When you see Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka live, you find yourself wondering over and over, how are they not selling out arenas? Especially following the release of Lessons last fall, it’s a wonder why such an incredible band doesn’t get the endless recognition they so obviously deserve. They don’t sound like any other band, and they’ve got that “it” factor you just can’t teach. Following an energetic and positively electric outdoor performance at Rhode Island’s Swamp Stomp over the weekend, Ha Ha Tonka took the stage at New York City’s Mercury Lounge on Wednesday, July 16th to play to a smaller, but packed room.
Opening the show with “Dead to the World”, a clear crowd favorite and powerful tune off Lessons, they had a bumpy first verse and chorus before hitting their stride so hard, it just kept getting better and better with each song. This is a noticeable aspect of their performance style, that they build and build until they end on the highest note possible, and it works because they leave the audience wanting more. Lead singer Brian Roberts continuously surprises with his unbelievably soulful vocals and impressive range. His voice has a real personality.
They played a set that included all of the great tracks from Lessons, like the emotionally weighty, but lively and fun “Colorful Kids” and the always popular, pre-encore finale of “Synthetic Hearts” into “Rewrite Our Lives” (with that booming audience participation on the “ooooh yeah”), the lush “Arabella” (sung by Mandolin player Brett Anderson), “Pied Pipers” and “The Past Has Arms”. All of these songs sound incredible, and don’t deviate too much from the rich production of the record, and Anderson’s mandolin playing elevates the sound to a place that feels otherworldly.
You can tell that they are proud of the work they put into this music, but what really gets them pumped is singing their older songs. Ha Ha Tonka has been a solid band for seven years and a lot of their material is so specifically authentic Americana Missouri traditional music. They operate on a different speed when they’re performing songs like Red Meat’s “12-Inch 3-Speed Oscillating Fan”, “Hangman” (which they do a capella and cause chills), “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor”, and the old bluegrass tune “Old Bill Jones”, to name a few. These performances make you realize how true these guys have stayed to themselves. Even when they’re playing the lush, swelling instrumentals of Lessons, there are still deep country roots that continue to influence them as they evolve as a band.
They also do a nice, solid cover of Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” after which you’re convinced it was absolutely made for Roberts to sing. Their encore of the classic “Black Betty” is introduced via a nice lengthy jam that’s psychedelic, but tight, and leaves listeners pining for more dance time with them.
Ha Ha Tonka is a no-brainer: smart songwriting, top-notch musicians and vocalists, easy on the eyes, and totally original. It’s so rewarding to see them live because they outdo themselves and set the bar even higher than you thought possible. They’re a truly special band—four guys who are individually so talented, but even better as a unit, and if you’re one of the lucky people who gets what they’re all about, stick with them. Ha Ha Tonka will never let you down.