The perfect concoction
June 5, 2007
Hot Buttered Rum’s string-rock sound seems as natural in the Sierra Nevada as snow in February but the band’s roots are in fact urban.
Three of the members are from Mill Valley, one from Oakland and one from South Bay. The hardworking quintet, often mislabeled as bluegrass, rose to prominence at such high-altitude venues as the High Sierra and Telluride Bluegrass festivals. While the mountains inspire creative expression, there are more factors involved.
“I feel this band is a product of the information age because there is all this different music out there,” said Erik Yates, who grew up listening to the diverse offerings from KPFA radio.
The Berkeley station features shows in a variety of musical forms, from bluegrass to world to the Dead.
“Some people just want to rock, some just want to pick and some people just want to write,” said Yates, who probably is inclined to do all three. “We wanted to find a commonality in our multiple interests. It’s quite interesting because there is an unlimited amount of music you can get involved in.”
Four of the Hot Buttered five write songs and everyone sings. Yates plays banjo, flute and accordion, Zachary Matthews and Aaron Redner are on mandolin and fiddle, Nat Keefe guitar and Bryan Horne, who started on the cello, plays upright bass, often with a bow.
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The band has three albums, with 2006’s “Well-Oiled Machine” including appearances from Mike Marshall (Bella Fleck, David Grisman, Psychograss) and Peter Rowan (Bluegrass Boys with Bill Monroe and Earth Opera with David Grisman).
Hot Buttered Rum, which has a large following of fans on the West Coast, plays nearly 200 shows a year. It has appeared at major festivals such as Bonnaroo in Tennessee, the Rhode Island Newport Folk Festival, Grey Fox in New York. The band opens this summer at the Berkeley Greek Theater on the farewell tour for String Cheese Incident.
It was one of the first bands to hit up vegetable oil from restaurants to fuel their bus and it received a “Defender of the Earth” award last year from Rock the Earth.
The band has been called newgrass, avant-grass, high-altitude bluegrass and mountain Americana and mostly bluegress, which sometimes can be frustrating.
“It’s understandable because of instruments we play,” Yates said. “It’s probably more frustrating for bluegrass fans because they come to a show expecting bluegrass. We do play bluegrass but depending on the night half the music we play will not sound like bluegrass. A lot of people have applied the term newgrass to music of our nature.”
Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush’s latest project Strength in Numbers includes bow-wielding upright bass player Eggar Meyer, doubtless a hero to Horne and the rest of Hot Buttered band.
“I’d say they are idols, not a direct influence,” Yates said.
The band is not comprised of serious outdoorsmen, with Keefe being the only free-heeler in the bunch. Nonetheless, the Bay Area band has spent a lot of time backpacking and downhill showsporting before going full-time into the music business.
“The Sierra is a big wellspring of inspiration for us,” Yates said. “A lot of that acoustic desire is fermented from the experience of us being up in the mountains. We love getting out in the granite and in the snow. There is a wisdom in the hills that cities don’t have.”
Life on the road has cut into the band’s precious mountain time, but Yates looks at his circumstance in a positive way.
“Once its in you it forms a place in a person’s soul,” he said. “In way that wisdom can blossom a bit and can even gain a stronger foothold upon us because your appreciation has grown.”