by James M. Manheim
"Hot-toe-mitty" is an obscure Appalachian expression of surprise and also the name of a new acoustic band, one of many inventive ensembles that have flowered lately in mid-Michigan's chilly soils. You might let out your own expression of surprise when Hot-Toe-Mitty starts to play, for within the space of a few notes you know you're in new territory. You hear the banjo-and-mandolin motor of bluegrass, all right, but in place of the fiddle there's a flute.
Nobody has ever done this before, but you wonder why not: it seems to make perfect sense. The flute complements classic bluegrass texture in so many ways. It suggests the Celtic antecedents of the music's oldest traditional tunes. It plays off against the percussive textures of the banjo and mandolin. And it has the combination of agility and noise that bluegrass instruments have at full throttle. Laura Bates's flute has a whole repertoire of little honks, whistles, and explosions of air to go with the sprightly dance she does around the tune. The effect is magical.
The inclusion of a flute does not end the list of Hot-Toe-Mitty's novel ideas. The band is squarely in bluegrass's eclectic and progressive camp, with only minimal reference to the music's borrowings from jazz. To a repertoire of bluegrass standards it adds a spice of Gypsy music that sets your feet in motion in a whole new way rooted in dance traditions, yet also shining the spotlight on instrumental artistry, Hot-Toe-Mitty does a great version of the Django Reinhardt classic "Les Yeux Noirs." To my knowledge, nobody else has tried the bluegrass-Gypsy combination, either.
And the band's original songs have lots of promise; the group members realize that in a fast bluegrass number, the sheer act of virtuosically forcing words into an instrumentally conceived framework is the important thing, even if it means the listener misses a line or two. (It's been claimed that no one has ever understood all the words to
Bill Monroe's "Molly and Tenbrooks.") To come up with an original train song in place of "Orange Blossom Special" and the other tried-and-true standards is a tall order, but Hot-Toe-Mitty does one, "Clickity Clack," a song that you can imagine might be picked up by other bands and played at festivals all over the place.
Every new band has its weak point, and Hot-Toe-Mitty's, from the evidence of its CD Hollow near the Spring, is vocals. The tense edge and precise harmonies of great bluegrass singing are forged, like African American vocals, in churches and in deep-rooted community events; Ralph Stanley perfected his craft in a backwoods Virginia high school auditorium. About the band's recorded version of "Wayfaring Stranger" one can say only that it is eclipsed by many others. Nonetheless, it's been some months since that CD came out and since I became entranced with Hot-Toe-Mitty's music on the streets of the Art Fair. These musicians are on the way up, and their Ark debut, free of charge at Take a Chance Tuesday on January 27, should show an entirely new talent still strengthening musically.
[Originally published in January, 2004.]