{Editors note: Ever since Sister Mary Carmen retired her Ghosts of Jambands Past column, weve been aching to add some feature stories looking backwards at groups that have stopped performing together. Here is the first one, on popular NYC-based band The Hatters. If you have any suggestions or a band you wish to profile, please send info our way to [email protected]}
What could have been. For those who saw the extraordinary jamband The Hatters (originally The Mad Hatters) perform live between 1989 and 1995, they know what that means. In baseball, players who have speed, the ability to hit, fielding skills, arm strength, and power, are called five-tool players. Well, The Hatters were a five-tool band. Possessing amazing chops, a tight rhythm section, unique songwriting, powerful stage presence, and an enthusiasm to play non-stop from the time they took the stage till they were dragged off, The Hatters were one of the most exciting jambands of the 90s.
Adam Hirsh and Adam Evans were a devastating combination on two fronts. Evans, lead guitarist, accompanied Hirshs soulful crooning with sweet backup vocals. Likewise, lead vocalist Hirsh was equal to Evans searing guitar riffs, with unbelievable chops of his own. Songs like Feelgoodius Kind, Clip On, and Found with Your Drawers Down showcased fiery dual leads, equal to any dual-axe band around. Complementing, and often showcased, was the keyboard playing of Billy Jay Stein (or to Hatters faithful, CAPTAIN CRANIUM!!). Stein, an accomplished musician, weaved the melody. He pulled off the impossible many times, shifting the eyes of the audience from the dueling guitars over to the man playing the keys, usually in the darkest part of the stage. Melodious songs like The Last Walt and Bring that Wagon Round or jamfests like Dig the Ribbit and Daydream featured the piano and organ of Captain Cranium. The backbone of The Hatters, the rhythm section, was rock solid in two incarnations. The original drummer and bassist were Bill Rives and Antonio Ramirez, respectively. These fine musicians pre-date The Hatters three albums on Atlantic Records, but for anyone who saw them live as The Mad Hatters, they enjoyed thunderous layers which allowed the rest of the band to carry the jams. Inheriting the bass and drumming duties were Jon Kaplan and Tommy Kaelin. The Hatters didnt skip a beat, and in fact evolved into a new stage of musicianship which eventually became the meat of their three recordings.
The first of The Hatters three albums was released in 1993. Live Thunderchicken was a combination of three studio cuts surrounded by seven blistering live songs. The live portion of the album was recorded at The Wetlands in New York City. Adam Hirsh recalls, The Thunderchicken album was a last minute idea that the record company had when they decided to push back the release of our studio album. They sprung that news on us the day before our show at the Wetlands when they offered to pay for a truck to come in and do a live album. Even though we hadn’t played out in a while since we had just spent two months recording, we jumped at the chance and jammed our way down Eternity Street for better or for worse.
Live Thunderchicken starts out with the studio tune Clip On that originated as a jam from Hatters shows with one line of lyrics. Clip On evolved into a full-length song, which featured a thick groove, high-energy riff, and intriguing lyrics. I can tell the clip-ons by the angles of their chins, I can tell the clip-ons by the languor of their kin Clip On was written in response to watching some of our peers who were going on to lead comfortable lives while we scrounged along on the road, sleeping in the van, etc. I guess it was our own little fuck you song to the folks who thumbed their noses at us as well as to the folks who didn’t believe in what we were trying to do, Hirsh says.
The other two studio cuts on Live Thunderchicken are Sip of Your Wine (featuring John Popper) and When I Write My Last Song, but the bulk of the recording is the live songs from The Wetlands. Compositions such as One-eyed Captain Laing, Daydream, and Eaagh the Jester Cried were proving grounds indeed for The Hatters. Drummer Tommy Kaelin credits the spontaneity, Had there had been more notice about recording The Wetlands show for our first Atlantic release there would have been a temptation to really work out a lot of the stuff ahead of time. We were forced by circumstance not to overthink it. The highlight of Live Thunderchicken is Feelgoodius Kind and Wave On, which are interconnected by a spacious jam. We worked out the jam from Feelgoodius into Wave On, but that was about the extent of preparation, Kaelin remembers. It was a great time, one night, one show. Lots of raw unbridled energy. It was a special show for us, Kaelin says.

The sophomore effort, titled The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord, was released the following year even though it had been recorded before Live Thunderchicken. Its a diverse album, ranging from all-out jams like Madness of the Green to the blues-touched Bad Side, to soulful ballads such as For Tomorrow, Bring That Wagon Round and The Last Walt. Madcap was a joy to record, according to Hirsh. Every day we barbecued, jammed, and partied till dawn. Kaelin agrees. There was an exciting there is a whole world of potential and possibility kinda feeling. It might have been the most fun of the three recordings. Kaelin credits the contribution of Billy Jay Steins keyboards on the second album. My two favorites from that recording are I Could be The One and The Last Walt. The aforementioned The Last Walt is a remarkable song gracefully hidden among the jams; a combination of Steins unique phrasing, Evans tasteful leads, and perhaps Hirshs best lyrical performance. I just love the whole vibe of Walt. Billy really does some beautiful keys on that one, Kaelin remarks. I think I Could be The One might be the most soulful song we ever recorded. Its a straight up live take. Adam (Hirsh) is just ripping out in that take which was the second. The first take was even better, but after Evans solo, Hirsh broke down and we couldnt finish the song. On take two we made it through, barely. It was an emotional heartfelt scene. Music can be a deep and personal thing. Hirsh reflects on the Avocado Overlord album, I think that we may have been too conservative with our guitar sounds but I think in hindsight, we wanted to make a really pure vintage sounding record and we focused on getting the songs across more than anything. Nevertheless, the final product was something that I think we were all very proud of.
The Hatters final effort was 1995s You Will Be You. It marked a distinct change in their sound. Hatters faithful took to the change and hoped for bigger and better things for the band. The album had a harder edge that reflected the current success of bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. This is evident in tunes such as Dive and Underfrog. There is an undercurrent of mellow tunes, though. Colors, Where the Wind, and Ill Walk are a definitive change of direction in The Hatters songwriting. The masterpiece of the recording is the title cut You Will Be You. It is a creative mixture of heavy riffs, a funky groove, and stellar Adam Hirsh crooning. Lead guitarist Adam Evans is riveting as usual, with rollercoaster jamming that can be frantic at one moment and eerily subdued the next. Jon Kaplan and Tom Kaelin steer the rhythm ship while Billy Jay Steins colorful organ mark You Will Be You and he finishes the song and the album with an emotional piano piece which is actually an untitled hidden track.
The album did include a curious piece called The Naked Song, which was a true departure from previous performances. According to Hirsh, it came out of duress. The band had begun to feel the pressure from the label to bring out a hit, so we came through with a couple of grunge pieces and a Hootiesque little cheese morsel called The Naked Song which I wrote as a joke one day… I guess that’s how it goes, the moment you take your eye off the ball and write something silly it ends up all over the radio. The singer still holds You will be You in high esteem, though. The thing is, with this record, we still kept the jams intact and in fact I think our guitar playing and sonic experimentation was even more interesting, so I don’t malign the record. In fact, to me it makes a pretty good listen still. Hirsh states. You will be You was completely pre-produced in a rented house near Boulder, Colorado. We had to escape all the pressure and just be ourselves and be creative, remembers Kaelin. We were twelve miles outside of an out-of-the-way town down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and if the record company people wanted to come in and say what did you get today? or I love it but you should change this they would have to catch a flight and rent a car and track us down to our cabin overlooking the Rockies. The pressure to garner a radio hit was mounting on the band. We were trying to find our own identity and at the same time do enough to appease the powers pulling the purse strings, Kaelin says. The Hatters were also feeling pressure from their large group of loyal fans who wanted them to remain what the fans pegged as the hippie jamband. Kaelin recalls the pressure from the fans: The Hatters had a dark and perhaps evil side, an edge that was never hippie, but because we had an Allmans sound at times and we loved to play and jam, we got lumped in as a jamband. I used to watch the unsuspecting granola types cringe with repulsion when Hirsh would unleash the darkness upon them at some show in the Midwest or somewhere. The epic song Yeah Bloom, according to Kaelin, expresses the feelings of isolation and disconnection the band was having with friends, family, and fans. In a way, that theme runs throughout the whole album.
Not too long after the release of You will be You, the band members went their separate ways. After all the miles together, I think that we just couldn’t bear the lifestyle without something more to hold on to, Hirsh says. The commercial success hadnt arrived and the band had been literally on the road for years. It seems that after only three recordings The Hatters had much more to contribute musically, especially given the fact that in addition to the album songs they had scores and scores of other songs heard at their live shows which will never make it to disc. Hirsh reflects, We never got to record tunes like Borrowed Time, Childs Play, Galley Slave, Gazebo and Seven Sundays. But knowing us, we probably would’ve written some more music and mixed it all up. Tommy Kaelin agrees specifically regarding Seven Sundays. I thought it was one of Hirshs best feel-good songs; we used to end shows with it from time to time. I wanted to play it every night and wanted to record it for You will be You but the prevailing wisdom was it was a little too bluesy for that album. If the Hatters had remained a band, what direction would they have taken? The road was always open before us and we could have taken any number of paths, Kaelin says.
Today each of The Hatters is still involved in the music business. Adam Hirsh is on the West Coast writing and recording music as Tree Adams (www.treeadams.com). He has also had songs on television programs such as Felicity and Thats Life, and motion pictures Drowning Mona, Poor White Trash and Soul Survivors. Hirsh and Tom Rothrock (Beck, Moby) are currently co-producing rap artist D. Downs is in a project called Jaw Jax (www.JawJax.com). Billy Jay Stein is a professional musician who has done work in New York theater (Jekyll and Hyde) and has toured with Broadway singer Linda Eder. Jon Kaplan now works behind the scenes producing and editing with a major music label. Tom Kaelin has drummed with Gent Treadly, The Michael Parrish Band, and The Edison Effect (www.theedisoneffect.com), which features former Hatters lead guitarist Adam Evans (who is also pursuing a career as a neurologist).

Some of the jambands from the nineties toughed it out and survive today, and some bowed out along with the century. All that is left for Hatters fans are the remarkable three Atlantic recordings and the memories of phenomenal live performances around the country. Adam Hirsh sums up the Hatters experience, All the music that was and the beautiful music that could have been.