Many bands earned their early bones busking on dirty streets and subway ramps. Likewise, every music fan hopes to recognize street-corner genius and brag about it later when the band ascends to big stages in big rooms. Humming House hit the Duck Room stage and the audience floor on Thursday night in a show that demonstrated the band's continuing evolution (evident in their fine new album Companion) and their busking, string-band roots.
Humming House has impressed St. Louis music fans for several years running, starting with an excellent Twangfest show in 2012. The band is comprised of four multi-instrumentalists: Justin Wade Tam, Bobby Chase, Joshua Wolak, and Benjamin Jones. For the average audience member whose musical "career" ended (gratefully) after high school, it was thrilling -- on the magic show end of the scale -- to watch these talented bandmates move seamlessly amongst keyboard, guitar, mandolin, double bass, electric guitar, harmonica, performing expertly on each instrument. Midway through the show, the mandolinist, Wolak, produced a harmonica from his back pocket and played it holderless while still playing the mandolin. Still don't know how. Don't want to know. Like I said, magic.
Humming House is also a remarkably musically flexible group, moving agilely between acoustic strings-based Americana to electrified rockers, to soulful power-pop gems. Stringing it all together is captivating frontman Justin Wade Tam and a thorough-going affection for introspective and sweetly positive lyrics. The band kicked off the show with two up-tempo, electrified cuts from its new album -- "Hope in My Head" and "Sign Me Up" -- and moved on in the same vein but switching to electrified acoustic instruments for "Freight Train," "Great Divide," and "Fly On," all from earlier albums. After a rocking, Bangles-like rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter," the band began shifting gears, moving from the Springsteen-like rocker "I Want It All" to "Wishing Well," both cuts from the new album, to Tam and his guitar on a sweet, nostalgic solo, "Find What Waits."
And that's when the band came off the stage, not for the mysterious interim between sets, a phenomenon thankfully going out of favor, but to come down amongst the people and play an un-amplified acoustic set. The crowd surged forward to better hear the band and was rewarded with the dynamics of one of those YouTube gimmicks where a disguised U2 plays at a New York City subway stop. Which is to say that if you heard the current incarnation of Humming House on a street corner and didn't immediately feel like a latterday Sam Phillips, you should just resign yourself to simpy Spotify set lists for all eternity. The crowd swayed and danced to "Tower Park" and "Gypsy Django" amongst other tunes before Humming House took the stage again and plugged in for a quick and surging final set.
An amped up belter from their early catalogue, "What Have We Got To Lose" and a cover of "Go Your Own Way," complete with a crisp, driving take on Mick Fleetwood's tribal drum sequence, drove the crowd into a final lather. The band returned to encore the title cut of their new album, "Companion," a song about reflection, appreciation, intensity, respect, everything they expect to deliver to their audiences, and unquestionably what I experienced last Thursday night.