My concert reports are becoming fewer and farther between as I get older, largely because I’ve become more selective about how much trouble I’m willing to go to in order to see a band live. Simply recreating the sound of the record isn’t enough. There has to be a little something extra about your live show – a special energy, an infectious personality that easily wins over audiences who might not all be familiar with your work, a tendency to change up setlists and sprinkle in surprising deep album cuts, etc. More of the bands I’m into nowadays are independent, so unless they call the West Coast home, they might not even make it out to L.A. terribly often. That’s why I made it a priority to see The Last Bison at The Mint last night, even though driving out to West L.A. on a weeknight isn’t normally something I’d be inclined to do. My wife and I hadn’t been to a live show together since Nickel Creek last May, and The Last Bison was one of those bands that might sound a little rough around the edges on their records, but in a live setting, that’s exactly what makes them so much fun. (Plus The Mint is a comfortably small venue with easy parking on the nearby residential streets, and their rather chill policy regarding cameras and will call and people getting to shows late and all of those other little details that can be a hassle at other venues makes it a place I’d highly recommend if you’re ever fortunate enough to discover that a favorite artist of yours has a gig there.)
The Last Bison is a rather boisterous folk/rock band from Chesapeake, Virginia, whose music frequently evokes images of forests and mountains and oceans and recently harvested fields changing color as the autumn sets in. Instruments like the violin, banjo, mandolin, and glockenspiel make frequent appearances in their songs. They also really like to bang on things, which you’ll sometimes hear in the more up-tempo cuts on their records, but it really comes across in their live shows, when at least three people, including lead singer Ben Hardesty and his multi-instrumentalist sister Annah, can be playing drums at once if a song calls for it. Even a few songs that I would characterize as “relatively easygoing” on their records, like VA‘s opening track “Bad Country” or “They Are Filled”, an old chestnut from their debut Quill that I had almost forgotten about due to it not making the cut for the major label debut Inheritance, were enhanced by highly rhythmic intros, outros, and other little instrumental jams not heard in the studio versions. Even when playing an album cut note-for-note, everything seemed louder and more intense, from the pounding toms of “Cypress Queen” that opened the set to the decidedly up-tempo transformation of their signature song “Switzerland” that was saved for the encore. A few moodier songs offered a breather in between – most notably the eerie lost-at-sea story of “Sleep”, which brilliantly faded into “Endview”, quite possibly my favorite cut from VA. Even these slower-paced moments of sublime beauty came across with focused intensity in this setting.
It wasn’t all about making noise, of course. Standing a mere few feet from the stage, I could closely watch the fantastic fingerwork of Teresa Totheroh on the violin, and the Hardesty siblings’ father Ben (probably the man responsible for the genesis of the group by way of introducing his children to musical instruments at a very young age) as he plucked away on the banjo and mandolin. I was also pleased to realize what an important role Annah’s glockenspiel played in several songs, not just because I adore the sound of that instrument in general, but because it was used to great ambient effect in slower songs like “Sleep”, where sounds were drawn from it by dragging various objects across it rather than the usual striking of the mallet. This is where the group’s classical influences come in – you realize as you listen more carefully that these instruments can add intricate textures to a song just as easily as they can provide catchy hooks. (I shouldn’t overlook keyboardist Andrew Benfante, either – while the piano and organ don’t come to mind as readily as a staple of their sound, songs like “Maroon” and “Endview” wouldn’t be nearly as breathtaking without them.) Even Ben’s lead vocals, which are rough and rugged enough that they’re kind of a taste you need to acquire in order to fully appreciate the band, had a much bigger range than I’d given him credit for – only when trying to sing along loudly to some of their most crowd-friendly choruses did I realize that he could easily jump back and forth between octaves like it ain’t no thang.
Ultimately, I’ll remember last night just as much for the joy on everyone’s faces as for the music. Ben and Teresa in particular were an amusing contrast – he the big, bellowing, bearded bandleader with that intense expression of gratitude for a fully engaged and adoring crowd as he reached for those high notes, and she the tiny, but constantly shimmying fiddler, swept away by the motion of their largely up-tempo, danceable setlist. It wasn’t just the band members, either – a couple seated to the left of us seemed almost moved to tears at the inclusion of personal favorites like “Endview” and “Every Time” in the setlist, and there were two young women just to our right, one of which was so eager to dance (particularly during the group’s unexpected cover of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”) that she would drag her reluctant partner into it and not take no for an answer. A few folks seemed to know every word of every song (which is a feat since I haven’t even been able to find reliable lyrics for VA online, let alone the excellent Dorado EP that they just dropped a few weeks ago), and they sang them back to the band with total gratitude. Every now and then I just had to look around at the faces beside and behind me, and I felt this overwhelming sense of joy that Bison’s music meant so much to such a diverse crowd of people. It may have been a small crowd – The Mint doesn’t accommodate more than maybe a hundred – but it’s fun discovering that people are just as into a band as you are (if not more so) after months or years of being bummed that no one you know seems to have heard of them.
- Cypress Queen
- Bad Country
- They Are Filled
- Magic Carpet Ride
- Dark Am I
- Gypsy Rag
- Souls in the Sand
- Every Time
- This Changes Everything
The opening act was a duo called Neulore from Nashville, Tennessee. Just a couple of regular dudes, one on acoustic guitar, the other on electric guitar and kickdrum, boasting a rather percussive style on both instruments and some sweet vocal harmonies. They had a much bigger sound than you’d expect from just two guys as a result. Their frontman could easily make a name for himself on a show like The Voice, if he chose to go that route, but I really hope he doesn’t, because it was the partnership and the interplay between the two men that made them engaging even to someone like me who knew nothing about them before that night. Their humility and their award sense of humor were engaging, the stylistic range of their twin guitar attack was promising, and maybe their lyrics need a little work, but I’m still willing to check out some of their studio material and see if it lives up to the solid impression they made on me as a live act.