Tin Hat Trio | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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I like the idea of a band mirroring the listening habits of most people--a little of this, a little of that, all jumbled together. But from Naked City's dizzying genre-hopping to the Kronos Quartet's effete multiculturalism, dial-spinning aesthetics usually sound better on paper. The first few albums by San Francisco's Tin Hat Trio each have moments of beautiful acoustic lyricism and include some well-executed downhome tangos, but until lately the main objective of the band has seemed to be defying categorization. Mark Orton (guitar, banjo, Dobro), Carla Kihlstedt (violin, viola), and Rob Burger (accordion, piano, organ) are all terrific classically trained players who understand the nuances of the genres they toss into the pot--bluegrass, French cafe music, jazz, Romanian Gypsy tunes, bossa nova, tango, and Delta blues, among other flavors--but more often than not their early experiments in blending them sounded self-conscious and clunky. They've largely corrected the problem on their most recent album, The Rodeo Eroded (Ropeadope), where they wisely use rural Americana as its base and folds in influences from abroad. The same hodgepodge of materials is present, but instead of laborious juxtaposition we get natural-sounding, nonidiomatic synthesis. The album opens with an homage to a key influence, "Bill" (as in Frisell), that conjures the wide-open grandeur of the plains, with gently rolling accordion and parched Dobro--but not the pastel mist that has fogged up too much of Frisell's own recent work. In "O.N.E.O." the blend of Orton's prepared guitar and Burger's pointillistic piano suggests Gypsy cimbalom while Khilstedt plays a dramatic violin melody that sounds cribbed from The Godfather. There's also a gorgeous "Willow Weep for Me," sung by guest Willie Nelson over left-bank accordion, sweet strings, and lulling brush work. But to tease out the various tendrils of each tune is a bore--it's more rewarding to admire how the trio braids them into something entirely new. The like-minded Sinister Luck Ensemble opens. Friday, April 4, 9 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Merri Cyr.

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