Photo by Norman Sands
The Vic Theatre, a luxurious five-story vaudeville house, opened as the Victoria Theatre in 1912 and took three years to build. It took just a hair north of five hours Friday evening for Cornmeal, Hot Buttered Rum, and Family Groove Company to bring it down. Whether you fancied funk groove brick, or newgrass chicken pick, on a day that surely becomes misremembered in haste, this night wouldn’t soon be forgotten. A festive crowd in full holiday fervor filed past gleaming golden banisters down the tiered aisles to the stage. It was showtime at the Victoria, and it seemed everyone wanted to be front row center for the special occasion.
Family Groove Company aimed high and made everyone proud with a nod to recently departed drummer Levon Helm with a cover of The Band’s classic “Ophelia.” As Jordan Wilkow (keyboard) channeled the gentle 1970s Arkansas soul on vocals, Mattias Blanck (drums) truly had the best seat in the house. He was able to simultaneous take in quite a sight I imagine; with his trio of musical peers before a dancing frenzy. A trippy transition occurred on “Professionals Here,” off Models and Metrics, a ballad, as Jordan prefaced, about “fighting crime on acid”. Noticeable during “Wrath of the Solids” > “One Eye Dreaming” section was the 10 year Chicago outfit’s gift for musical communication, which yielded seamless transitions. Jordan dedicated Steely Dan’s “Josie” to the audience before the tight set rounded out with a packed house getting a treat with the energetically composed “Every Time You Shake It” and The Charmer’s “Byron’s Got the Time.” Janis Wallin (bass) made certain the crowd was primed for action as she deftly kept pace with Lewis’s long solo that left fans properly stretched out for the marathon of bluegrass that followed.
I first learned of the next eco conscious ensemble Hot Buttered Rum a few years back, by discovering they converted their tour bus into a “Bio Bus” that ran on waste vegetable oil. The Bay area quintet brought real left coast energy to the Midwest busting out of the gate with “Working Man” while bathed in a red light district type glow. Evident from the beginning was the versatility of Aaron Redner (fiddle), Erik Yates (banjo, dobro, flute) and Nat Keefe (guitar) as all three lent vocals in addition to having a wide range of instrumental dexterity. “Swing and Sway” showed off the lyrical ability of each while keeping up a breakneck pace. On this Paul Simon-esque number you could really hear the world musical training instilled in Keefe. Running into a fan from Colorado, I could tell why he made the long trip to see these guys. Aaron infused a rockabilly feel on mandolin and fiddle, while clad in bright orange splatter designed trousers, as he crooned the rocky mountain flavored saga “Missoula to Miami.” The seasoned road veterans have a knack for the gift of gab on stage that you can tell translates into a nice dynamic when confined to tight quarters along a lonesome stretch of highway.
Musing that Cornmeal was backstage stealing their booze Erik plucked a banjo and Nat launched into The Mother Hips original “Do it on the Strings.” Mother Hips guitarist Tim Bluhm, produced the band’s latest 2011 release Limbs Akimbo and has had a profound influence on HBR’s lyrical focus and songwriting. Bryan Horne (acoustic upright bass) provided backup vocals on “Like the French” which saw Yates, an accomplished wind instrument player, tossing the banjo behind his back, before adding a Jethro Tull inspired flute playing spice to the foreign flavored recipe. The wanderlust themed set returned home with Keefe reminding everyone of rich immigrant jig culture with the fiddle tune “Banished Set,” evoking images of the coming to America movie Far and Away. With an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” geographical attitude, they brilliantly put a bluegrass spin on U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Janis Wallin from FGC sat in on bass for “Desert Rat” off Live in the Northeast and received “we’re not worthy” Garth Campbell like praise from Hot Buttered Rum. This was the first sit-in of the night and only a foreshadowing of what was to come. Drummer Lucas Carlton strapped a washboard around his torso and soloed on “Fruit of the Vine” before the group kept him front and center, whisk broom a strumming for the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
Then Keefe and crew, long time baseball enthusiasts who just took in the game earlier at Wrigley Field, charmed the Cubs contingent performing Todd Snider’s “America’s Favorite Pastime.” This song was about that fateful day on June 12, 1970 when Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while on a “mental road trip.” They followed up the tale by performing bluegrass icon Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys’ “Blue Night.” Looking around the audience, I then saw old souls and young alike rejoicing and singing along during the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.” As the set closed with a run from “Blackberry Pie,” through “Way Back When,” “The Crest,” “Angeline the Baker” and on into “Cindy” I was glad I caught the tail end of this cross country tour, and excited to find out what the future holds in store for HBR as well. Clearly this is a group that is gaining momentum which played perfectly into the night’s homegrown final bluegrass laced powerhouse.