Home Live Review Live Review: Ha Ha Tonka w/ Sam C. Jones & The Sinners @ Jammin’ Java — 11/19/23

Live Review: Ha Ha Tonka w/ Sam C. Jones & The Sinners @ Jammin’ Java — 11/19/23

Live Review: Ha Ha Tonka w/ Sam C. Jones & The Sinners @ Jammin’ Java — 11/19/23
Ha Ha Tonka (Photo courtesy the band)

Sometimes, with all the seriousness that comes with consuming music as a critic, one can forget that all of this is supposed to be fun. Music is art, but it’s also entertainment. Ha Ha Tonka, who take their name from a park near their hometown of Springfield, Missouri, in the Ozarks, never forgets to have fun on stage. On a recent night at Jammin’ Java, their joy at playing for their fans was palpable.

This shouldn’t be taken to imply they don’t write great songs. They do, and they’ve consistently earn strong reviews for their albums. These original songs made up almost their entirety of their Jammin’ Java set, but they ended the night with a “song you all know,” RamJam’s late ’70s southern rocker “Black Betty,” which is one of those songs that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but it has a great groove and makes you feel pumped.

Formed in 2004, Ha Ha Tonka originally called themselves Amsterband. Under that name, they self-released their first CD, Beatchen. By 2007, they had changed their name and signed with Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records, known for its championing of “insurgent country,” their own term for alt-country. Bloodshot was a good match for Ha Ha Tonka, whose sound combines elements of southern and indie rock with alt-country and Americana. Bloodshot rereleased their album, Buckle In The Bible Belt. The follow-up album, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, drew increased critical recognition. Three more albums followed on Bloodshot: Death of A Decade, Lessons, and Heart-Shaped Mountain.

Sadly, Bloodshot went through a period of several upheaval following the release of Heart-Shaped Mountain in 2017. It’s a complicated and unpleasant story, and it’s not worthing getting into the sordid details here. What’s important to know is that this upheaval resulted in a number of artists who’d been with Bloodshot leaving the label, Ha Ha Tonka among them. This led to them returning to their roots, self-releasing their latest album, BloodRedMoon, earlier this year. The band is offering the album as a digital copy through their website on a pay-what-you-choose basis. You can purchase it for as little as a dollar, which is a great deal for some great music!

(Speaking of great deals, I have to give a shout-out to the venue here. Club food is notorious for being overpriced and low quality. While I was waiting for the show, I ordered the seasoned fries. For just four bucks, I received a generous portion, and they were quite tasty. If you’re out at Jammin’ Java and you need a snack, I can’t recommend them enough.)

At Jammin’ Java on Nov. 19, Ha Ha Tonka opened their set with “Just Like That,” a wistful tune about getting older from BloodRedMoon. They followed that up with the album’s title cut. That one made me think about how, with all the light pollution where I live, I never get to see any of the cool stuff that happens in the sky.

Stream “BloodRedMoon” by Ha Ha Tonka on YouTube:

Later in the set, they played one more song from the album, “Leavin’ That Boy,” which was sung by keyboards/guitar player Brett Anderson. The band’s frontman and principal songwriter, Brian Roberts, noted that Brett’s in-laws were in attendance and had brought a whole group to the show.

One thing I found funny: late in their set, they played “12-Inch 3-Speed Oscillating Fan.” When I tried to google the lyrics on this one, I though the search engine was feeding me ads at first. Other songs in the set included “Dead To The World,” “Carry It Around,” “Lessons,” “Lonely Fortunes,” “Arkansas,” and “Usual Suspects.” They sang “Oh Red River” a capella, which was a nice, intimate moment to break up their otherwise loud and spirited rock show. They closed their set with “Race To The Bottom,” and, when they returned for their encore, they played “St. Nick On The Fourth In A Fervor.”

Before Ha Ha Tonka took the stage, DC-based band Sam C. Jones and the Sinners played an opening set. In addition to making music, Sam is an actor who has appeared in regional productions of the Million Dollar Quartet musical. Sam opened his set with “Trouble In Paradise.” For “Call Your Friends,” he taught the audience a simple call and response. The set also included a new song, “Dead End Job.” Sam recalled playing Jammin’ Java with his high school band, the Lowdown, then closed his set with “We Were Kings.”

Ha Ha Tonka are true midwesterners: The band, especially Roberts, are some of the nicest folks you’ll meet, and they happily mixed with fans after the show. It was a fun night with a great band that ought to be much more widely known.


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