There is a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer drinks a bottle of “Red Tick” beer, and wonders what are the ingredients. The answer, as we were flashed to the Red Tick factory, is a bunch of dogs swimming in a vat of beer. The technician tries it, and says “it needs more dog.”
Well, that all was a setup for a saying I had about The Horse’s Ha and their set at the Cowboy Monkey on Saturday: it needs more jazz (and was it really worth it?). The Chicago-based acoustic quintet really stood out as something special when they combined their folky sound with a jazzy style. That blend was the only thing they were able to do to cut through the noisy, uninterested crowd, as their music built to a roar instead of a whimper.
The band’s new album, Of the Cathmawr Yards, really focuses on the harmonies of Janet Bean and guitarist/vocalist Jim Elkington. And while those harmonies were still the focus live, they lost something that made them sound great on record. Maybe it was due to sound issues (of which they had some) or just a bad crowd (they were constantly fighting for attention), but their vocals lost the delicate beauty when they instead went for power. They weren’t powerful enough, though.
Despite their issues, their secret weapon was Elkington (pictured far left), and even though half the songs were sung by him, he sat facing away from the crowd. Maybe he is self-conscious, or maybe he likes leading the band, but he is a great guitarist, melding different styles into a unique way of playing that gives The Horse’s Ha a sound they can call their own.
And they made it their own when they tried the jazz. That’s when they really tried something new. There are plenty of folk bands out there, but ones that incorporate improvisation and riding a groove? There aren’t any, and The Horse’s Ha needs to corner the market while they still can.
Common Loon followed, and while most of the crowd came for The Horse’s Ha, the band played a strong set. While their music can get a bit precious at times, they can display a lot of power when they try.
The band works well when they rock out or write simple pop songs. If they decide to turn up the reverb and get lost in the sound, they go nowhere. Luckily there was more of the former, and let’s hope their new album (which they said is ready) shows this side of them.
Their set ended with a cover of Madonna’s “True Blue” that sounded like the prom song from the 1950s that I never got to experience because, well, I was born in 1986. It was touching though, bringing emotions out of the song I didn’t know were there.
Opener Angie Heaton was nothing to write home about. I have seen her folky, Lillith Fair-esque music live before, and I wasn’t impressed then. This time was a little bit better, but not by much. I get bored quickly by hearing only three chords with a mid-tempo strumming pattern.
There is emotion in there, that’s for sure, but they were heard best in her well-chosen covers. Otherwise, nothing really sticks out as anything great. As paraphrased from The Simpsons, “it needs more ‘oomph.’”
Photos by Eric Heisig