Hot Buttered Rum Is a Traveling Bluegrass Party

Hot Buttered Rum brings a rare flavor of bluegrass.
Hot Buttered Rum brings a rare flavor of bluegrass.
Dave Fleishman

It's official! Hot Buttered Rum, a five-piece bluegrass band from San Francisco (of all places!), is now more popular than the après-ski cocktail of the same name. At least, the group finally shows up above the drink in Google searches.

"We've arrived!" guitarist Nat Keefe says with a laugh from his San Francisco home. "That's certainly cool."

Cool has certainly changed these days, and so has bluegrass. Hot Buttered Rum is clearly new school -- a progressive fusion of old-time music, traditional bluegrass, rock, jazz and even a little EDM. The group released its fourth LP this summer, a self-titled affair, chock full of rich harmonies, tight picking and certifiably danceable songs that capture an old time spirit as well as life in the great outdoors. It epitomizes what HBR does best, which gets even better when considering the band's live appeal. HBR has also released four live albums, all loose, grooving and relaxed with improvisational flurries and telepathic interplay -- a groove the band locks into at every venue.

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"Frankly, we're much better doing live shows then we are albums," Keefe attests. "We do 150 shows a year and we know how to put together three hours of music -- we've refined that."

Up on the Sun spoke with Keefe about San Francisco's musical history figuring into Hot Buttered Rum's new album, their around-the-campfire formation, and San Francisco Giants third base coach Tim Flannery sitting in with them at their last Phoenix gig.

Hot Buttered Rum is scheduled to perform Saturday, November 22, at Crescent Ballroom.

Up on the Sun: I once Googled Hot Buttered Rum some years back when the band was in its early days. I did it today, too, and I see the band now appears before the drink in search results. Is that exciting for you?

Nat Keefe: We've arrived! [Laughs] That's certainly cool.

You come from San Francisco, which isn't exactly a bluegrass hotbed. When most people think of San Francisco bands, Haight-Ashbury and the psychedelic past come into focus more than bluegrass. How does being from SF contribute to the band's musical perspective?

We certainly like history here, with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and music like that, but actually, there's a really rich tradition of acoustic music that's happened here. Back in the '70s, this is where a lot of great stuff came together in the acoustic world. Tony Rice, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Mike Marshall all lived out here. Those are some of the guys we follow in the footsteps of, maybe even more than the Nashville bluegrass guys.

Those guys were all pretty progressive for the time in their bluegrass playing, so where does that put Hot Buttered Rum? Some call you a traditional bluegrass outfit, others consider you a progressive bluegrass band.

We're not a traditional bluegrass band that's for sure. I used to think about this stuff a lot more, where we fit into the spectrum of bluegrass. I've just become confident about who we are and where we are and what we're doing. I take inspiration from a lot of different places. I get it from those second-generation bluegrass guys for sure. I also take inspiration from electronic dance music and West African polyrhythmic drumming. I take inspiration from indie rock. That's not to say we combine all these things, but, uh, that's all I can say about that.

In other words, it's hard to put a label on the band.

Sure, that's what so many people say about the music. In the end, it's about how you make people feel and what they experience. It's more interesting to talk about influences and inspirations than genre.

The band formed basically around the campfire during a high Sierra camping trip. What was the inspiration to form the band?

We were just having a really good time playing. When you're 24 years old, this is what comes naturally -- it's what you're doing. We probably had a more limited skill set too, and we were just playing what came naturally to us. It incorporated second-generation bluegrass, Phish, swing music and we grew up listening to epic '80s hair bands, so there's some Def Leppard in our music as well. (Laughs)

One of the things I always liked about bluegrass are the themes, old time traditions, outdoor themes, woe and heartbreak, real life themes. How's does that eek out of you're urban environment?

Bluegrass happened pretty recently. It's a post-World War Two phenomenon. People began moving from the country to the cities. Bluegrass is an urban adaptation of old time mountain music that is adapted for Southerners who've gone far from home. It was adapted to urban life. It's the result of urban life. More jazz and black American music in it. Now, the kind of music we play has a romantic view of life, urban life, but also hiking and living in the mountains.

There's a big difference between old time music and bluegrass music. Bluegrass is a much more modern music. Older was more limited in instrumentation, more reliance on richer harmonies, a more complex harmonic approach.

We incorporate a lot of sounds and themes from old time music. Some people might not hear that in our music because we have drums and are more of a dance band, but it's in some of the trance-y open-tuning music that's hard to describe.

You're about 50/50 in terms of live releases and studio releases. How does the live experience vary from the studio version of Hot Buttered Rum?

Our pattern has been do a live album, do a studio album, do a live album. And it makes sense for us in a lot of ways to do it that way. Studio albums are really expensive and intense to make, while a live album is wilder enterprise. Frankly, we're much better doing live shows then we are albums. We do 150 shows a year and we know how to put together three hours of music--we've refined that. But we've only made four studio albums. I don't think we've achieved masterpiece level of making great albums. We haven't made our Sgt. Pepper's yet. I feel like we're still neophyte album makers. That said, we're going to keep making studio albums.

I know you're baseball fans. You've performed at Giants games. You must be very happy with the World Series outcome.

That was so much fun. In the last few years we've gotten a lot more involved with the Giants organization and have become friends with the team. They do a great job. The last time we were in Phoenix was during spring training and we're friends with third base coach Tim Flannery. He put some tickets aside for us and we went a watched a game before soundcheck. Then he came and sat in with us at our set. He plays guitar and sings. He's great. He's a legitimate songwriter in his own right.

Hot Buttered Rum is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, November 22.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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