Ha Ha Tonka live in Belfast

Roots and rhythm and blues as Dave Gunning and Ha Ha Tonka win over a Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival crowd in McHugh's Bar, Belfast.

What a delight it is to go see a band and be wowed more than you imagined! The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival took custody of McHugh’s basement tonight to play host to Missouri quartet Ha Ha Tonka and a crowd of grateful punters.

First up was Dave Gunning, a singer-songwriter from Nova Scotia with a nice line in folk balladry. Gunning has a clean, James Taylor-esque voice and tells a nice story in a fairly easy listening style. Tales of his grandfather’s dubious coal-pinching habits, nods to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and some earnest self-deprecating humour see Gunning through a good set. It’s all very nice and what Gunning does, he does very well but it’s a bit too quaint for me.

The night needed an injection of excitement and Ha Ha Tonka was waiting in the wings to do the needful and kicked off with electric mandolin riff led ‘Made Example Of’ from their most recent record Death of A Decade and straight into a new track ‘Dead to the World’. Firing through the first four or five songs with little fuss but tons of style, they soon swapped mandolin for electric guitar and turned things up a notch.

Ha Ha tonka

One of the night’s highlights came in the form of ‘The Humorist’ which showed off everything that Ha Ha Tonka are great at; warm vocal harmonies, anthems with touches of vulnerability and a killer melodies. The pace was kept up with a segue straight into the title track from 2006’s Buckle in the Bible Belt and I couldn’t help but wish these guys were playing to a bigger crowd who had room to let their tapping feet do some stomping instead.  On a Saturday night. On pay weekend.

Showing a good grasp of dynamics, all four members took to the front of stage to deliver an a capella version of an American folk number ‘Hangman’. And it was gorgeous.

These guys are all beards, trucker caps and plaid shirts and you reckon you know what you’re in for when you see them; Americana, rock and roots but they’re better than that. The sound is familiar enough but there are touches of something a little different to let you know that they’re more sophisticated than they look. They’re like a garage rock band whose garage is beside a Georgia gospel church.

Closing the night on a country rocker about a 12 inch 3 speed oscillating fan the guys made a few new fans of their own on their Belfast debut.