Hanging Up the Tin Hat

The Bay Area group stops by the Loft on its farewell tour

The celebrated Bay Area acoustic group Tin Hat has decided to stop touring, so the March 12 concert at the Loft curated by Art Power and the Carlsbad Music Festival represented a welcome opportunity for fans to take in the Tin Hat experience one last time.

The current edition of the group features original members Carla Kihlstedt on violin and vocals with Mark Orton on guitar, and newer members Rob Reich on accordion and piano with Ben Goldberg on clarinet. Special guest Brian Smith joined the group on tuba for a few numbers, providing a much appreciated rich bottom end.

Kihlstedt's voice combines sure pitch with a wispy vulnerability, and on the opening, "A Cloud on a Leaf," a sort of cabaret vibe as well. There is an intoxicating melodic blend from the violin, clarinet and accordion that was way more potent than I had expected, and Tin Hat kept the interest going by keeping the songs short and varying the dynamics with precise interaction.

Even though they are a band of virtuosos, there wasn't any instrumental showboating going on, and it's hard to pinpoint the group stylistically. There's a definite gypsy vibe with Klezmer, and a folkish blues feel happening -- and on "If Up's the Word," I couldn't help but think of musical theater.

Orton's primarily rhythmic guitar is the secret weapon to the consistent appeal of Tin Hat's groove. He is the glue that binds the disparate elements together, with alternate fingerstyle and strumming along with the occasional dazzling solo. Goldberg and Kihlstedt turned in amazing, soulful contributions on "Fear of the South," featuring Smith's plump bass lines, which combined with Goldberg's dark contra-alto clarinet on an unannounced piece for a dizzying ostinato.

Definitely one of the most singular visions in modern music, Tin Hat will be missed. Orton joked that they were already booking their reunion tour, and based on the enthusiastic reaction to that statement from the packed house, that would work.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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