Silver Anniversary, Golden Night: Hot Buttered Rum at Sweetwater

Article Contributed by Gabriel David Barkin | Published on Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Hot Buttered Rum (HBR) kicked off 2024 with a celebration of its silver anniversary at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley on Saturday, January 27, 2024. Yes, the NorCal bluegrass band and left-coast jam festival staple has been around for 25 years – congrats, boys!

Erik Yates | Hot Buttered Rum

Bryan Horne | Hot Buttered Rum

Nat Keefe | Hot Buttered Rum

This was essentially a homecoming show. Founding HBR members Erik Yates (banjo, Dobro, flute, vocals) and Bryan Horne (bass, vocals) grew up in Mill Valley. On stage, Yates pointed out that Horne had been the homecoming prince at Tamalpais High School and also captain of the water polo team. Their fellow HBR founder, Nat Keefe (guitar, vocals), said, “It’s definitely a hometown show. The Sweetwater is Bob Weir’s clubhouse; in a smaller way, it feels like the same thing to us. We’ve got all our friends and family here, and the whole thing is easy and fun.”

Mei Lin Heirendt | Broken Compass Bluegrass

Bluegrass is a tradition that respects its elders and also welcomes new blood. HBR now straddles the line between its storied youth and well-deserved OG status. Befitting this well-deserved passage into its second quarter century, HBR booked up-and-comers Broken Compass Bluegrass (BCB) to open the Sweetwater show. In keeping with the generation-melding ethos of bluegrass, HBR invited members of BCB on stage for a large portion of the headliners’ set.

Lucas Carlton | Hot Buttered Rum

Jeff Coleman | Hot Buttered Rum

To be clear, HBR is not strictly an old-timey, traditional bluegrass band. With flute, drums, and keyboards in the mix, HBR is perhaps more representative of “newgrass.” As Yates told an interviewer a few years ago, the band is named after the popular winter beverage: “The first few times we tried to make it, it turned out all runny and strange, but we worked out the recipe. I think we figured out the music better too, eventually.”

Mei Lin Heirendt & Kyle Ledson | Broken Compass Bluegrass

Django Ruckrich | Broken Compass Bluegrass

Sam Jacobs | Broken Compass Bluegrass

BCB, on the other hand, hews close to the bluegrass bone. Kyle Ledson (mandolin, vocals), Django Ruckrich (guitar, vocals), Mei Lin Heirendt (fiddle, vocals), and Sam Jacobs (bass, vocals) are young in years. (I’m pretty sure at least a few of them wouldn’t be allowed in a bar if they weren’t performing.) But they seem to have old souls, and they play their instruments like seasoned veterans. As young musicians performing in various ensembles over the past decade-plus, they’ve each spent ample time on stage wowing audiences with precocious, pleasing picking. They’ve been together as BCB since 2021, and each passing year has made them tighter, wiser, and more endearing.

Hot Buttered Rum | Mill Valley, CA

Hot Buttered Rum | Sweetwater Music Hall

It's fun to see a band grow. Over 25 years, HBR has had some personnel changes, and the addition of keyboards and drums along the way gave new life to old songs while also paving new avenues to explore. BCB is at the beginning of that journey. “We are always molding and experimenting with new songs and sounds,” says Ledson. Their opening set included a number of new tunes that will likely end up on their second studio album, to be recorded in the next few months.

Kyle Ledson | Sweetwater Music Hall

Bluegrass fans take note: Ledson is a beast on mandolin, and Heirendt sings and fiddles like an early-20th-century Appalachian queen. After those two knock your boots off, Ruckrich’s picking is sure to rock your socks. His guitar solo when he jumped on stage with HBR late in the evening got the crowd’s biggest hoots and hollers of the night. With Jacobs holding down the floor, these aren’t kids playing with matches; they’re lighting everything on fire!

Jessica Malone with HBR | Sweetwater Music Hall

Rising luminary Jessica Malone also joined HBR to sing some songs at the Sweetwater show. Nat Keefe produced Malone’s soon-to-be-released album, and she sang “On & On & On,” a track they co-wrote for the album. Malone also sang a sprightly version of Cyndi Lauper’s classic “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” Keefe said later, “The thing about playing a banger like that is, what do you play after it?!” They figured it out, and the crowd ate up every song.

Perhaps it’s best from here on in to let the folks on stage tell the rest of the story.

Nat Keefe | Hot Buttered Rum

NAT KEEFE: "We got to the venue super early and rehearsed a bunch of new stuff. I was especially excited to do my new song 'Rearview Mirror.' The gist of it came from something my wife and I would say when we were first dating: 'I just want a lover.' Our relationship ended up becoming the whole package with kids, marriage, and a house, but still, sometimes we try to just be lovers."

JESSICA MALONE: "I got back from a very fun and creative vacation in Mexico on Friday. Woke up in L.A. Saturday and drove straight to Mill Valley for the show!"

Nat & Jessica Malone | Sweetwater Music Hall

NAT KEEFE: "A highlight of the set was that Jessica went out of her way on her drive back from L.A. to sit in on a few songs with us. We love that woman, I couldn't respect her musicality more, and her hustle and ambition as well!"

JESSICA MALONE: "It was an amazing show, the vibes were high, and I am so glad I made the drive to be a part of it!"

Mei Lin Heirendt | Broken Compass Bluegrass

MEI LIN HEIRENDT: "Playing at the Sweetwater was such an honor. It’s definitely been a venue that’s been on our bucket list for a while now, especially given all the legends who have performed there before us."

DJANGO RUCKRICH: "The Sweetwater is definitely a huge bucket list venue for us. We’re all super excited to share this new batch of original music."

Django Ruckrich | Broken Compass Bluegrass

KYLE LEDSON: "Stoked to be back at the Sweetwater. I played here once before when I was 16 years old with Nat [Keefe] and Bryan [Horne]. Finally getting to do it all again with my Broken Compass family will be one of those nights that will live in our memories forever."

NAT KEEFE: "I’ve known Kyle since he was a wee little boy, just beginning with mandolin, and I’ve been lucky enough to mentor him a bit along the way and produce a couple of his albums. We’ve definitely made the transition from mentor/mentee to being friends/peers. Especially since he can play circles around me!"

Kyle Ledson | Sweetwater Music Hall

KYLE LEDSON: "I’m grateful for HBR helping us break down some of these impenetrable venue walls so we can have a chance to do our own thing and connect with an audience that digs string band music."

MEI LIN HEIRENDT: "The guys in [HBR] are some of the kindest, most encouraging mentors/friends. We are so stoked to get to open for them and sit in with them on our Colorado tour in late March."

Hot Buttered Rum | Mill Valley, CA

NAT KEEFE: "It’s fun to be with a band who is in a similar place that we were in 20 years ago. Perhaps, with other musicians, this is humbling or threatening, but I get a lot of energy and satisfaction from seeing these guys thrive."

DJANGO RUCKRICH: "HBR is one of our favorite bands that we’ve looked up to for a long time, and they’ve been such great friends and mentors to us."

HBR & BCB | Mill Valley, CA

KYLE LEDSON: "We are always molding and experimenting with new songs and sounds. Also, we keep a list of material we’ve played live at shows. It’s over 12 hours of music which makes our performances and free-flowing setlists more entertaining to us as artists. Nothing gets too stale that way."

MEI LIN HEIRENDT: "We’ll be launching a Kickstarter in the next month or so to gather support for recording, pressing, and distributing this album as independent artists. Keeping our creative rights and having full control over when and how we release music is something that’s really important to us, so we’re trying to stay independent for as long as we can."

Mei Lin Heirendt | Broken Compass Bluegrass

MEI LIN HEIRENDT: "In March, Kyle and I will be doing our opening set with BCB each night as well as being HBR’s fiddle and mandolin player for their string band sets. Lots to look forward to, and we’re so grateful for all the folks who have helped us along the way. We’re just getting started!"

KYLE LEDSON: "Momentum is building and we’re loving every single minute of it."

Nat & Jessica | Sweetwater Music Hall

NAT KEEFE: "In March, we are doing five shows in Colorado with Broken Compass Bluegrass as ‘Hot Buttered Rum String Band.’ Kyle and Mei Lin are going to play in HBRSB. It is Hot Buttered Rum’s 25th year as a band, and our 23rd anniversary of touring Colorado, so a ski town and Front Range tour sounds good to me."

JESSICA MALONE: "[HBR] are wonderful human beings and I am always grateful for any opportunity to share the stage with them. I also adore Broken Compass Bluegrass as people and love the music they make."