Hot Buttered Rum plays PAC3 in Carbondale
CARBONDALE – In the earliest stages of Hot Buttered Rum, founding member Erik Yates was playing a lot of flute, along with some clarinet and piano accordion.Not exactly the way to kick a bluegrass band into gear. But then Hot Buttered Rum never exactly aimed to be a bluegrass band. Nor are they exactly a bluegrass band these days – not with a drummer having been added to the lineup, not with Yates still taking an occasional turn on flute, not when their most recent album, 2009’s “Limbs Akimbo,” is filled with saxophone and the title track dances to a calypso beat and features a percussion break.Yates says the goal for Hot Buttered Rum has always been to serve the songs in the best way possible, and that can mean woodwinds, drum kits, guest appearances by singers from the rocking end of the music spectrum, and rhythms that bluegrass granddaddy Bill Monroe might not have recognized. So when, in the winter of 2008, the band had a dramatic change in instrumentation – Zac Matthews, a mandolinist, out; Matt Butler, a drummer, in – it wasn’t so much a sharp turn in stylistic direction. It was the most appropriate way to play the latest batch of songs being written by the band.”It was a song-driven choice, not a style-driven choice,” the 35-year-old Yates said from his home, in Oakland, Calif. “Songs are like the kids of the family – you always ask, ‘What do they need?'”At the time, the songs needed the kind of kick that only a drum set provides. It seemed about the most abrupt change in instrumentation possible: mandolin competes with banjo as the quintessential bluegrass instrument – Monroe, after all, was a mandolinist – and the purity of a bluegrass combo is often gauged by the absence of a drummer. And the band that had once gone by the name Hot Buttered Rum String Band could no longer be seen as a string band.”It’s tough to say why our tastes evolved in that direction. We’d been writing songs for years that seemed to need drums on them,” Yates said. He added that the shake-up in the instrumentation was not that difficult an adjustment for the band, since mandolin and drums, as dissimilar as they are, can take on a similar duty. “The reason that switch worked is because mandolin and drums have the same function, to provide the backbeat. We said, Let’s see. Let’s see if this drum thing would work. And it did, just like a glove. Because we were writing songs that didn’t come from the bluegrass end of the spectrum. They were coming from somewhere else.”••••Yates, and Hot Buttered Rum, are accustomed to switching things up as the mood strikes them. Yates arrived at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Ore., as an alto saxophonist, the instrument he’d been attracted to as a schoolkid in California’s Marin County: “Because it had the most buttons,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine what all those buttons do. So I had to find out.”At Lewis & Clark, Yates studied composition, while playing woodwinds and a bit of bass. Then he met Nat Keene, a singer, bassist and tabla player who had begun to settle, more or less, into acoustic music. The two started playing together, with Yates contributing on flute and accordion. When the banjoist they were playing with left, Yates took up the instrument to fill a space in a song.”I knew the song needed banjo,” he said. “Then it grabbed hold of my heart. And it hasn’t let go. I don’t know why. Because it’s amazing, I guess.”Equally attractive was the culture of acoustic music. “The songs, the way they felt, in the throat, in the hands, was part of it,” Yates said. “And the people playing these songs – the social aspect is important and acoustic music is a great way of bringing people together. There’s such a big-heartedness to it all. That moved me greatly. With any art, there’s competition, all the usual stuff. But with acoustic music there’s an overriding respect – respect for the instruments, for the traditions, respect for each other.”I loved classical, jazz. But that wasn’t where I was meant to be. I just knew I wasn’t going to be doing jazz gig for a living, not going to be teaching flute. It didn’t quite fit.”Around 2000, based in the San Francisco Bay area, Yates and Keene hooked up with Matthews, and Bryan Horne, who had made the transition from electric bass guitar to upright bass. Horne brought in fiddler Aaron Redner, a friend from their days in the Tamalpais High School Orchestra.”It’s kind of funny, how long it takes to realize you’re a band – we’re a band together, we’re not just hanging out,” Yates said. “That’s a cool thing to watch – something happens unexpectedly. And powerful, too. I think the thing that seals it is when you get a bus.”Hot Buttered Rum got a particular kind of bus, one that ran on vegetable oil. And they were a particular kind of band. Their first studio album, 2004’s “In These Parts,” was all acoustic, and was given the tag “high altitude bluegrass.” The second studio recording, “Well-Oiled Machine,” was produced by Mike Marshall, an acoustic mandolinist, and featured guest appearances by Darol Anger and Peter Rowan, two more icons of the unplugged realm.But after several years of hard touring, rising popularity and bigger venues, more volume and electricity were introduced into the sound. “Limbs Akimbo,” made with drummer Butler, showcased a versatile group, one that could swing from honky-tonk to old-school rock to country-leaning songs. Joining in were roots-rocker Jackie Greene, on keyboards, and singer Tim Bluhm from the rock band the Mother Hips, who also produced the album.”I think we needed to go further in that direction to see how far we wanted to go with those sounds,” Yates said.The answer seems to be: not quite that far. Hot Buttered Rum’s next album, which is largely recorded (but not expected to be release for at least six months), is, according to Yates, a “meeting point” between the acoustic “Well-Oiled Machine” and the rocking “Limbs Akimbo.” The album was produced by Steve Berlin, the saxophonist from the L.A. barrio band Los Lobos.”It’s more rooted in the sound of acoustic strings than ‘Limbs Akimbo,'” Yates said. “There’s banjo on every track, and no saxophone anywhere. Even though we had one of the best saxophonists in the country producing.”The emphasis on the new album is on the songs. “It reflects another step in our songwriting,” Yates said. “These are songs we wouldn’t have written when we were 21. There’s a deeper understanding of loss, deep joy, these things we can really dig into. It’s a little more meaty territory. And I think the music comes along for the ride on that.”When Hot Buttered Rum plays Sunday, March 4 (8 p.m.) at PAC3 in Carbondale – on a co-bill with Illinois’ Cornmeal, which has a similar approach to string-band music – they will have a range of sounds to pull from: the weightier new material, the rocking songs, the grassier stuff, covers of the Grateful Dead and the Beatles. But whether the instruments are plugged in or not, whether the song rocks on a drumbeat or explores more sophisticated newgrass corners, Hot Buttered Rum can be counted on to be upbeat in spirit.”Infusing music with joy is a big part of what we do. That’s a direction we’ve chosen to take,” Yates said. “You don’t go to see a blues act because they’re happy. But with Hot Buttered Rum, that’s a part of our sound. It’s our footprint. Being filled with joy is an important part of what we do.”email@example.com
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