Hot Buttered Rum, one of the most honest-to-goodness fun bluegrass bands to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area celebrated the release of their latest project with a hint of class and a formal Black and Red Ball at The Fillmore on Friday, May 13.
Over the last six months, HBR has collaborated on three distinct yet wholly attached projects that focus on three of the band’s core aspects: hard-nosed, fast picking bluegrass, the painful, honest emotions of bluegrass pioneer past and the traditional late-night barn-yard stomp of a Saturday night hoedown.
The Kite & the Key as it has been dubbed was originally released and recorded in three six song EPs. Part 1 was recorded with and produced by Tim Carbone of fellow mountain-disco pioneers Railroad Earth and pays homage to the progressive culture that contemporary bluegrass has adopted, focusing on the stark contrast between the shades of the soul. As Carbone puts it, “the six songs we recorded are that combination of darkness and light that give you a breathless feeling of looking out on the expanse of the abyss while knowing you can go home.”
Part 2, produced by Sally Van Meter, stands as a tribute to one of the most influential acts in traditional bluegrass, The Stanley Brothers. Carter and Ralph Stanley were active on and off for 20 years in the bluegrass scene, beginning in the heart of the East Coast Dixie and spreading their influence across the country. They may be most recognized in today’s pop culture as the original group behind O Brother Where Art Thou?’s Soggy Bottom Boys’ smash hit “I’m A Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Part 3 was produced by Kyle Hollingsworth of The String Cheese Incident and rightfully carries with it a late night festival set vibe: up-tempo, longer tracks that definitely break out of the typical bluegrass/country mold that many string-based bands fall so easily into.
“I can’t decide whether I like Kyle better for his skills as a producer, a keyboard player or a human being. He’s damn good at all three,” said Erik Yates. “He pushed us on this installment to be spontaneous in ways we usually reserve for the middle of the second set, by either nudging us from the control room or hustling down into the tracking room to show us what he was thinking with a Wurlitzer or a piano, then staying there while we finished it.”
The Friday the 13th celebration of the project’s completion was a smash hit. Opening with the classic outlaw original “Busted In Utah”, a huge ascending battle between Erik Yates’ rambling banjo licks and the ferocity of Zebulon Bowles’ fiddle gave way to Part 1’s “I Wanna Know” and “Weary Ways” before the speedy introduction of “Working Man” from the bands eponymous 2014 release. The tune was dedicated to Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
A rare performance of The Beatles’ Abbey Road B-side medley took the audience by surprise before skipping ahead to an incredibly memorable Part 3 segue. “Mean Mr. Mustard” > “Polythene Pam” > “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” allowed each member to show off their individual proficiencies before welcoming former HBR drummer Rob Hooper to the stage for almost the rest of the show, adding percussive nuances to Shane Shlick’s tight back beat.
“Music’s Been Good To Me” is a tune about how, through the highest highs and lowest lows, between being lost, found, forgotten or simply content to watch the world pass by, the familiar healing constant of music remains. As the song ends and the band develops a rumbling groove, the familiar notes of “Desert Rat” ring clear.
“Desert Rat” is one of those tunes that HBR fans have looked for on album releases since the song made its live debut back in 2001. One peek into the liner notes and you’ll also be received by guitarist Nat Keefe’s own excitement to “finally” get the song, “on record!” Immediately the vibe adjusted and the pounding of Bryan Horne’s double bass was inescapable. The middle section of the eight-and-a-half-minute track once again featured an eerie string crescendo between Bowles and Yates.
The band took their first real break to really drink in the moment and express their genuine appreciation, and Yates decided “let’s sing them a gospel tune,” and segued into the rarely performed (barely entering double digits) “Lonesome Feeling”. Bowles’ fiddle clinic gave into a solid solo kit performance from Shlick before switching places with Hooper on percussion.
Hooper was with the band through the recording of Part 3 and the band moved into “Entangled”, another oldie but goodie making its studio album debut. There was a wild percussive experiment that gave the track an especially spacey aura.
“Ramblin’ Girl” saw Front Country’s Jacob Groopman join the stage adding his mandolin flair. He stuck around for the High Sierra outlaw anthem “Cherry Lake” before Shlick returned to the drum kit and Keefe took over the vox duties on “What Old Woman” from 2014’s Hot Buttered Rum.
“This has been a rough year for visionary singers,” said Yates, launching the band into a medley trifecta of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard, and “Kiss” by Prince to end the set on an incredibly high and celebratory note.
The 25-minute encore began with the band gathered around a single microphone, Shlick on mandolin. They made it through “Old Kentucky Home” from Part 2 and “James Santiaguel” (a fan favorite with lyrics that inspired a lively fan group’s title) before welcoming Melody Walker of Front Country to sing lead on “Uncloudy Day”.
The band members resumed their original positions and welcomed the remaining members of Front Country onstage as well as the return of Hooper on percussion for a wild “Summertime Gal” from 2010’s Limbs Akimbo. Sandwiched in the middle of the track was a Bill Monroe with Peter Rowan classic, “Walls Of Time”, ending the show at quarter to 1am.
Hot Buttered Rum has since hit the summer season strong, performing between Colorado and California and all along the West Coast with several festivals lined up before taking July off. August gets busy as they look forward to their “Pickin’ On the Middlefork Adventure”, an outdoor music event combined with a week-long all-inclusive rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.