Variety is the spice of Hot Buttered Rum’s sound
Studying classical music is an all-encompassing pursuit. The standard piece of advice among aspiring classical players is that you’d better be sure of your choice of career. And the accompanying bit of conventional wisdom is that there are a lot of unhappy orchestra members.Aaron Redner knows what it was like to have those blinders in place. For nearly 20 years, the native of Mill Valley, Calif., just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, aimed for a place in the classical music world. He earned a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and went to the University of Kansas to pursue a doctorate; he picked up substitute gigs with the Seattle Symphony and the Kansas City Symphony. The intense schedule didn’t allow time even for doubt.”Playing classical music so seriously, all my practice time had to be given to practicing and preparing for recitals,” said the 33-year-old.But as he approached 30, a space began to open in Redner’s head. In Kansas, he had fallen in with a group of musicians who referred to violins as fiddles, and didn’t dress up or look at sheets of music when performing. While picking Grateful Dead or bluegrass songs on mandolin and guitar, or seeing his friends’ bluegrass and rock bands perform, a doubt washed over Redner.”I started going to concerts and I’d feel the energy of the audience, and how much fun the bands had, and how the band members were able to express themselves as individuals,” he said. “It felt much more communal to me than an orchestra.”
In 2001 and 2002, Redner attended the San Diego fiddle camp run by virtuoso Mark O’Connor and his course was sealed. “I started listening to different ways the violin could be used, and it drew me away from the orchestra realm,” he said. “I listened to old-time fiddle tunes, Irish fiddle tunes. Technically they weren’t all over the neck like classical. But they taught you how to keep a groove, which is important. Not a lot of classical players play barn dances, but that’s a good thing to do.”Since joining the Hot Buttered Rum String Band in mid-2002, Redner has come close enough to the barn-dance atmosphere. The Bay Area quintet plays what it calls a “high-altitude acoustic experience.” (The high-altitude part comes from a 1999 trip, back when the group was an upstart trio, to the Sierra Nevada mountains, to develop a West Coast version of the high, lonesome sound.) With Redner rounding out a quintet – that also includes guitarist Nat Keefe, mandolinist Zachary Matthews, bassist Bryan Horne and Erik Yates, who plays flute, banjo and accordion – Hot Buttered Rum has played rock clubs, theaters and festivals like the High Sierra Music Festival.The group, which last month had a highly regarded opening slot for the Drew Emmitt Band at the Wheeler Opera House, plays the Blue Door in Snowmass Village, Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 16-17. The show includes a set by Hot Buttered Rum, a set by Honkytonk Homeslice – a duo of String Cheese Incident guitarist Billy Nershi and his wife Jilian – and a set combining the two groups’ forces.Though the instrumentation is basically that of a bluegrass band, judging by the 2004 album “In These Parts,” Hot Buttered Rum isn’t much influenced by the old-school bluegrass of Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs. That might be explained by the fact that Redner is one of several band members who has had at least some classical training. The band will occasionally open a set with Redner playing a solo Bach piece; other times may find Yates on flute, Redner and Matthews on violins, and Horne swapping his bass for cello, giving the bluegrass band the look and sound of a chamber quartet. At the other end of the spectrum, Hot Buttered Rum pulls out cover versions of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” the Dead’s “Sugaree” and the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive,” which Redner attributes to the band being “children of the ’80s.”The idea of a third path, in between symphonic music and standard bluegrass, satisfied Redner thoroughly. During his critical Kansas years, he saw a performance by banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer that turned his head.”It was a modern-day recital,” he recalled. “They played transcribed Bach and Charlie Parker and something like bluegrass and then their own music.”Redner speaks in worshipful terms of Fleck and Meyer, and the rest of the musicians who have taken bluegrass into another realm: East Bay fiddler Darol Anger, from whom Redner has taken some lessons; Brittany Haas, a young old-time fiddle specialist, whom he saw play at O’Connor’s camp; Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, who sat in with Hot Buttered Rum at the band’s recent sold-out gig at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.
Topping the list is Mike Marshall. The mandolinist is producing Hot Buttered Rum’s latest album, “Well-Oiled Machine,” which they hope will be done next month. This past week, singer Peter Rowan was in the studio, contributing vocals to a song for the album.”Having [Mike Marshall] around when we do solos in the studio is huge,” said Redner. “They are few and far between, aliens like this, and they’re so dedicated. They’re like the Tiger Woods of music.”Along with the musical variety, Hot Buttered Rum aims to cover a broad base lyrically. “In These Parts” opens with “Three Point Two,” a lamentation on weak beer. “Reckless Tex,” set to a driving Texas swing beat, skewers the Texan-in-Chief: “It’s time to know your sister and brother / And drive this cowboy out of town.” The new album will include “Guns or Butter,” another song with a political point.”We’re definitely a band that’s interested in getting our political point of view known – in an accessible way. While they’re dancing,” said Redner. “That’s a great part of the bluegrass idiom. It’s where hippies and rednecks dance side by side and can relate.”Another nice thing about being in a bluegrass band – and that has never been attempted by a symphony orchestra – is being able to get from place to place in a bus that runs on vegetable oil. Hot Buttered Rum bought its first bus for $2,000 on eBay. For two years, the bus of many colors took the band around the country, loaded up on discarded oil taken from restaurant dumpsters. (Vegetarian Chinese restaurants were the mother lode; fast-food oil was too thick, meaty and reused to be of much use.) The bus died in the Nevada desert – “the kind of spot where, if you see it from overhead, you say, oh, I’d never want to be stranded there,” said Redner. But the band got a song, “Limbo in Lovelock,” out of the experience, and will tool into Snowmass Village in their new, green airporter rig.In his ideal world, Redner won’t have to choose between classical and bluegrass. He sees Hot Buttered Rum developing into an outfit that uses the textures and tones of classical music. He watches the like of Thile and Fleck, who have one foot in the world of bluegrass festivals and the other in the concert hall. Playing in an acoustic quintet will never replace being in an orchestra, but he’s not giving up entirely on that side of his career.”I miss being in the middle of an orchestra in a Beethoven symphony or a Debussy symphony. I miss all those colors,” he said. “It’s a goal to play a major violin concerto one day and the next day play with Hot Buttered Rum somewhere.”
In his years as an Aspenite, Kevin Roper had one of the more thankless tasks in town: putting up with the musical clowns, also known as bandmates, in the jam-rock band Likewise. (As Roper’s predecessor in said job, I feel not only free but justified in referring to bassist Paul Boneau and drummer Greg Asiala as clowns.)Roper, a New England-born singer and guitarist now based in Nashville, has returned to the valley with his band. The group plays at Club Chelsea on Sunday, Feb. 13, and Roper will have copies of his recent album, “Brand New Town,” for sale. Also in the works for later this season are some Likewise reunion gigs.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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