Ha Ha Tonka’s show at The Urban Lounge on Thursday night was like being crammed into a cozy church with fellow worshippers on a cold winter day. The stripped-down, intimate venue couldn’t have been a more perfect setting to hear the new Death of a Decade, Ha Ha Tonka’s third album -- a collection of gospel-harmony-infused indie-rock songs that was recorded in a 200-year-old barn, with all the chair squeaks and floorboard creaks included in the final product.
The band—Brian Roberts (vocals, guitar), Brett Anderson (guitar, keyboard, mandolin, vocals), Lennon Bone (drums, vocals) and Lucas Long (bass, vocals)—made it clear this was going to be a show to feel comfortable at by mingling and drinking beers with the audience before their set.
The set started out with a group of tunes from the new release—“Jesusita” was especially powerful as Anderson, Bone and Long harmonized to sing a haunting, hymn-like chorus of “Heaven help us now” layered underneath Brian’s soulful lyrics. The band really got the congregation, er, audience, whipped into high-energy mode when they blasted into the spirit-lifting “Westward Bound,” with many people taking to the dance floor and singing along with the catchy chorus.
In a celebration of making music in its most basic form, at many moments during their set, Ha Ha Tonka would put aside their instruments in favor of making rhythms with clapping, foot stompin’ and whistling. One of the most evocative moments of the show was seeing the band members’ cowboy boots stomp the stage floor so hard that dust began to rise and mingle with the hazy lighting.
Ha Ha Tonka played tunes from their past albums, as well, to excitement of an audience that included many longtime fans. The a cappella “Hangman,” a traditional folk tune from Buckle in the Bible Belt, was a tribute to the band’s Ozark home and an obvious crowd favorite with its silky-smooth four-part harmony—it was also undoubtedly the highlight of the entire set.
After a two-song encore with co-headliners Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, I got the chance to chat with Ha Ha Tonka frontman Brian Roberts. We discussed the popularity of the new album and how people can find commonality in their shared religious roots, “even if they don’t want to admit [they have them],” Roberts said with a laugh. He also said Ha Ha Tonka plans to return to Salt Lake City in 2012, a show that’s sure to convert many new fans to the band’s unique sound—one that conjures images of backwoods churches and the rolling Ozark Mountains.
(Photos by Kolbie Stonehocker)