The Last Bison jammed at the Horsehoe Tavern last night
Tuesday was a night of firsts. It was the first time The Last Bison, headquartered in Chesapeake, Virginia, trekked to Toronto; the first time I had ever seen somebody play a melodica (probably the coolest instrument ever), and — prove me wrong on this one — the first time a band in Toronto offered a custom-made wooden yo-yo emblazoned with a bison for sale at the merch table.
Last night The Last Bison (formerly known as just Bison), played the Horseshoe Tavern’s regular (free) Tuesday night showcase, which features indie bands that only a handful of folks have ever heard of, but which pretty much guarantees a talented lineup. When it was time for the seven-piece band to come on stage, it was apparent that this was not about to be your average folk performance. The men were clad in tuxedo vests and button-downs, and the two ladies were in full-length paisley dresses — they looked like a ramshackle Amish rock band who probably rode into town in a horse and buggy caravan.
This being their Toronto debut, lead singer Ben Hardesty of course had to mention how they weren’t used to such cold temperatures. But their set — for which they pretty much ran all over the stage switching between dozens of instruments, including a mandolin, a xylophone, an antique organ, a cello, a violin, maracas, a stand-alone bass drum, a banjo and multiple guitars — was probably more than enough to keep them warm.
Pulling heavily from their first album, Quill, and their major label EP, Inheritance, they jumped right into a raucous, sweeping performance, and a sound that proved too big for the venue. (Literally, because some minor feedback issues took away from the whimsical quality of the show.)
The songs, “Quill,” “Iscariot” and “Switzerland” were definite highlights, carried by Hardesty’s gravelly and smoky vocals, but compared to the studio recordings, The Last Bison’s live set is not as tight and meticulous. It felt more like a loose jam session. They seemed like novices on stage, running back and forth between instruments, but we have to cut them some slack because it’s a task much easier to accomplish in the studio. However, they were clearly enjoying themselves — just about every member of the band was singing along to the backup melodies, even without microphones. Simply put, it was infectious fun.
The Last Bison have previously been likened to bands such as Mumford & Sons and The Decemberists in music circles, but in reality, their live set is unparalleled. The band themselves call it “mountaintop chamber,” which recalls something from a bygone era (and not only because of their old-school duds). The record may be an ethereal, traditional roots-folk record, but the live set is incredibly energetic and upbeat. It’s hard not to be entertained by a band that truly puts its soul into producing well-rounded, orchestra-worthy music.