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Thursday, May 12, 2011 05:27 am

From Ha Ha Tonka to Freedy

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Freedy Johnston plays at the Hoogland Sat. May 14.
I do believe this season could be the best Bedrock 66 Live! series ever. Already we’ve had so much national talent hanging out at the Hoogland, who could ask for more? The nice thing is you don’t have to ask for it, all you have to do is pay for it and go to it. This weekend marks another high point with two nationally renowned acts with Midwestern roots packaged into one superb concert.

First up on the bill is Freedy Johnston, a Kansas native and former farm boy. Influenced by the “new wave” music popular during the 1980s, Johnston’s bio states he had a friend drive him 35 miles to find a record store to buy an Elvis Costello record. After a short stint at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a longtime hotbed for music in the Midwest, Johnston packed up his bags and songs, pawned his guitar and headed to New York City to make it in the music biz.

His big break came after he sold off some family farmland to finance a record. The album got heard and he got signed to a major label deal in 1994 that produced This Perfect World and spawned a Top 100 Billboard hit, “Bad Reputation.” Accolades abounded from the media, most importantly a shout out from Rolling Stone magazine naming Johnston as their choice for songwriter of the year. From that point he continued making records, gaining incredible respect among songwriters and fans.    

In 2008 he released My Favorite Waste of Time, a collection of other people’s songs, and in 2010 out came Rain on the City, a selection of original songs described by critics as “sublime” and “masterful.” Johnston often writes of those going through the hard times that define the human spirit. The beauty of his work lies in a thoughtful and significant compositional style that ties together a brilliant musicality with literary sensibilities. In other words, he tickles your mind and knocks you in the gut at the
same time. Currently he’s on tour with Marshal Crenshaw, but plays alone for the Bedrock show.

Next on your entertainment delight calendar comes Ha Ha Tonka, a Springfield, Mo., band traveling the rocky road to greatness. In case you’re wondering, the name comes from a state park located in the lovely Ozark Mountain region in southwestern Missouri. Signed to Bloodshot Records, the standard bearer of roots rock music from Chicago, the up and coming quartet keeps getting better and better with each recording.

The recently released third album, Death of a Decade, received words of praise such as, “an excellent set blending a variety of acoustic and electric instrumentation with the band’s stunning four-part harmonies,” from radio station KEXP. What differentiates this band from the countless indie-rock, Southern rock, alt-country, folkie bands seemingly everywhere these days is a strong performance ability with attention to tradition, plus those wonderful gospel-style four-part harmonies not easily done or even considered by most groups.

The blending of indie-rock with traditional music to create a vibrant and provocative modern mix gives the band crossover possibilities into different genres. Ha Ha Tonka stays keen on the road as well, spreading the word and keeping the faith. With appearances at big-time events like Lollapalooza, Sundance Film Fest, SXSW and CMJ, while touring nationally as a headlining act, plus supporting many great bands such as Old 97s, Murder By Death, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Ludo, Meat Puppets and others, the strapping four are doing it all right and doing all right in the meantime.

The bad news for me is I’m out of town and will miss this one, but I trust your situation allows attendance and enjoyment of this exciting lineup.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.
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