Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles by Garrett Bethmann, who reported from the Oct. 22-25 Hangtown Halloween Ball in Placerville.
The road to the fifth annual Hangtown Halloween Ball was paved in gold as the sun began to slip down down over the Sierra on Thursday, Oct. 22. The setting sun pulled through the valley and plastered itself against the sky in a peach smear over Placerville.
As an introduction to the festival, it was a comforting omen that the forces of nature were crafting a beautiful weekend for the legions of excited fans. A good 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the chilly shores of Tahoe, it was a respite from the dropping temperatures of autumn and the camps hummed with anticipation as tapestries flowed in the breeze and the first cases of beer were cracked in celebration.
Opening night could not have provided a finer blueprint to follow for the weekend. Walking around the grounds, people were already dressed in bright costumes ranging from full chicken suits to men walking around in wooden barrels like cowboys on vacation. The dedication to extravagance was impressive and it was beautiful to watch people tap into that energy and flaunt their colors like peacocks all weekend.
The night’s music all came from the Hangin’ Hall and Tracorum opened up the festival in solid fashion. The San Francisco band laid down smooth funk that weaved in and out between originals and covers, including a sly “Stand Back” by the Allman Brothers.
Looking like veteran members of 1970s rockers Sha Na Na, Railroad Earth shimmered onto the stage in bright gold shirts and black pants after Tracorum. The lights glittered off of them like disco balls as they tore through their first set of the weekend, their dedicated Hobos happy to see them for the first time.
Tim Carbone’s violin wafted over the crowd in “Dandelion Wine” and powered through an up amped-up “Rabbit.” They teased-out “Head” into a flowing jam, and it was a treat to watch guitarist Andy Goessling and mandolinist John Skehan pull the song along. It was a set that would have held up all on its own, so it is amazing to think it was only the first of three for the band and it served as a satisfying appetizer for the weekend.
However, Thursday night belonged to Rubblebucket, a seven-piece explosion of life and dance that managed to win over a crowd that didn’t expect the band to move the way it did. Rubblebucket came out like a rocket on “My Life” and “Shake Me Around” from their recent album “Survival Sounds” after sound issues delayed their lift-off, but it took a couple songs before the whole crowd was on-board for the trip.
The musicians’ iridescent swirl of 1980s synths, gummy dance-rhythms and ska-tinged horns is not the standard serving of funk and jam to which Hangtowners are accustomed. The first half of the show saw the band fighting the expectations of the crowd as it was trying to find how to groove to the new sound. Despite the sonic differences, the people of Hangtown always will respond to a good show and the sheer firecracker energy of the band eventually won them over. By the time, confetti rained down on the crowd during the luminous “Rewind” midway through the set, the crowd was all in.
One thing that was clear from the show was that Rubblebucket was armed for a party. Trumpet player Alex Toth, who feverishly danced throughout the whole show, sported a gigantic foam cowboy hat and singer Kalmia Traver matched him in intensity and ridiculousness with the chrome ghillie suit she pranced around in. A confetti cannon was put to great use multiple times and the end of the set was decorated with dozens of balloons, including one giant balloon octopus that they dropped onto the crowd.
But props don’t make a show, the connection between band and crowd does. The group bridged that gap between themselves and the audience by bringing its music directly to them, with the crowd becoming the stage.
During the band’s infectious “Came Out of a Lady,” trumpet player Toth climbed over the barrier onto my shoulders and we led the brass section on a parade through the amazed fans. You can’t get closer to a band than having it play on top of you! Rubblebucket ended the show by leading the crowd like the Pied Piper to the back of the hall and vibed off the crowd for a very primal explosion surrounded by everyone.
With that unequivocally raw and energized performance, Rubblebucket already secured a spot as one of the top five sets of the weekend. For me, crossing over from fan to performer in a concert made it one of the best shows of my life.
Coming next: Coffee and the T Sisters start off the second day of the Hangtown Halloween Ball. To see all of Larry Sabo’s photos from Day 1, click the link HERE.