,” the sold-out house went Ha Ha bonkers, joining in on the old school country chorus. Brett Anderson played big hunks of sweet, sloppy electric guitar ala Big Al Anderson. He traded measures with Cleave’s keys until the boys went all Statler Brothers, which treated the crowd to an a capella close.
Too many guitar bands are let off the vocal hook. That’s why it stands out, really stands out, when five guys sing like Ha Ha Tonka.
“Lessons,” from the Bloodshot release of the same name, was an introspection that showed Roberts’ poetic side, even if served up with heaps of distortion. From there, the band really got rolling. A wagon-tumbling “Old Bill Jones” started a High Noon hoedown. “Dead to the World” was a high-minded anthem perfectly placed in the set with a Liberace piano flourish finish.
“Hangman,” the band’s brave, a capella cover of a traditional Ozark melody, hypnotized those on the floor of the club. Those on the balcony where I was parked talked through the whole number. Hey balcony! Fuck you!
That said, toward the end of the set, Roberts could see he had the entire audience in a great place. That doesn’t happen magically. They really earned it. He told the crowd, “You know, y’all have never heard of us – so thank you so much.” I’m not so sure about that. Between the folks I knew in the house who were there specifically to see Ha Ha Tonka and those who spent most of the headliner Reverend Horton Heat’s set raving about them, I’d say West Plains has a pretty strong foothold in Madison, Wisconsin.
To close their show, Roberts put all that humility into an honest, rambunctious cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” After that, well, the Reverend really had his work cut out for him.