The Last Bison with The Ballroom Thieves

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Port City Music Hall, Portland, Maine

What a spectacular night! I already loved The Ballroom Thieves, and now I’m completely smitten with The Last Bison. My best advice is that you should check out both bands and definitely see both live. This is a really long, effusive post. Buckle up.

I met up with my college friend Elissa, her husband Chad, and their adorable son Jackson after school in the Old Port. We walked around for a couple of hours before I met up with Andrea for dinner at Local Sprouts, fancy drinks at Petite Jacqueline, and the show at Port City Music Hall. It was a lovely Tuesday.

Andrea and I’d seen The Ballroom Thieves back in June opening for The Lone Bellow. It was a magical night. We both went home with a copy of The Ballroom Thieves’ EP, The Devil & The Deep, which is great listening. As much as I like their recordings, The Ballroom Thieves really shine live. Andrea and I’d seen Rachel Gawell play cello with the Thieves in June, and she has real talent. After two years, Rachel has left the group and new cellist, Calin Peters, seems to fit right in. If they hadn’t mentioned it was their “15-day anniversary” with Calin, I don’t think anyone in the room (except their fans) would have known she was new to the Thieves.

The Ballroom Thieves

The Ballroom Thieves

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I can tell I really like a band when it’s easy to keep track of their set list. It means I’m familiar with their music, which shows I’ve listened a lot. Here’s The Ballroom Thieves’ set list from the night, with a few notes that will let you know what you missed.

Percussionist extraordinaire Devin Mauch said that someone had asked him if he was a Bison. He took it as a compliment and said how “super handsome” the folks in The Last Bison are. I like it when bands on the same bill are kind to one another.

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This was the first night that The Ballroom Thieves’ self-titled EP was available and it was the first of the release shows for the EP. I have been listening to the new EP on repeat and it is great. Talented front man Martin Earley told the Portland crowd how he’d grown up in the Bangor area. People cheered briefly, until he said he’d gone to Hampden Academy. (I went to John Bapst, so our schools were rivals). He joked that “the Bangor love” went away as quickly as it’d begun when he dropped Hampden Academy on us.

  • “Wait for the Water” was fabulous. The tempo picks way up and the driving percussion and layered strings and vocals really impress. I hope the Thieves won’t mind that I think they are kindred with Mumford & Sons.
  • “Vampires” It might have been Martin who joked that the song was based on the Twilight series. He may also have gently disparaged Kristen Stewart and then hoped out loud that the show was 18+ so no one would be mad about his comment. I was so offended! (Kidding). I have read all of the books and seen all of the movies, though.

The guys talked about how they played Empire Dine and Dance the last time they were in Portland (around the time of the epic Mumford & Sons Gentlemen of the Road Stopover that I went to) and that it’s a Chinese place now. Devin asked if anyone had been there yet and I had, so I told them it has dim sum and the veggie dumplings are really good. They said they’d gone to Nosh and had the bacon dusted fries and were sweating bacon.

  • “Coward’s Son” was written for Martin’s dad. I have listened to it the most by far on the new EP. I find myself really drawn to it and also pondering what the song means to Martin. I love the lyric in the song “afraid of being terrified.”
  • “Brother” was a new song. I was glad to hear that the Thieves are planning to release a full-length album in 2014!

After announcing their 15-day anniversary with Calin, Devin told us to start stretching and to take off our shoes in preparation for The Last Bison because they’d rock our socks off.

  • “Armada” is not about the Spanish fleet (that sunk, right!?), but about legal 21+ drinking.
  • “Save Me” was absolutely lovely. The Thieves came down off the stage, stood in the middle of the crowd, and played acoustic. It was stunning to hear how silent and attentive the room was while they played. It was a perfect way to end their fantastic set.
The Ballroom Thieves unplugged and in the audience for "Save Me"

The Ballroom Thieves unplugged and in the audience for “Save Me”

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During the break between bands Andrea and I meandered over to the merch table to pick up our copies of The Ballroom Thieves’ new self-titled EP. They were busy chatting with some fans, so I struck up a conversation with the woman behind the Last Bison merchandise table. I was immediately cheered by her accent, told her so, and we got to talking. Turns out, Carla is Last Bison family. Her husband Dan Hardesty, son Ben, and daughter Annah are all in the seven-piece ensemble! I follow The Last Bison on Facebook, so asked Carla about Annah’s recent engagement to Last Bison cellist Amos Housworth. She was so excited to chat about wedding preparations and especially about Annah’s recent wedding dress find. Carla was an absolute dear and meeting her made our night! She said they’d asked on Facebook where they should go in Portland since they had a rare day off before the show. They really listened to the suggestions people posted and spent a bunch of their day at Fort Williams and then had their first lobster rolls. Did I mention that we loved Carla?! We loved Carla! Chatting with her also let us know that The Last Bison is a family operation, and I like that.

Andrea and I did eventually pick up our Ballroom Thieves’ EPs and chatted with the band a little bit about the last time we saw them before The Last Bison started their set and we all excitedly hurried off to get back to the stage. If you’re like me and like knowing a bit more about a band, check out this post about The Ballroom Thieves’ EP recording process and EP release shows on Boston’s Maimed & Tamed. While I was writing this recap, I also noticed my friend Aimsel Ponti at Portland Press Herald had The Ballroom Thieves in to play The Newsroom Sessions.

I have tried to start writing this next part of my evening recap a couple of times, but I was so blown away by The Last Bison that I’m a little lost for words. They impressed me above and beyond my wildest expectations. I am a fan. There were other fans in the crowd—folks, it seemed, who’d seen The Last Bison play over the summer at the Newport Folk Festival. I couldn’t go this year because I was marrying friends on top of a mountain that weekend (yes, by the power vested in me!), but if I had gone, I would have caught their set for sure. They also played Firefly in Delaware—both shows, apparently, in the pouring rain.

A perfect summer day for a wedding on top of Sunday River

A perfect summer day for a wedding on top of Sunday River. This is why I missed The Newport Folk Festival this year! It was worth it!

I married my dear friend Sarah to her love Sam. Photo courtesy of Grace Cooney.

I married my dear friend Sarah to her love Sam. Photo courtesy of Grace Cooney.

What struck me first about The Last Bison (LB), was their old timey clothing (I love suspenders!), joyful energy, and family vibe. Andrea and I’d already met Mom Carla by then, but LB is really full of family. From the bio section of their website—“six of the band’s seven members are the products of homeschooling, including Ben and his younger sister, Annah, who plays bells and sings backup vocals. A couple of longtime friends—percussionist Jay Benfante and his older brother, Andrew, who rocks that antique organ–grew up going to church with the Hardesty’s and were a natural fit. The band received a refining touch with the discovery of two classically trained strings players from a local home-schooling cooperative. Add Teresa Totheroh on violin and Amos Housworth on cello, and the band’s richly layered sound is complete.” So, only two people in the bands aren’t related to anyone else. And Amos and Annah are engaged, so that’s about to change. You could just feel how comfortable these talented people were with one another. I felt like I was at a bonfire in their backyard on a creek in Virginia the whole night.

The Last Bison

The Last Bison

Ben, Jay Benfante, and Andrew Benfante of The Last Bison

Ben Hardesty, Jay Benfante, and Andrew Benfante of The Last Bison

Teresa smiled non-stop all night long!

Teresa smiled non-stop all night long!

From left to right are Dan Hardesty, Ben Hardesty, Teresa Totheroh, Jay Benfante, and Annah Hardesty

From left to right are Dan Hardesty, Ben Hardesty, Teresa Totheroh, Jay Benfante, and Annah Hardesty

The Last Bison’s website also says that they call their genre “mountain top chamber,” and that makes perfect sense. Andrea and I were completely wowed by LB and pondered together throughout the evening what we’d call their music. We kept coming back to the notion of an orchestra and to chamber music. We definitely threw rock opera out there at some point, too. Their sound was both down home and simple, but almost overwhelmingly rich and polished at the same time. I was impressed from start to finish.

Ben said he’d seen a lot of facial hair in Maine and liked it. He also pointed us to The Last Bison’s Instagram page if we were interested in seeing what four tacos before the show did to him. Father Dan took a minute to talk with us about something on the heart of The Last Bison. He told us that there are more people enslaved today throughout the world than there ever have been. He said that LB supports International Justice Mission and asked us to check out their website if it sounded like something we might care to get behind.

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“Iscariot” is when I really started to hear the Christian themes in The Last Bison’s music. I’d be really interested in sitting down with their lyrics, actually. Have I ever mentioned that I have an MA in Theology from Bangor Theological Seminary? I know I’ve mentioned that I teach a world religions course, but religion is fascinating to me. I can tell it’s been a major influence on The Last Bison’s songwriting, as well.

Ben complimented the very attentive audience and told us that “some cities just like to drink, but others like to listen to music.” I’m always happy when folks who come out to a show at a bar still come ready to listen to the music. Ben asked us if we say “y’all” in Maine. Someone said we say “wicked” and then he was confused about whether we meant that wicked and y’all meant the same thing (they don’t). I’ll use it in a couple of sentences for our new friends from the South. The Last Bison is wicked good live! They were wicked impressive! Do y’all get it now?

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Ben joked that if we liked their cover of M83’s “Midnight City” then they totally wrote it. If not, they didn’t. I was surprised by how funny Ben was on stage given how serious and heavy some of the songs he sung (and wrote?) were. He mentioned their new video for “Setting Our Tables,” which is so creative and beautifully done. There you can see the variety of instruments LB plays—from banjo to xylophone to organ to violin. Their sound is quite percussive, as well.

The LB told us they were writing new songs this fall and have an album of Christmas songs coming out. You can (and really should) listen to their Inheritance EP on SoundCloud. The Last Bison really went for it during their last song, “Dark Am I,” which built and built and even had room for some audience participation. They left the stage with our small, but impressed crowd a little blown away. I think we were still processing what we’d just seen. The Last Bison doesn’t so much play a set as construct an impressive event. They were awesome.

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Ben, Dan, Amos, and Teresa came out to play one last song. Teresa had been a particular pleasure to watch on violin because she smiled from ear to ear the entire night. She was radiant. They played “Autumn Snow” for us and said goodnight. This was definitely one of the very best shows I’ve seen this year and certainly one I’ll look back fondly on. Thanks to The Ballroom Thieves and The Last Bison for making us feel at home and putting on an amazing show!

xo,

bree

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