We haven’t heard the last from Tin Hat, the insistently uncategorizable chamber ensemble that came together as Tin Hat Trio in San Francisco in 1997. But the band has announced that a brief California tour, concluding with shows Saturday at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage and Sunday afternoon at the Dance Palace in Pt. Reyes Station, will be the quartet’s last for the foreseeable future.
It’s not that the band has a hit a creative cul de sac. While iconic vocalists Tom Waits and Willie Nelson made guest appearances on earlier albums, it wasn’t until Tin Hat’s latest release, 2012’s startlingly beautiful the rain is a handsome animal: 17 songs from the poetry of ee cummings (New Amsterdam Records) that the group shed its identity as an instrumental ensemble and unleashed Carla Kihlstedt’s urgently expressive vocals. The album also introduced the group’s latest creatively energized incarnation, with Oakland accordionist/pianist Rob Reich joining Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg and Tin Hat founders Kihlstedt on violin and Mark Orton on guitar, dobro and banjo.
So why the breakup? The centrifugal forces pulling Tin Hat apart mainly involve geography, parenthood, and other career commitments. Orton has pulled off the unlikely feat of becoming an A-list film composer while living in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and young son, writing acclaimed scores for recent films such as Nebraska, The Boxtrolls, and My Old Lady.
Kihlstedt now lives on Cape Cod with her two young children and husband, percussionist/vocalist Matthias Bossi. When she’s not writing new music commissioned by various classical ensembles, she performs and records with Bossi in the subscription-supported band Rabbit Rabbit, a project hailed by the New York Times as an innovative model for artists seeking to enlist their audience as supporters. While she spent years logging tens of thousands of miles touring (often with the theatrical art-rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), Kihlstedt says that she’s resigned herself to the stubborn facts of physics.
“There’s this idea that in the modern age the time-space continuum shouldn’t matter, that geography is a construct that we can get past, but the distance is hard to bridge, especially with three different locations,” says Kihlstedt, taking a few minutes off from working on commissions for a solo bassoon piece and a new composition for the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
“We’ll do special projects when they come up, and we can clear some writing and rehearsal time,” she continues. “The ee cummings album was a real breakthrough and such an obvious step for us. If circumstances were different, we could keep going in that song direction much further. Musically and personally, there’s nothing missing from this band, but logistically it’s too much to overcome.”
Orton agrees that the band’s creative ties remain deep and enduring. “I hire Carla on film scores, and she asked me to contribute to Rabbit Rabbit,” he says. “Ben and I do stuff together. Tin Hat has a lot of recording plans, but with young children there’s a real obstacle to touring. We did it for a long time.”
As Tin Hat Trio, the band gained a passionate following on the Bay Area scene in the late 1990s with a singular sound that pivoted on the accordion of Rob Burger, Kihlstedt’s fiery violin, and Orton’s percussive guitar and legato dobro lines. The conservatory-trained musicians soaked up countless influences, seamlessly weaving strains of post-bop jazz, tango, and old-time ballads into contemporary classical forms and Eastern European folk traditions. The band’s slippery stylistic status is apparent in Saturday’s booking, which presents Tin Hat as part of the Freight’s two-day Esprit de Django et Stephane Festival (Orton concedes that he did listen to a lot of Gypsy jazz when writing the score for My Old Lady, which is set in Paris).
Drawn to strange and uncanny realms in art and literature, the group composed and performed scores for the fantastical, groundbreaking stop-motion insect animations of Ladislaw Starewicz, a project that was never documented due to the uncertain copyright situation with Starewicz’s films. With Burger’s departure from the band in 2005, Tin Hat dropped “trio” from its moniker, recruited Goldberg and multi-instrumentalist Ara Anderson, and delved into the surrealist writings of doomed Polish Jewish artist Bruno Schulz on 2007’s The Sad Machinery of Spring (Hannibal/Rykodisc).
All this history isn’t going away. Detailing the degree to which Tin Hat musicians are involved in each other’s work would require an elaborate infographic, but for starters, Goldberg recently released the mysteriously epigrammatic, gorgeously orchestrated song cycle Orphic Machine (BAG Productions) featuring Kihlstedt’s ravishing vocals and violin. On April 11, Reich celebrates the release of his captivating quintet album Shadowbox (Rob Reich Music) featuring Goldberg, guitarist Ila Cantor, bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Eric Garland at the Red Poppy Art House.
“I met Mark when I was 14,” Kihlstedt says. “Rob is such a beautiful person and musician. Ben is one of my biggest influences. I know I’ll be making music with these guys in some capacity, but calling it a band implies some consistency. It’s been a long time coming, and right now it’s a relief to just honor the work we’ve done and to actually make the break official and clean. There is some emotional conflict. Matthias reminded me ‘Every time you perform with Tin Hat, you say 'It’s the best band I’ve ever played in.’”