It’s rare to find such a high wired electrified show like the one Missouri natives Ha Ha Tonka threw Friday night in Columbia, Mo. The evening began with a set from a local band of college kids called Houseguest. It’s uncommon to find such a young band with the talent and grace that they had. Even though they played a short set, the female vocalist sent chills down your spine as she belted and crooned her way through their songs.
At one point as the drummer was beat-boxing while playing a beat on his drums alongside a lick the guitarist was laying down, their singer began scat singing and hitting notes that made the audience feel like they were hearing Tina Turner herself. Only a couple times did Houseguest seem a little rough, but as they played on through their set everything tightened up nicely. They were very well rehearsed and highly accomplished for such a young act.
The next opening band was also a local Columbia act that tours around the town quite frequently. They’re called Moonrunner, and have a sound that can’t be pinned down to just one style. Moonrunner started off their set a bit rocky, and they had trouble immediately creating a personal connection with the audience. However, after the third song in their set, everything fell into place for them and they settled in, and got everyone clapping and dancing around as they kicked out their jams.
Moonrunner has two musicians who were especially talented and deserve references. Their violinist struck the crowd in sheer awe and frankly caught many people in the crowd off guard. She had a very smooth and precise style, which dramatically affected the band’s overall style. The lead guitarist also played some riffs and a couple solos that completely surprised the whole house. However, it was difficult to determine why the band placed both the violinist and the lead guitarist sort of towards the back right of the stage. Considering the talent that both of these musicians had, it seemed that they both should’ve been featured more during the performance.
Moonrunner’s show was made even more fun by their bassist. As he danced and sang along to the songs, flipping his bass in the air, and screaming out to the crowd, he created a deep connection with the audience, which other members of the band hadn’t done successfully. Many people mentioned how he really added to their overall persona and performance. Closing out their set with their strongest, most powerful song, “Two Lost Souls”, the crowd was left in a state of complete elation. Moonrunner by far played this song with the most passion and strength, and the audience notably reacted the best to this song.
Finally, as the lights darkened, an almost eerie silence fell throughout the venue. Then in a flash of colorful lights and a scream from the crowd, Ha Ha Tonka began playing to the eager crowd. It became obvious quickly that Ha Ha Tonka was a fan favorite, as the whole house shook as people stomped, clapped, danced, sang, and jumped to their original, fresh sound.
The band often features a unique combination of guitar (both acoustic and electric), a driving electric bass, and pounding bluesy rock styled drums. A sound that’s a mix of many seemingly distantly related genres like blues, rock, folk, bluegrass, and country; their distinctive style made the band even that much more enjoyable to witness.
Ha Ha Tonka’s set never became dull or boring, and it was obvious how rehearsed and practiced the group was. Making seemingly little to no mistakes, and playing with a remarkable amount of “tightness” and precision, the crowd could tell how talented the group was as both musicians and performers. Playing many of their own hits like “Usual Suspects”, “Westward Bound”, and “Made Example Of” they had the crowd captivated throughout the show. There wasn’t one song in their set that felt weak or lacking compared to the others. Each tune was executed with the utmost power, precision, and skill. At one point the band even took a break from their usual music, and in a four man harmonized a cappella sang a bluegrass style tune from their original band, Amsterband.
Ha Ha Tonka was also able to successfully cover of Ram Jam’s 1977 hit “Black Betty” and Big Smith’s “12 inch 3-speed Oscillating Fan”, when they ran out of original songs to play during their double encore. They were able to not only successfully cover these two iconic tunes, but some would argue that they played it with an unmatched intensity that few acts could match.
After playing an exhausting set of more than three hours, Ha Ha Tonka ran out of songs to play, and energy to keep playing. Even though the crowd kept cheering for just one more encore, they couldn’t do it, but they kept thanking the crowd profusely for supporting them over the years. It’s rare to find such a talented performing band, which even sounds better live than they do recorded. If you ever have a chance to see Ha Ha Tonka live, don’t hesitate; it might be one of the best shows you’ll ever see.
Written by Denny Ganahl