Friday, June 7, 2013

the Last Bison - Inheritance / Quill: Album reviews

Album: Inheritance (March 2013)  
with reflections on Quill, 2011

As a rule, when I  review an album, I don't really know the people I write about. And I don’t really know this next band either… except that they are sitting in my living room with shoes kicked off, playing cards, waiting on word about the fried transmission in their tour band. (6/3/2013)

Genre: Indie “Chamber-Jamboree” hybrid, blending elements of Mountain music and “classical”  -- and some modern rock vocals -- into an original and utterly delicious sonic landscape.  (though some folks think they sound like Mumford and Sons.)

Teresa, Andrew, Ben, Dan, Annah, Amos, Jay (Photo through TLB)

This weekend (June 1-3, 2013) I had occasion to hear the sounds of The Last Bison up close and personal, as their lead singer Ben, dangled “mosh pit style” into the crowd at the Wakarusa Music Festival in Hipppyville, Arkansas.  Make that Mulberry Mountain, Ozark Arkansas.  But before we get to the story of how I steadied Ben's back, I wanna tell you about the music of one of the TOP ten people/bands in the History of the World. (That last designation comes at some cost.  I think I had to scratch Miles Davis from my list to hold it at ten.)  

Quick Spin:  I make no bones about it.  The Last Bison of Chesapeake Virginia, is (are?)  pretty much my new favorite band experience ever.  I can think of individuals, who as writers, musicians or singers, I might hold higher… but when it comes to group dynamics, the Last Bison work together like the body parts of a dancing Fred Astaire.  The hand loves the eye that loves the foot that loves the spleen... or something like that.

When you think of The Last Bison think of time travel.  Or a barn dance.  Mr. 1850 gives Miss 2014 a whirl!  Indeed, the Last Bison harness a Civil-War era vibe, complete with costumes and sundry period instruments.  But not so much the voice.  I think the 19th century would've chased the lead singer out of town.

The Last Bison consists of seven talented instrumentalists, built around the pipes of vocal-behemoth Ben Hardesty,  As a kid Ben crafted music first with family then with  friends.  A couple or years ago the his side-mates coalesced as one.  We have:

Dan Hardesty - rudder/graphic design/mandolin and banjo

Ben Hardesty. Lead vocals and guitar
Dan Hardesty. (Dad), Mandolin, banjo, guitar, harmonies 
Annah Hardesty. (sister) Orchestra bells, percussion, harmonies.
Amos Housewroth - Cello  (and extra special friend to Annah.)
Jay Benfante - Drums, percussion
Andrew Benfante - Pump Organ, percussion
Teresa Totheroh - Violin.

Carla Hardesty (Mom) Tour Manager.

The music of The Last Bison reminds me a little of jazz, not because it sounds like jazz,  but because it represents a marriage of disparate worlds.  (Some folks see Jazz and the union of European classical music and African tribal music, resulting in a truly American child.)  

There are times when over half the members of The Last Bison are given to some form of hitting things.  This is a syncopation paradise.  Even so,  it would be hard to call this music rock.  Then there are those strings, bells and pump-organs, all giving rise to lush beautiful melodies   The Last Bison is, in its soul, a chamber orchestra - plus.  It is rare these days, to find a band that is at ease with beauty.  I mean old fashioned, transcendent beauty.    The admixture between staccato and sway, varies from one tune to another, or even within each tune, but it is not impossible to imagine a Bison song that is at once refined and feisty… sweet and salty,  giddy and sublime... all at once.  



I discovered the Music of The Last Bison (then Bison) through the Internet download site  “Noise Trade.” I had no idea who these Bison folk were, but the cover of their offered album "Quill” – really caught my eye.  Is this a 17-century styled etching of a surgically opened torso?  Further examination showed my eye played a trick.   No torso.  That “rolled back skin" was actually the Arc of the Covenant, while the things I thought to be stomach and liver,  were really etched images of  Moses and King Jehoakim(?) lifted from an old Bible.  Or something like that.

At the time of the their fist offering, The Last Bison were simply Bison.  So too were a couple of other older bands.  Hence, to avoid confusion and any legal snafus, the band became the Last….of the Bison bands.

The first tune out of the chute,  “Switzerland” caught my ear right away… but it was the second that really hooked my intrigue.  Ben is belting “these all look to you for food”…. And I sit up.  I know these lines.  They just happen to be from one of my favorite poems in the world.  Make that an archaic hymn….Psalm 104, penned by King David of the Bible.   A few other songs confirm what I suspect; this band – whose lyrics vibrate with biblical imagery, share my Christian faith.  But for any of you who may find that in itself a turn off – The Last Bison is not in anyway a church band, nor even what might be called a Christian band.  Rather, they are a band comprised of Christians who simply forge good music out of their larger life experience.  And if the crowd at the Wakarusa Music fest was any indication… stoned flower children and dancing stork women like their music too.

As is, I can’t say too much more about their sound, that you cannot hear for yourself by simply getting on You-tube. Ben can sing forever in tender falsetto, gargle like a pirate, or turn a note on a dime.  On the other hand, no You-tube video really captures the sheer energy and effervescent joy of their live performance.  In the studio, the Last Bison are multi-hued and talented. Live, the band is pulsing jubilee ship, ripping apart in the storm.  Or something like that.


As of today, The Last Bison have two major “Long Plays” under their belt, which together, cover about 18 songs. It just so happens that Quill and Inheritance share 2/3s of the same songs… but differently.

Quill: Made as something of a self-cooked work, in look of larger funding. (Download Quill Here) 
Inheritance:  The Bands' first big label break with Republic Records complete with bigger mikes, layers, and promotional budget.

My take.  I love both albums and hear in each, things which make them “One of my favorite albums in the history of the world.”

To be honest, I have a special affinity for Quill (sans larger budget) maybe because I heard it first: Bens' vocals are just a little more chaotic and jagged… some of the instrumentation just a little more jarring…the production a tad harsher and brighter…. And the fact that three of my favorite songs…They are Filled, Iscariot, and The Woodcutters Son, are missing from Inheritance.  That said

Inheritance does something that totally loves my ear.  I am hearing all kinds of notes that I missed in Quill.  I hear depth in  the strings, the separation of the sounds… Like Wow.  The production people on this record did a phenomenal job of pulling apart the instrumental voices of a seven member band, and putting them back together in a way that you can hear each player… and the percussion sounds oh so live and fierce.  The bass scoops and holds.  The sonic landscape just is richer, bodied, and warm.  Everything I hear here, sounds big… and fitting for what SHOULD be the band everyone is talking about.   Move over Cold Play (except that I guess Cold Play is probably yesterday’s news.  You must remember, I am an old man.

You can find many dozens of TLB performances on You Tube.  Here are a few of my recommendations.

Sandstone: The very soothing closing track from Inheritance. (there is irony here, as the song is anchored in the very violent story of Samson.)

They are Filled: pretty rough sound, but this really shows of the energy of a house show.

Switzerland:  With nice story video.

An as of yet "unrecorded" cover of M83's Midnight City. (Quite a different sound... for both bands.)

And finally, a "Mini Indie film" featuring instrumental renditions of songs found on Inheritance.  Watch the whole thing.

All in all, the combination of novel instrumentation, cadence, melody, sweetness, percussion, dissonance and harmony, even a touch of vocal ugliness… (make that, gnarliness)… just make The Last Bison one of the most exquisite listens anywhere.  In any era.



If there is any area where the Bison folk have me sometimes scratching my head, it is the lyrics.  Then I figured it out.  This is not Folk, where the singer tells stories full form.  Nor is this "sit down poetry” in the sense that you can just sit down and read the lyrics, as is.  (a good many lyrics just sound hokey removed from the music.)  What we have instead, are “expressions” – bits and snatches of story line,  bold brush stokes and partial forms, that take on a life “in” the music.  Some of the songs make total sense as is, others just kind of kick about with words or phrases that  forge an impression. Take for example: "Switzerland" the bands' most recognized tune to date.

We tried to sleep up in the banks of snow
But soon discovered it was far too cold
So we then retreated into town
To find a place where there was level ground

Oh, Call home
Oh. oh 

SwitzerlandYou’ve taken way my breath now once again
You’ve left me with a sense of compassion
For the ones who can't pick them selves up off the ground

Oh Switzerland
I never thought I’d have you as a friend
I’m praying it was not at all pretend
I need you now
To help pick me up from off the ground

Our drinks were hardly worth the price we paid
But we thanked God for them anyway
 andWith five minutes left 
we broke our backs
To spend more money than either of us had

Sister Annah Hardesty,  on Orchestra bells, and vocals.
Out of the gate, I really like the concrete detail in several of these lines, a real story line in brew-- But what we have are some missing parts.  When talking to Ben he filled in the larger story.  Ben was in Switzerland as part of an extended backpacking tour out of college (or with his Bible college, can’t remember now.)  While there they found themselves in a ski resort town, late and without a place to stay.  They attempted the survivalist thing of getting in the snow banks, then opted for sleeping behind a store, covering themselves with cardboard and crates to weather the night.  They didn't sleep very well, and now, having done one night of the homeless thing, more readily identify with those who sleep outside as a way of life.  So one night in Switzerland is filled both with the beauty of the place, and a deep life lesson about the needy in our midst.

In reading and listening to other TLB songs, I find the same kind of mix – little bits of personal history, chopped and mixed with allegory or emotive outbursts.   I see what I think are songs related to Ben and his sometimes long distant relationship with the girlfriend in his life(?)  Then there are phrases that lift out of the Bible  -- like “Dark am I, and lovely” from the Song of Songs.   All and all, these are songs that take on a life within the music where the total song carves an emotional landscape that is bigger than just the words or the tune.

Sometimes Ben really does kind of look like a Buffalo...

Everyone for whom I have played the music of The Last Bison is deeply impressed.  “These guys are good, I mean really good.”  My sense.  This is, or should be the next “thing to happen.”  I would like to see the whole planet loving their music. And I think the band would like to see such too.   My prayer for The Last Bison is that they take whatever success they find (or maybe even miss) and fold it into their larger story line of a life lived before God with great delight… even as they enjoy his gifts (music) and relish the gift they have in each other – and all that, held together in Him who gives us life, breath, and everything we need. 

I also pray he keep them from idols.

(Continued next post with: How I became an Honorary Bison

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How I became an honorary Bison

the Last Bison, continued from the Inheritance/Quill review found here.

How I became an honorary Bison.  the Last.

Seems whenever I find a musical act I love, they never come here. (Central Arkansas that is.) Our Indie-hipster Celtic-pirate chamber scene just isn't big enough to pull in would-be performers. So I go years between hearing the music I love.  This is why, in a “free music world” bands shouldn't stop selling CD's. If they want to make any money off of me, I need a physical product. My body won’t make it to your show to buy your t-shirt.  

So, when I see, after checking their tour calendar that The Last Bison are actually going to come to Arkansas, I am jubilant. --  And to a music-fest just a couple hours up the road. Then I spy the ticket price: 120 dollars just to go in the gate. Really? Not that the Last Bison had anything to do with that price. Turns out they would be in the company of about 60 other bands, sharing the woods with twenty-thousand neo-hippies spending days in tents at a festival called Wakarusa. They just didn't sell anything less than a two day pass. Parking and camp grounds extra.

Funny how this happens. Apparently a lot of people who aren't Arkansans’ know about Wakarusa, but a lot of locals like me say Whaka who? 

Background. Wakarusa started as a music festival on the banks of the Wakarusa River in Kansas, then moved to the big hills of Arkansas some 4 years ago. This year was the 10th year of the festival. Then I thought the music was mostly mountain music. Wrong again. Wakarusa features a blend of music that might be followed by your average neo-hip. You know, groups like Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Snoop Dog (ie Snoop Lion, and….The Last Bison. And while the aroma of burning vegetable matter was somewhat understated at the Bison concert, The place has a reputation. And a stink. But I am ahead of myself.

My wife said I was fishing. I was not. I simply wanted to let The Last Bison know how disappointed I was that I would not be able to pay the 120 bucks it would cost me to see their show. Then I offered, that if I could ever help with anything… like photos – let me know.  So,  about a week before the show I get a tweet, asking for my email. They follow up asking if there is any way I might help put up 13 people for a night or two. They have air-mattresses. The Last Bison are still waiting for their turn, and till then seek to save dollars where they can. (They in turn, would get us free entry.)

So I gently slipped the idea to my wife. She told me I was not in college anymore….But I knew that when she started telling some of our friends about the prospect that there was at least a chance. She said she was game if I could get a couple of extra homes to spread the load. So I started calling… and yes. Two family friends agreed to be groupies with us.

The next days I would join in cleaning house even as my wife labored over food preparations for a small ensemble. Musicians, sound guy, road manager (mom), merchandiser, media man etc. We would eat chicken spaghetti on the first night, quiche for breakfast to follow… sandwiches after that. (As it was they left several of their traveling brigade behind for a reduced group of 9.)

Teresa - eyes like joy lasers


Not too much to say after that. The buffalos arrived. Our hosting friends joined us for a meal, and the house was filled with loud banter as we got to know the band a little better. Turns out Dan-Dad is the worship and creative arts leader at their church in Chesapeake, Virginia. Carla-Mom serves as Tour Manager, setting up stops and meals and all that goes with keeping a dozen or so folks on the move. Beyond the direct physical concerns, there is also the concern that any parents, and specifically parents who seek to honor Christ as a traveling community when they go to places that run seedy. We found that Ben, the lead vocalist, has girlfriend, and that he writes all the songs and the larger part of the music, though each musician hones his or her materialized as they work together. We learned that the Hardesty kids (Ben and Annah) were home-schooled. We learned that two of the band members, Annah and Amos are an item and are talking marriage. We learned it takes quite a bit to move 9 to 13 people. We all agreed that we love the music of Josh Garells. We learned too what it means to record for a label, and how that process lets them do some things better, but at the cost of giving some control to others – even though their label has given them all the latitude they could ever want. 

Beyond that I talked to Mom and Dad a tad about theology, and what it means to see Christ, not us… as the cardinal theme of life, the universe, and purpose in general.

That next Day, Anna my youngest, joined the band in their traveling van as they headed west then North into the very soggy Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Family and I would join them a couple hours later.

Long story short, my wife and two daughters opted to stay home. Not up for the crowds.. So I took the van used by my daughter Kayla – still packed with the stuff of her recent college-to-home move. On the way to the Festival I get a call from Carla-tour-manager-mom. Something about trouble with transmission. I am having trouble hearing her, and agree the transmission is kind of bad -- not many cell towers in the hills. Turns out to be that the band made it just fine up the windy mountain roads to Wakarusa, then after fully arriving at stage site, find that their van will no longer move. Except backwards. The transmission is gone I, in turn, , pick up a couple of bottles of transmission fluid. It sure would be nice if this is a cheap fix.

As is, I arrive at Wakarusa a little late, missed my proper entry point down the mountain, then presented myself at the media gate. (As a professional photographer in real life, and with ties to the band I was able to slip in direct, transmission fluid in hand.)
Nothing prepared me for the sight ahead.

Wakarusa Mudfest 2013.

Twenty thousand something   campers…5 stages… 4 days of music and revelry. 

Like I said, not many Arkansans really know about Wakarusa. We knew that for several days, we had been hammered by torrential rains, and that folks at some music festival were having to battle flooding mud.  The scene before me looked like a refugee camp, but with better tents. Thousands and thousands of nylon shanties, over acres of cleared mountain, littered with cars and campers, porta-potties – a Ferris wheel, and mud. (which together with Waterlogged hay gave the whole place a Razorback kind of smell.

How did I ever not know about this? (maybe we should get a TV.)
So I spent the next twenty minutes slogging through the main grounds in ankle deep muck, to find the distant stage where the Last Bison would play. I arrived just as they took the stage, in something that looked like the back of a barn.

And they burned it down.

Not literally of course, but I must say. Amazing. I have listened to my share of Bison tunes… I know how they sound in studio… and live (in the sense of You-tube.) but I this was a different animal. There is something about the volume of big bass drum, sending it sonic wave through your organs. And what is funny… I listened to my few live video clips… and they sound like the other stuff on You-tube… Nothing like the sonic brilliance and shimmer that blessed my ears right then.

This is one tight musical act. Full of life, and passion, and practice. Full of soul, and grace, and beauty. Tight turns, curves and bells. Sound just doesn't get much better.

The crowd loved them too. The stork woman danced. People bobbed. While we represented only a fraction of the larger Wakarusa crowd, is was obvious that many in this group knew the lyrics… or made them up, free style. 

Andrew, on an instrument I cannot identify.  It required breath.
My pleasure  Seeing these people that I was getting to know, perform in such as way that I was seeing them now as distinct people with names and personalities.  Forgive me for just mentioning two.  Violinist Teresa simply radiated joy as she played.  Pure Life sparked through her fingers and her hair.  And percussionist Andrew... Well he came across as the most Emo member of the band... subdued and pretty  moody on stage.  But he was a most engaging conversationalist in our home.


After an hour, mining a full emotive range, The Last Bison left the stage. They gave. Now what do?

Another long story short: Someone finally managed to get their unmoving van, by way of tow truck to my van, then transferred the dirty clothes and college furniture from my van to their trailer, then scrunched eight passengers into a van meant for six. I took the curves down the mountain a little slower than usual. Mom and Dad Hardesty would spend the night in Ozark, seeking solutions…the band would crash one more time at my pad (and those of our same friends.) Somewhere in the next day, Mom and Dad Bison came up with a solution. No easy fix in Ozark, they packed their band-van in the back of a big U-haul box truck, added the trailer and rented an extra van. So, After cards, music, and sandwiches, the family reunited, then headed back to Virginia by way of Nashville, late that afternoon.

For all their good sounds, the ordeal around the van is where this band really showed their grounding.  Folks may have been stressed, even unhappy but no one murmured or cussed or got too out of sorts. They handled the whole thing with a grace befitting people who feed at the banquet of God.

My daughter Anna, with Annah and Teresa

Carla and Dan
When sound-men butt in.

So. Final thoughts.. 

 That was one expensive “complimentary" CD.

As for the band, with van, they lost every penny and more. As for the joy to be found in new friendships, and seeing a band bloom before my eyes – Priceless;  a story for a thousand campfires…and a whopper of a tale to tell my grand-kids. Yes… I knew that band… back before they hit it big, they ate off of our paper plates.

The Last Bison with Van in a box.  Conway,  Arkansas.

Closing Joke.

What did the Mother Buffalo say to her teenage son as he left the house to go to school?