It’s a cold Friday night in San Diego’s Ocean Beach district, but the temperature is only rising inside of Winston’s. The place is packed for San Francisco’s Hot Buttered Rum, the bluegrassy band that likes to rock. They’ve sold out two nights here, suggesting the need to move on to a larger venue. But San Diego lacks the array of quality venues of varying sizes that are offered in the Bay Area, so Winston’s it is.
But the Ocean Beach area is tough to beat for a show like this. You can catch an ocean sunset, there’s a wide variety of food and bar options all around, not to mention surf shops, head shops, sports bars, etc. It all makes for an attractive weekend home base for any traveling musical road show. The boys in Hot Buttered Rum are therefore in an excellent mood when they hit the stage in the 10 o’clock hour.
The quintet is generally playing the same size clubs they were five years ago and may well have hit a plateau there. But it’s got to be a pretty sweet plateau when you can pack those clubs on a regular basis and make a living while keeping some of America’s longest running traditional music alive. But it’s no nostalgia act, for the band is always pushing forward with a chemistry that keeps fans returning time and again for the groovy jams. There’s any number of “newgrass” bands on the scene these days, but not so many that bring the rock flavor like Hot Buttered Rum, hence the raucous atmosphere that ensues this evening.
“Busted in Utah” is an early highlight, with the band jamming out on a hot groove about an imperial entanglement in the Southwest. Aaron Redner’s fiddle threatens to smoke, while Erik Yates aims his banjo like a gun toward the rowdy crowd. The drinks are flowing and this crowd is in fiesta mode. The feel good groove of “Beneath the Blossom” kicks the dance party into overdrive with a sound that seems to reflect the influence of vintage Grateful Dead traditionals like “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” and “Big Railroad Blues”. Guitarist Nat Keefe rips off a hot solo, followed by Yates with one on the flute, reflecting the band’s diverse musical weaponry. The fat bass line from Bryan Horne keeps the jam pulsing, while drummer Lucas Carlton keeps a tight beat. Three-part harmonies from Redner, Yates and Keefe also take the tunes to a higher level throughout the night.
A cover of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” finds the band switching gears in impressive fashion, with an up-tempo bluegrass arrangement. Yates’s banjo work is downright dazzling, while Carlton injects old timey flavor by playing the tune on washboard ala the great Bender Rodriguez. A big jam on “Entangled” finds the band dipping into a jazzy, almost psychedelic jamspace, yet still full of hot riffage from all the stringed instruments. The climactic jam ends the first set, sending the assembled out into the night for some fresh air, a smoke, or perhaps another drink.
The place fills right back up to maximum capacity for the second set though, as opposed to some jamband shows that see attrition from muggles that didn’t know what they were getting into. The gorgeous harmonies of “Cherry Lake” open the second set with an upbeat cowboy type of tune that makes Winston’s feel like an Old West saloon. The booze is flowing, the ladies are dancing, and the banjo and fiddle are tearing it up. It’s not hard to imagine gunslinger Will Munny from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven spending some downtime in this manner, after mellowing out and moving to San Francisco where he was rumored to have prospered in dry goods.
“Guns or Butter” is another major highlight that Munny would surely have appreciated in his later years. One of the band’s staple numbers, the tune finds Yates pleading to the powers that be for “less guns and more butter”, an ever timely sentiment here in 2013. Redner even slips in a tease from the Mos Eisley Cantina Band’s funky stylings, much to the delight of the assembled here. A cover of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” hits a similar mark, with the band adding a funky flavor to the bluesy number about an unfortunate man who died of cold in the heat of the sun. “One way or another, this darkness got to give,” sings the crowd in unison along with the band on the fan favorite.
A rousing jam on “Summertime Gal” into “Walls of Time” and back finds the band back into full party mode to close out a second set that has maintained a consistently high energy level throughout. The bar is surely happy about this, for such sets all but require a constant supply of beers to wet the whistle. The joint will surely be just as packed and jumping the following night.