For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. Eleventh stop: Austin, TX.
On St. Patrick’s Day afternoon, I found myself under a white party tent in the backyard of the Yard Dog, one of the best outsider art galleries in America. On the riser a few feet away was the Ozark rock ‘n ‘roll band Ha Ha Tonka. Next to me was a short woman in a green dress dancing furiously to the music. When she saw me scribbling in a notebook, she said, “I saw these guys a few years ago, and they were pretty good, but they’re a whole lot better now.” I told her that I couldn’t agree more.
Everything was better. The songs from their new album Heart-Shaped Mountain were more sharply focused, both lyrically and musically, and they delivered those songs not as if they were hosting a party but as if they were trying to change someone’s life. The guitars and mandolin filled the songs not just with sound but also with an emotional urgency, and Brian Roberts, wearing a “Love Trumps Hate” T-shirt, sang them as if seized with purpose.
A lot of people go to South by Southwest in search of new discoveries, hoping to find a terrific act they’d never heard of before. That’s a worthy pursuit, especially because it requires listening to a dozen frogs that never turn into a prince for every one that does. But in recent years I’ve taken a different approach: I check in on acts I haven’t seen in a few years to see how they have or haven’t changed.
For Ha Ha Tonka, those changes have been dramatic, transforming the Missouri group from a twangy Old 97’s-type retro outfit to something with the pop power of the early Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Roberts supplied the jangle with…