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Tin Hat Trio; A musical ride into the sunset

By Charles Ferris
Saturday October 12, 2002

Ask any musician what kind of music his band plays. You’re likely to get “it’s hard to categorize” followed by some long dizzying string of styles like post-punk-rockabilly-surfer-metal. Even if resisting musical definitions weren’t de rigueur, most musical categories fall short in their attempt to help listeners navigate the CD bins of today’s music stores.  

The Tin Hat Trio is one of the harder musical groups to brand. Hailing from the Bay Area, this instrumental trio is as likely to pack a home crowd at the folk-friendly Freight and Salvage as it is to set up camp at New York’s Tonic, a Lower East Side haven for avant-garde improv. With the trio’s newest release “The Rodeo Eroded,” on Philadelphia-based Ropeadope Records, the trio digs into American roots music while retaining their edgy unpredictability.  

Tin Hat has built coast-to-coast success in part through its ability to satisfy the appetites of a wide range of listeners. Jazz and jam band lovers get their grooves and love the live finger-tickling virtuosity. World-music and folk lovers get theirs kicks through old-time instrument twang, tangos, country, bluegrass and acoustic blues. Alt-country fans find the right balance of rock attitude and classic Americana. 

Like Bill Frisell’s more recent work, Tin Hat dips into an imaginary American past without falling prey to white washed nostalgia. Frisell, a well respected contemporary jazz guitarist, is given tribute in the opening cut of Tin Hat’s CD. Ennio Morricone, the great Italian composer of western movie soundtracks, is also saluted in the song “O.N.E.O.” Five of the disc’s 15 tracks feature other Bay Area musicians as well as such stars as Willie Nelson, Billy Martin (Medeski, Martin and Wood) and Jonathon Fishman (Phish). 

Originally conceived as an evocation of southwestern saloon music, “The Rodeo Eroded” could just as easily pass for what Bill Laswell might have done if he were the first to get his hands on the lost cowboy film soundtracks of a forgotten Piazzolla/Morricone collaboration. Tin Hat’s CD centers around the talents of violinist Carla Kihlstedt, keyboardist Rob Burger and multi-instrumentalist Mark Orton. Orton composes nine of the CD’s fifteen pieces and his dobro, steel-pedal guitar and tenor banjo style consistently forms the rootsier fabric for the musical mischief. 

If “O.N.E.O” evokes the rickety shuffle of a saloon tack piano somewhere near Sedalia, Mo., “Happy Hour” imagines southern Spanish-tinged music. “Under the Gun,” on the other hand, invites you to a low-down hip groove – check Kihlstedt on the ragamuffin dance hall style – before fiddling whips up a faster hillbilly bounce. It is little surprise that this quirky, more bombastic piece is composed by Kihlstedt. Kihlstedt is a mainstay in Bay Area experimental music scenes and is a founding member of theatrical metal-noise outfit Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.  

The trio wears their experimental tendencies on their sleeves as impressionistic textures (“Mammoth,” “Nickel Mountain,” “Sweep,” “Interlude”) and angular composition (“Holiday Joe”) but they are also thrown off the cuff in raucous get-downs such as “Under the Gun.” 

But many will savor this album for its delicious folksy lyricism, where modernist mischief merely haunts Americana dreams and colors pop pleasures. Orton’s lush arrangement of the Tin Pan Alley-era “Willow Weep for Me,” featuring tasty singing by Willie Nelson, evokes the shimmering studio gloss of a 1930s Hollywood film. Vincente Minnelli would be proud. Orton’s gorgeous “The Last Cowboy” and “Mammoth” both mask tight dissonant clusters in simple forms and sensuous lyricism.  

Tin Hat is a tight band but still leaves room for each player’s talent to be heard. If they sound unclassifiable, somewhere between today and some cinematic southwestern yesterday, you can label them yourself when they take to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Halloween night as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.