‘Rum’ makes good music
BRECKENRIDGE – When you get high enough into the mountains, your head starts acting a little funnier than usual. On most occasions, it’s an ecstasy bookmarked by peace and beauty and filled with a soul-warming journey between. This is the High Country after all, so you probably know what I’m talking about.For several California musicians, a backpacking trip into the high Sierras made their heads behave so funny they thought they’d start a band dedicated to those high-altitude reveries. They call themselves the Hot Buttered Rum String Band, and they’re playing Sherpa and Yeti’s tonight.
The band features Erik Yates on banjo, flutes, accordion and clarinet; Aaron Redner and Zachary Matthews both playing the fiddle and mandolin; Nat Keefe on acoustic guitar; and Bryan Horne on the upright bass. They’re a folky, bluegrass jam-band that can’t help but evoke images of happy, innocent, harvesting farmer families gathered for a feast and festival with dancing and flavor and laughs and campfires.Gary Snyder, the poet who inspired Jack Kerouac to roam the West with a rucksack, poetry, Zen Buddhism and a wrinkle-cracking smile, played a bit into Hot Buttered’s formation. Snyder, says guitarist Nat Keefe, “has written some of the best wilderness poetry out there.”
The nascent band members read poetry nightly from Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild on their decisive high Sierra rompings. No doubt Snyder contributed to the original musical direction of the group. Keefe says the readings helped unite the members in seeing “the high mountains as a place where you can think very clearly and see things as they are, with the clean air and the expansive views and the fun thrill.” Nothing like reducing that oxygen valve to the brain to induce some clear-headed thought. I’m not kidding, and neither is Keefe. The band loves coming to Colorado and infecting people with – and being infected by – a delirious love for the mountains. They don’t like the 3.2 beer though. They wrote a song about that: “It’s hard to get drunk on three-point-two, it’s easy to get funky on hot buttered rum.” Keefe says the band has now perfected a rum recipe that’s unbeatable on a wintry mountain night.
Musically, Hot Buttered Rum delivers an upbeat, melodious mélange of fast picking; long, lugubrious bass; and woodwind notes. All five members sing, with twangy voices and sometimes barbershop-like harmony that complements their instruments wonderfully.As with singing, all the band members contribute to songwriting. It takes a lot more work to have that kind of democracy, Keefe says, but “it allows everyone to put their heart deep into it.” Perhaps the mountain-style trust and teamwork of the band’s hikes has something to do with their democratic success.In the past, most tunes have begun with one songwriter and were then followed by sessions of collaborative input from the other musicians. Keefe says that one of the focuses for the next year is to build on that and start producing compositions that developed more spontaneously out of the group animus.
“It’s important in this band to really have five equal voices,” Keefe says.It’s all fun for these guys, but they’re certainly not afraid to walk the well-trodden path into political-musical harmony. In the fall, they held voter registration at their shows. Although I didn’t coax an actual political position out of Keefe, in “Reckless Tex,” Hot Buttered Rum String Band sings that “a village has lost its idiot/that fancies himself a cowowowboy.”Guess ya gotta sing what ya feel. And if you can’t feel Hot Buttered while you’re in the mountains, and while a hint of rum courses through your veins, maybe you owe yourself a few high-altitude treks.
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