NEWTON, NJ—The denseness of the Eastern edge of northern Jersey begins to loosen as Route 80 leads you West towards the Pennsylvania border. The urban grip of a suburban metropolis becomes an increasing afterthought as New York City disappears behind the hills of Morris into Sussex County; and backwoods reign.
Hot Buttered Rum have disembarked for a two night run to finish out an east coast tour leg. The band has been touring nonstop since December of 2006. They are practitioners of bluegrass tradition, fusing melody with the roots splatter and combining fiddle, mandolin, stand up bass and guitar. National bookings are in support of their 2007 independent release Live In The Northeast, which chronicles the band’s live traveling endeavors over the course of the past year.
The Fountain House is a dimly lit wooden house of alcoholic retreat. A hand painted sign on a dirty screen door, simply reading “Bar,” points the way to salvation. Hailing from San Francisco, CA, and consisting of Bryan Horne (bass), Nat Keefe (guitar), Zachary Matthews (mandolin), Aaron Redner (fiddle), and Erik Yates (banjo), Hot Buttered Rum are following in the traditions of the Grateful Dead’s Americana exploration. The uniqueness of the band resides in their ability to substitute rhythmic strumming and slapping for percussion.
Taking the stage around 9 p.m., their rhythmic deliverance explored a set of covers and selections from their back studio catalog of In These Parts (2004), and Well- Oiled Machine (2006). “Kissing Cousins” kicked off the first set which was followed by “Hard Hearted,” where Eric Yates took lead duties on vocals and finger picking banjo, and the locals rejoiced.
The dynamics of the performance remained steady for the most part with jamming interludes present throughout. There was no definitive soul jolting, eye popping climax. The set, which started off as a bluegrass romp, turned into more of a cabin jam than a strategically placed statement of impending musical domination. In comparison to jam heavyweights Umphrey’s McGee or the face melting Gov’t Mule, Hot Buttered Rum are very much traditionalists. You almost get the feeling that you would much rather bump into these guys on a street corner in Austin, TX, with an overturned hat by their feet, rather than under the heated spotlight of the nation’s barrooms.
John Skehan and Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth opened the show and joined the band on the tightly compacted tapestry laden “Hobo Stage” to provide contributions on “3.2,” “Worth Waiting” and “Return Someday.” Their splashes of guitar and saxophone added a smoother dimension to the tone and provided the calming vibe that eased the adrenaline of a room full of strangers accompanied by the freight train effect of a few guerilla-styled car bound bong rips which after stench cut the air.
Set One showcased the band’s core compositions, where Set Two explored the influences. After a half hour intermission where Jack Daniel’s and pop is the musician’s choice to re-loosen their vocals chords, Hot Buttered Rum re-launched the bluegrass foot stomp. Still the locals rejoice. I say this because the feeling of the night was that half of the attendance was there to see the band, and the other half was there because there was a show in town. Almost as if something as simple as a traveling road band could unite a community.