Monday, December 2, 2013

Concert Review | Ha Ha Tonka at Plush in St. Louis

Photo by Jason Gonulsen

"I'm old enough to know that I could probably get away with it still," Brian Roberts of Ha Ha Tonka sings on "Dead To the World," the lead track from their latest album, Lessons, released on Bloodshot Records.

To get away with anything isn't the point these days for the band from Springfield, Missouri. Lessons is an album about being alive in moment, and not putting off greatness for another day, hence the title. It acknowledges death, love, relationships, and, like Metric's Synthetica in 2012, questions what is real versus what is synthetic, and the value of that difference.

This is darker, more serious music than what Ha Ha Tonka has created before. The guitar on "Lessons," combined with a chorus of "I can't keep learning the same lessons over again," sounds like a warning on the album; hearing it live was an urgent revelation: do not take your life for granted.

Friday's show at Plush, however, lacked much of the energy that was present during last year's post-Thanksgiving show at Off Broadway, or even the show at The Firebird the year before that, but that's not to say the new songs are below par. No, these things happen at shows -- the crowd is different, the venue is different, and the sound is different. Things change, man.

Still, this is not a band who reverts to mailing it in. On the opening song, "Staring at the End of Our Lives," Roberts sang, "To do without is better than / to have so much you cannot stand it," and he did so from his gut, with obvious effort. Twice. The band made every attempt to make "Rewrite Our Lives" into a group-singing effort, but it was not really to be; the entire room felt hungover on leftovers and/or cheap whiskey. Probably both.

There were other attempts to spice up the night -- bassist Luke Long did away with his shirt, and even threw it into a sea of lazy hands. This, as you might have guessed, did nothing, other than leave Long topless for a song.

"Lonely Fortunes" was still lovely as ever, however, and, frankly, is one of the best songs I've heard in the last five years. It represents how good this band can be when the perfect storm is present, like when Roberts screams, "I checked the back of my head for blood," at the end of "Terrible Tomorrow."

That's real blood he's screaming about -- value that cannot be felt from a synthetic heart.

I can't keep learning the same lessons over again.

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