Tin Hat Trio fuses Old Word and new
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 23, 2003) – The Tin Hat Trio’s organic, acoustic chamber music, with its hints of Central and Eastern Europe folk, dance and classical styles, was tailor-made for Club Helsinki, where the group performed two generous sets on Saturday night.

One part composer’s collective, one part improvising jam-band, the seven-year-old group, founded in Northern California and now based in New York, had a scruffy, unassuming stage presence belied by its incredibly focused and virtuosic approach.

The trio’s music could be light and airy, like the aptly titled “Helium,” an ethereal tune written by guitarist Mark Orton. His fast, jazzy, percussive playing on nylon-string guitar – as much about rhythm and structure as melody – was surrounded by sustained tones provided by accordionist Rob Burger and violinist Carla Kihlstedt. But the accompaniment was full of space for Orton’s playing to breathe, giving the number its inert quality, with enough depth to suggest an absence. The sum effect was that of a musical palimpsest, like the music was coming not only through space but through time, with faint remnants of other songs attached to the one Orton was playing.

Another tune was more earthy and palpable, with Orton playing a bluesy, slide dobro with a Delta feel and Kihlstedt’s violin turned into an old-time fiddle, albeit one in a suggestive minor mode. Burger accompanied Kihlstedt, the two of them beginning on a dime in unison, drenching Orton’s blues in a bath of harmony that modulated in and out of major and minor.

Burger launched into an evocative tango flavored by some very Gypsy-like fiddling by Kihlstedt, a cinematic tune made all the more eerie by Orton stretching and bending notes more than a whole step on the dobro, giving the piece its ominous, almost vampiristic quality. Another piece kicked off by Kihlstedt with a stately, melancholy melody repeated by Burger on accordion had a Neapolitan, spaghetti-western feel.

“The Last Cowboy,” written by Orton in memory of his grandfather, was built on the twisted remnants of a loping cowboy ballad, with Burger and Kihlstedt painting a deserted prairie with a riderless horse, a lone cactus and a wisp of tumbling tumbleweed. This from a group whose latest album is called “The Rodeo Eroded” – indeed, much of the music was deconstructionist in form, haunted by silences, absences and turns taken down dark corners.

One of the group’s most lyrical pieces, “Rubies, Pearls and Emeralds,” written by Burger, recalled the aesthetic of Dave Douglas’s Charms of the Night Sky ensemble. The accordion and violin doubled the Eastern European-flavored folk melody under which Orton laid down a lush latticework on nylon-string guitar.

On a few numbers, Burger played on a small, out-of-tune piano that was literally rolled down Main Street from a neighboring business for the show. Orton said it was the perfect fulfillment of their lifetime wish to get a piano that sounded like one out of the old-time “saloon recordings.” Toward the end, he also praised the nightclub, saying that having toured throughout the U.S. and Europe, “it’s hard to find places like this in major cities, let alone in small towns” like Great Barrington.

Just as Tin Hat Trio’s music brought Viennese sophistication to the American prairie, so did the group dust the venue with what could well be its own, signature sound, its fusion of Old World and New.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 26, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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