With great appreciation to Tree Adams, Billy Jay Stein and Peter Malkin for taking time out of their busy lives to share their story about The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord and life in the Hatters.
“I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it’d be
I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever
I hope the world sees the same person that you’ve always been to me
And may all your favorite bands stay together”
(Dawes, “All Your Favorite Bands”)
Prelude: Encounter On A Jerusalem Street.
Sunday, November 6th, 1995. I was absentmindedly walking the streets of downtown Jerusalem, the city I had chosen to call home a few years earlier. It was the day after the Prime Minister of Israel had been assassinated, and I was feeling rather shell shocked and bummed out about the state of the world. A woman passed me, I recognized her and stopped to say hello: It was Hindy Preskin, it turned out we had studied together in Israel in 1989. That same year, Hindy had been dating a guy, Peter Lewitt, who at one time was the road manager for a band called “The Hatters”, a band that I loved and followed for years, and seeing Hindy reminded me that she was connected to the band. We chatted for a bit, small talk, and started to head our separate ways when she turned and said, almost as an afterthought, “Hey, you’re a big Hatter’s fan, aren’t you?”
“Yes”, I said, wondering how on earth she remembered that.
“Well”, Hindy said, “I don’t mean to bum you out even more but the Hatters broke up a few weeks ago. Just thought you’d want to know.”
As if my day couldn’t get any worse.
There’s a touching moment, (min. 1:40) near the end of the Cameron Crowe film, “Almost Famous”, where one of the dedicated female groupies known as ‘Sapphire’ is complaining about the new crop of girls who have come on the scene, posers and wannabees all, of course:
When I first saw that film and heard that snippet of dialogue, I immediately said, “YES! YES! That’s it! That’s what I feel, all the time!” It’s a nearly impossible thing to quantify, the love and appreciation for a band and their music. There’s a slight tinge of embarrassing self-acknowledgment, as in, ‘Really? I care this much about this music, these people, who I don’t really know? (Answer: Yes.) Even now, well into adulthood, parenthood, and life-hood, my friends and family will readily attest that yes, when it comes to certain bands, I am a fanboy. The Beatles, The Who, U2. The Hatters. Three of the biggest, most popular bands on the planet, ever. And one band that, well…
Of all the bands to not get their proper due, to almost but not quite make it, The Hatters rank near or at the top of the “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda” list. So many other bands from that early 90’s era had hits (in some cases off of far more inferior material), had longer runs, had better luck, and on and on. But on the merits of their 1994 Atlantic recording, The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord (referred to from now on as, “Madcap”) not to mention many years of 300+ days of touring, The Hatters deserve more recognition, more acclaim, or at least a slightly larger cult following. Nowadays, the ever Hatter faithful could fit comfortably into a High School gymnasium. That is wrong. Unjust. Patently, head-scratchingly unfair. But, alas: They never quite arrived at the fabled, ‘next level’, never had that breakthrough hit that, depending on how you view such things, may have been as much a blessing as a curse. (See: “Run-Around”, “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”, etc.)
“Madcap” had at best modest airplay that summer of ‘94, mostly on college radio and mostly in markets that never generated next level buzz. It is however still loved and listened to by a small but loyal and dedicated group of admirers and appreciated for what it truly is: A fucking great rock album that is rootsy, quintessentially American, timeless, swinging, groove and hook-laden. It boogies down, soars high and digs deep. It is a heart-string tugging album, yearning for brighter days and longing for a good whiskey, a cold beer. It’s about searching for a strong but elusive woman, enjoying backyard bbq with loyal friends, going deep into the night laughing and sharing a story, a joint, a laugh, maybe a good cry, definitely a good song.
What do the Hatters sound like?
Throw all that in the skillet, then while that’s cooking on the stovetop, add a bit of early Aerosmith, some Zepellin stomp, some Funkadelic, The Meters, and Stevie Ray-Esque pyrotechnics. Stir it up gently and then let it all simmer to perfection.
Early bootlegs of the band (originally, “The Madhatters” in their early years) feature extended jams on “Crossroads”, “Feeling Alright” and “Blue Sky”. Their live shows of the late ’80s and early ’90s would feel right at home in the mid-’70s. On the other hand, The Hatters’ sound was not only a product of their influences but also of their time. The popularity of Jam Bands had been growing since the late ’80s, a sound and scene that by 1990 dominated college campuses and dive bars all over the country, but especially up and down the East Coast. But it would be wrong to simply lump the Hatters in with the many other Jam Bands of the day because while they could extend a jam and take it to great heights and depths, extemporizing and improvising with the best of them, they were at heart a band crafting songs with rich choruses, interesting and surprising hooks and changes and doing it all with flair, virtuosity and a sense of self-deprecating humor. They were having a good time and so were we!
As fate would have it, the Jam Band scene and the clubs and audience that supported and nourished it, coincided perfectly with the timing of The Hatters. They would become fixtures of that very scene and frequent the colleges and college towns (and their beloved bars) all over America between 1988 to 1995. One could hear the evolution of many of the songs on Madcap (on now basically unplayable Maxell XLIIS 90 minutes tapes) that would ultimately make the final cut: From meandering and seemingly directionless jams that were polished into musical gems on their first proper album.
A Date with Destiny: New Years Eve, 1992-93.
Blues Traveler was headlining at the Paramount, (now Hulu Theater, a medium-size venue adjacent to Madison Square Garden.) I was a huge Traveler fan at the time, massive. Over the top crazy obsessed. Jam bands – bands making improvisational rock and roll noodles into art – had taken over a sizeable chunk of the music landscape back then, at least as far as under the radar and off mainstream radio as (mainly) college students would allow. Heritage acts like The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead saw a newfound following, and they and their ilk spawned newer models, Phish and Blues Traveler being at the top of the pile with Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, and Spin Doctors among the emerging bands of the day. At the time though, Blues Traveler was my favorite, having perfected the extended harp and guitar solos atop two-chord, 24-minute extended meanderings.
That fateful NYE, I met an old friend to see the Traveler show. He had mentioned wanting to get there early to see a band he was digging called “The Madhatters”, a band out of Philly. He said I would like them. Although I lived in Philly, I had never heard them or even of them, but I had never heard of a lot of bands so I was cool with getting there early. I trusted my friend. He had good taste in music. He loved a band from Binghampton, N.Y. called “Yolk” who played near SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York. Plus he had introduced me to Blues Traveler a few years prior. My friend told me he owned a cassette of theirs, “Mock Turtle Soup” and that he liked a song about a frog. I’m in.
It was still early when we arrived at The Paramount, but I could hear the thud and din of the music even before we got to our seats. Immediately upon entering the venue proper I was jolted to attention by the massive sound system and drawn in, tractor beam style to the music. Who was this? What was this? Could this possibly be The Madhatters? What I heard stopped me in my tracks: A serpentine bass line gliding over a Zep-like riff, with a wash of B3 organ holding it all together. The tune that was emerging was, I would later discover, Sip of Your Wine, co-written by Adam Evans, Billy Jay Stein and Tree Adams, and it was like nothing I had ever heard before, and yet I was sure I had heard it since it felt so rooted, slippery and fun, of another time but also of the moment. It felt like a favorite t-shirt, an old pair of jeans, a worn-in hat.
The guys on stage were all long hair, denim, and plaid, their lead guitarist wearing a knitted ski-cap with ear flaps while spinning some magical sky-swirling solos: tasteful, restrained, gutsy-servicing the music. The curly-haired keyboard player had this goofy perma-grin all the while creating some nasty blues-inflected piano licks and B3 rolls. The lead singer looked like he had been on a few tours already, and since I had no idea who they were or how long they had been together I assumed, given the rock steady tightness of the band that they had been around for many years, with several albums already under their belt. Not that they looked old: they just sounded really good and road tested. Turns out this gig was their biggest to date, and they had all been together for just a few years.
I walked straight up to the front of the stage, almost zombie-like, transfixed and needing to be as close as I could to the music. I remember Hirsh’s humorous banter between songs and the fact that they seemed fairly amused and humbled and somewhat surprised to be on this huge stage opening for Blues Traveler on New Year’s Eve. They probably played for half an hour and by the time Blues Traveler came on around midnight, I was so tired I was barely able to stay awake for the very band I had come to see. But I was leaving with another band, The Madhatters’ music already had its claws in me.
For the Madhatters, it too would be a fateful night, as at that same show, producer Mike Barbiero would also be impressed with the Madhatter’s performance, and six months later, along with Steve Thompson would go on to produce their first studio album for Atlantic, “Madcap.”
Part III. Winter Into Spring, 1993.
“I got a hook at high noon,
and another fine tune,
better than the one before.”
(From the song, “Sacrifice”, written by Tree Adams)
“Come on in folks, the beer’s expensive and the band sucks.”
-Tree Adams (between-song banter at Doc Watson’s mostly empty pub in Philly, the early ’90s)
In the winter and spring of ‘93 I was living in Philly and as fate would have it, The Madhatters, who had relocated from Philly to New York City, came through town several times. They often played at JC Dobbs, the 23 East Caberet and at a small bar on 2ndstreet off Market called The Khyber Pass (now “The Khyber”)
delivering some of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. The Khyber was truly a great venue to see a band: It had two spaces, a bar that ran the length of one wall and then a second ‘performance space’ that was long and somewhat narrow, but with a stage about three feet high and a solid, no-nonsense PA. The first time I saw them at the Khyber it must have been a few weeks after that New Year’s show. Keep in mind the stage at the Paramount was massive and the band was spread out along its’ length. At the Khyber all five of them were crammed into the tiny stage: Tree on guitar and lead vocals, Billy Jay Stein on Keys and vocals, Jon Kaplan on Bass, Bill Reeves on drums and Adam Evans on lead guitar and harmony vocals.
Back then, just a year or two before social media went digital, you found out about a band’s activities by subscribing to their newsletter (an ancient form of social media), that arrived in the actual mail. Or you called a phone number in this case, “The Hatline” and waited for the answering machine to kick in and then listen to the pre-recorded message where someone representing the band (Peter Malkin as it turns out) spoke the upcoming dates into the tape.
I walked into the Khyber that biting cold late January night to discover that the show wasn’t even near ready to start, the Madhatters were still setting up their gear, a few old friends of the band from their U. of Penn days straggling in, wishing them well. I introduced myself as having seen them at the Paramount, they were appreciative and friendly, but also busy trying to get ready for the show. I mentioned to them that immediately after the New Year’s show I went to Sam Goody’s (Goody’s Got It!) to look for their albums, assuming of course that they had a few already out there. I was bummed when I went to the racks and discovered that indeed the Madhatters had three albums out, except that the Madhatters in question was some sinister-looking Metal band with the same name. I felt that if they did not already know this, that the ‘real’ Madhatters I was now standing in front of should be told. Tree turned to the band and said, “Hey! I told you all. Hey, tell them what you just told me.” I repeated my Sam Goody experience and the band seemed bummed. “Yeah, thanks man”, said Hirsh. “We weren’t sure it was true but we’re thinking we’re gonna need to change our name.” And no, the band had no albums out, just the one “Mock Turtle Soup” cassette, that I’d yet to actually hear. Soon enough the band was ready and a good size crowd of about 50+ people had made their way into the Khyber.
Bill Reeves was still on drums that night, although he would depart soon after to pursue becoming a veterinarian. (He would be replaced by Tommy Kaelin who was as kindred a spirit as a band could hope for. I mean he played barefoot!) That night at the Khyber was a revelation: Something about the way it all came together, the spirit of the band shining through converting everyone there to their music and laid back spirit.
The most incredulous thing about The Hatters (and what was perhaps their undoing) was that they never seemed to truly have all their shit together. Don’t get me wrong, they had enough of it together to slay any jam band of the day, hell, any band -jam or not- in its path, but even back then it felt like the wheels could come off at any time. It’s what made them endearing, exciting, approachable but also what ultimately might have kept them from going to ‘the next level’. A guitar cable would dislodge from a guitar right before a climactic solo, and you could see the look of “really, not again!” come over the band as the moment was lost. A monitor would fail to work, someone would take too long getting back on stage from a break. But then in the next moment, insane musical nirvana was again being magically spun out of the thin air.
To illustrate: At the Khyber, deep into a marathon gig, Tree and Adam Evans, mid-song and mid-solos (probably “Wave On”) pushed open the emergency exit doors at the back of the small stage (leading directly to the street) and walked right outside while Billy Jay, Jon and Tom kept going inside. They spent five minutes just trading solos and riffs (and this with guitars plugged in, no wireless!) until the cops sent them back in to finish the song. Adam and Adam came back in smiling and laughing, and the crowd went ape-shit! Every show had that sense of possibility as in, “Why the fuck is this band not selling out venues ten times this size? They are that good!”
The Hatters roamed North America for several years, and I got the chance to see them in Philly, out in Lehigh at their beloved Peppercorn Pub
(with openers and good friends, “Midnight Sun”) headlining at the Wetlands, at Irving Plaza, on the H.O.R.D.E tour. And they did get bigger and play venues much larger, but those shows at the Khyber and Peppercorn among the faithful were nights I will never forget, shows by which I measure every concert I’ve been to since those heady nights in downtown Philly.
PART IV: DEAL OR NO DEAL
In speaking with Tree, Billy and Peter, a picture of a hard-working road band emerged, clocking in upwards of 300 gigs a year, primed and ready for their moment. But as with most things Hatters, the road was never straight, the deal never a given and everything always teetering on the verge of collapse at any moment. Given all the twists and turns, it’s fairly impressive that the band managed to produce not one, but two incredible collections of music, a live EP, “Live Thunderchicken” and their full-blown studio album, “The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord.”
Rewind for a moment to 1990, West Philly. The Madhatters- Tree Adams on guitar and vocals, Adam Evans on lead guitar and vocals, Billy Jay Stein on keys and vocals, Bill Reeves on Drums, Antonio Ramirez on Bass and Seth Rosenthal on guitar, went down to Third Street Recording to record a fun-loving but not quite professional quality direct-to-cassette affair called, “Mock Turtle Soup”. It contained, among others, the standout track and what would become one of their signature tunes, “Dig the Ribbit”. (Co-written by Tree and Adam Evans.) The entire tape was melodic and tuneful, funky, bluesy, funny and also at times, ferociously ear-wormy. The cassette already hinted at what would be the band’s signature sound: rollicking piano and organ, dual southern-rock style guitar licks, and a propulsive, energetic rhythm section. “Mock Turtle Soup” also revealed, even at this early stage in the bands’ development, the unique vocals and songwriting of lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Tree Adams’, whose lyrics ranged from off-beat to heartfelt and whose melodies and catchy hooks would become a band staple.
Besides being a snapshot of the band’s sound at the time, on a practical level “Mock Turtle Soup” gave them something to sell at gigs and hand to A&R people. Beyond word of mouth and passing the tapes from person to person, the recording didn’t gain much attention. To the casual observer, meanwhile, it would seem that every jam band on the circuit was landing a record deal. Blues Traveler had their first album out with A&M records, Spin Doctors had exploded in ‘91 with Pocket Full of Kryptonite, Phish was already a few albums into their studio work. But the Hatters were not offered a record deal in some magical, VH-1 “Behind the Music” kind of way. Tree recounted a more circuitous path for the band, who at this point in ‘92 were still stationed out of Philly. “Danny Goldberg, who at the time ran a management company called Gold Mountain Entertainment, sent somebody from New York, this woman Dana Milner, to the Chestnut Cabaret [in downtown Philly, right near the Penn campus where they went to school] to see us open for Blues Traveler. And she said [to Danny] we should sign these guys up. Then we had them manage us. She would try and get people to come to various showcases if you will.” Sadly, the Hatters would miss their first showcase opportunity in NYC, as an unplanned travel delay caused Billy and Tree to arrive two hours late to their own gig, long after the record executives had left.
What was plainly needed was someone to bang on doors, someone passionate about the band and their music. Peter Malkin was happy to volunteer. He too was at U. of Penn, a fellow frat brother of keyboardist Billy Jay Stein and upon first hearing them play “Blue Sky” at a rehearsal, was totally sold on the band. Peter said, “I literally just approached them and I just said, ‘Hey guys, let me manage you. Let me help you.’” Peter took over the role of road manager, hustling gigs at the Khyber, Peppercorn and other local venues. Indeed there was interest in the band, just nothing solid. Gigs opening for or co-headlining with Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, The Authority and others ensued, all the while trying to generate interest from some major league management. “It got serious the next year, my sophomore year,” recounted Billy. “And Adam [Tree] I think was graduating and we all kind of committed. And it became like a full-time gig by my junior year of college. We’d play every Tuesday night at a club called “Trax” with Dave Matthews Band in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was doing a full course load and doing my full-time gig, you know. Playing in New York on weekends, playing Tuesday nights in Charlottesville then back to Penn for class. It was crazy.”
Things soon fell apart with Gold Mountain Management but shortly after Peter Malkin put them in touch with and got them a management deal with Music Unlimited run by David Graham, son of iconic San Francisco promoter and Fillmore impresario, Bill Graham.
Meanwhile, a then up and coming band from Seattle called “Nirvana” gets signed by none other than Danny Goldberg, now the newly named President of Atlantic Records. He would re-enter the Hatters picture in due time, but the fates were not done with them quite yet: A swing down the coast of California was due to culminate in a showcase in front of major label folks in L.A., set up by David Graham. The band started off their west coast jaunt in San Francisco, where they got to meet David’s legendary father. “We actually stayed at his [Bill’s] house,” recounted Tree. “He was real mellow. I remember he was saying stuff about how the Grateful Dead were never really in the record business. They were in the concert business. There were some little nuggets of wisdom. He was sort of right about how things were gonna go with the future of all music, really, selling concert tickets and T-shirts is sort of the way.”
Surely this was a sign of good things to come. The band was loose and ready to lay down the jams. Alas, the Hatters van broke down on the way to their LA showcase, and while they made it on time and played a killer set, David Graham was otherwise MIA and the showcase was for naught. “Malkin had an idea”, Tree recalls. “He says, ‘Let me take you over to [manager] David Sonenberg at DAS Communications. He’s got Spin Doctors, Joan Osborne.’ And we hooked up with him.” The Hatters meanwhile never stopped gigging, and having established a home base in NYC, they would become mainstays at the Wetlands Preserve, Nightingales and the New Music Café. They toured relentlessly up and down the east coast, alternatively opening up for and headlining with a then unknown band out of Charlotte, NC, called The Dave Mathews Band. A loyal following solidified.
The years on the road, sleeping on friends’ floors, eating fast food, living off fumes and the goodwill of a sympathetic barkeep were, if not totally over, about to finally pay off. Danny Goldberg who was still at Atlantic and wanting to get on the Jam Band train hears from Sonnenberg about the Hatters, that they have ‘something’, and he in turns sends Wendy Berry, an A-n-R person, to take a listen. She ends up at the Wetlands Preserve to catch a ferocious set by the band, likes what she hears and more importantly, loves the energy and enthusiasm of the packed house grooving to their tunes. Wendy thinks there is potential, something as Tree puts it, “That they could get a single out of.” The deal was done. Small, not a lot of money. Enough to pay for the production of their debut album and some money for tour support (but not much.) The goal: Get the Hatters into the studio and the back on the road and see if it sticks.
PART V: MAKING AVOCADO
OF WOODSTOCK, HAUNTED GUEST QUARTERS
& IGGY POP’S MENTHOL METHOD.
The recording itself was set for the summer of ‘93. With the production team of Michael Barbiero and Steve Thompson (part of the team behind Guns-n-Roses “Appetite for Destruction”) in place, the location of Bearsville studio was selected. Close enough to their home base in NYC, but remote enough to allow the band to breathe and enjoy a less distracting environment. The studio, built in 1969 by Albert Grossman, (manager of Dylan, The Band, Todd Rundgren) has been the recording spot for, among many others: 10cc, Jeff Buckley, Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, Foreigner, Danny Gatton, The Isley Brothers, New York Dolls, Orleans, Phish, The Psychedelic Furs, Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, John Sebastian, Patti Smith, They Might Be Giants, The Tubes, The Vines
And Iggy Pop.
Apparently, the iconoclastic Mr. Pop had been recording at Bearsville just before the Hatters sessions began that summer. “I walk in the little ISO booth at the beginning of our session,” says Tree, “a little enclosed hut to do the vocals, his [Iggy’s] thing is that he likes to have some kind of menthol mist of some kind for his nose or whatever, so the fucking thing reeked of menthol. I was immersed in some kind of menthol chamber.” So while Tree’s sinuses had never been clearer, it made for a somewhat strange experience.
But the very fact that Tree was in an isolation booth recording vocals illustrates just how different and new the entire process of recording would be for a band used to playing live, being within three feet of one another, playing in front an audience, feeding off that energy night after night. On top of that, it was their first proper recording in a legendary studio with first-rate producers coming off one of the biggest albums of the ’80s (G-n-R’s ‘Appetite’), and storied gear (A Neve 8088 mixing board was brought over from England, the same board used to record The Who’s masterpiece, “Quadrophenia”). There was even a haunted guest house near the studio where the band stayed adding an aura of otherworldliness to the stew. Keyboardist Billy Jay recalled, “The place was haunted. And in fact, Peter [Lewitt], (who acted as occasional road manager and conga player on “Thunderchicken”) at the time actually had an experience where he said the chest of drawers was moving across the floor. We were in an old house and people said they saw Jimi Hendrix’s ghost, and people that worked there claim they saw the Band hovering around. It was very spiritual. We were going to sleep every night knowing that, having barbecues, up there with our girlfriends. But also we had a chance to really focus on creating an album.”
As any fan of the band will tell you, the magic of the Hatters happens at their live shows. Nothing could compare to hearing them deep into a set where everything is clicking, the band totally in-sync, playing into that magic space that they could somehow conjure every night. But up at Bearsville, the idyllic setting also posed the biggest challenge: capture that sound with everyone wearing headphones, playing behind sound baffles, plexiglass, and without an audience. “It was like taking something three dimensional and flattening it out”, Tree remembers of the recording process. “Getting something to translate is a hard thing when you’re used to the energy of the crowd and the moment and the environment of not wearing headphones, but swimming in a giant wall of sound, not to confuse that with the actual Phil Spector thing.” Billy, though recalls that the band knew the sound they were looking for: “Warm. Just trying to capture the band the way we were performing live. We didn’t do many overdubs, we did a lot of it as we would sound live.”
Amazingly, the album truly does capture the feel of being in the room with the Hatters, where the songs really do take center stage and the production is kept in the background. You feel as if you might have wandered into an empty club hearing the Hatters do a full soundcheck. “We would just bang it out loud”, Tree says. “There were some overdubs here and there, over-dub some background vocals or maybe we’d fix, yeah we’d fix something once in a while. But the idea was to try and be as counted off and go as we could.”
The song “I Could Be The One”, a slow-burning torch song that builds around Tree’s plaintive vocals and then weaves into a majestically restrained but achingly beautiful guitar solo by Adam Evans, was one example of having the luxury of time and space to experiment and get it right. “I know”, Tree said, “we did a version of “I Could Be The One,” where we hadn’t hit record until the middle of the first verse or something and it ended up being the best version of that song ever and so it never made it. I was really being annoying because I wanted it to be as good as that one was, but we never were gonna get as good as that one was. I was like, ‘Damn!’ You know, it came out pretty good, but I made us do a lot of takes on that one.”
One song deserving of special mention is, “The Last Walt”, a beloved song among the Hatter faithful, and full of rich evocative details- lyrical and musical – that clearly were based on lived experience. “We were in Philly playing at a joint called the “Peppercorn Pub” out near Lehigh, PA.”, Tree said. “You get to some places where suddenly it feels like you’ve arrived at home. It’s the people, it’s the place, the way they treat you and the ensuing musical experience. The “Peppercorn” was that place for us. And we became friends with a local band called, “Midnight Sun”, and they would open for us when we came through, and their lead guitar player was a guy named Walter Diller, ‘Walt.’ One day, hanging out, kinda stumbling around and I don’t know, a little bit of it was a snapshot of his life, something about it was poetic to me. I’m not sure what it was. And I was just listening to it and it had a little noble grace to it. And he had a warm spirit that was super, you know, noble is the word. So it felt like it needed a song.”
The band spent three weeks up at Bearsville making “Madcap.” However, even though the album was in the can, Atlantic was (of course) not ready to release it. Two other bands on Atlantic’s roster were starting to blow up: Hootie and the Blowfish, and Stone Temple Pilots, and they had the label’s attention. The Hatters went right back on the road, and a decision was made over at corporate to hold off on releasing the studio LP but (as was done with Spin Doctor’s first LP) record a “live” record and release it (along with a few ‘teaser cuts’ from their upcoming debut LP). Within days of making this decision, Atlantic set up a remote recording truck at “the Wetlands Preserve” in NYC. The band arrived, set up, counted in and got it all on tape. The album, “Live Thunderchicken” is raucous, fun, musically outrageous, funky and daring. It is a definitive live statement from the band that shows them totally locked in and loose. Insofar as the band only learned the day before that it would be recorded, what you hear could be considered ‘just another gig’ and in that regard, an incredible musical trip in its own right. As Tree says on the recording before launching into “One-Eyed Captain Laing”, (named for the very real Philly native, Jim Laing) “Were jammin’ on eternity street tonight.”
And so they continued on the road, crisscrossing North America through the fall and winter of ’93 and into the spring of ’94. Opening for Collective Soul, playing several dates of the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere) package tours with Blues Traveler, Allgood, Screaming Cheetah Wheelies, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and many others.
In the spring of ’94, “Madcap” was finally released. It’s hard to think of a title more inscrutable and head-scratchingly hard to figure title than, “The Madcap Adventure of the Avacado Overlord.” Tree was nothing if not wistful in his appraisal of the album title, clearly of his own invention: “I was always, I think, into the absurd,” he said. ” I liked the idea that we had some patron saint in the avocado overlord. The madcap adventures make it seem like a goofy tale. Because that’s a little of what we’re doing. We’re telling stories. It was also, there’s a lot of emotion there, a lot of raw stuff, but there’s also a lot of stories. There’s something about there being an avocado overlord, the juxtaposition of some smiley avocado-looking dude.”
The stories were Tree’s to tell. “Sacrifice”, “Bring That Wagon Round”, “Madness of the Green”, “Empty Handed”, “For Tomorrow”, “Bad Side”, “You Aint Comin Home”, “The Last Walt”, “When I Write My Last Song”. All of these tunes detail serious hard life lessons set to some killer rock riffs, acoustic chords, shimmering harmonies, and insightful, witty, honest lyrics. The remaining songs, “Dig the Ribbit”, “Found With Your Drawers Down” and “Sip of Your Wine”, shake and groove and take you on a wild ride as well. In fact the sly mix of clever wordplay, inventive music and deeply connected band interplay make the album come together rather perfectly. Naturally, the band was on the road when the album was released, and a few stations played the single, “Sacrifice” and some deeper cuts. They even had the thrill of hearing themselves on the radio as they traveled through Florida. The album belonged to the world at that point.
Requiem For a Frog.
The Hatters soldiered on. In the spring of ’95, having relocated to Colorado for a much-needed change of scene, the band recorded their follow up, “You Will Be You.” It is an album that pointed to a possible new direction for Hatters: darker, grittier and searching for something beyond the songs that made it on to “Madcap”. After all, many of the songs on “Madcap” were years in the making, whereas this new album was, by and large, a product of a much shorter period in the life of the band since “Madcap” was released. Regrettably, a throwaway song Tree had penned almost as a joke, “The Naked Song” was chosen by Atlantic to be their breakthrough hit, their “Run Around”, but it failed to chart. That album and the band’s ultimate split shortly after singing the National Anthem at a Mets game in the late summer of ‘95 is a story for another time.
But fast forward to August 2014. With a little push from a fan page set up on Facebook, the band reunited for a one-off concert at the Bowery Ballroom with both Bill and Tommy on drums (The Hatters always felt like a two drummer band anyhow!) and every member present, alive and well and flat out killing it onstage. It was, according to all present, a celebration. While plans to capture then entire show on video got botched, some clips, including this ripping version of “Madness of the Green” thankfully surfaced. Then four years later as Spotify became the go-to place to listen to music, wouldn’t ya know it: With no fanfare (even the band didn’t know!), no warning, no press release, there they were: The Hatters had their own Spotify page : “Madcap” and “Thunderchicken”. Streaming Hatters. Nice.
So what is the legacy of The Hatters, a band that almost but didn’t quite make it? Creating three solid albums, sustaining a loyal following for years, touring the country. Most bands would be grateful just for that. But more than those impressive accomplishments, The Hatters connected with their audience in a deep and enduring way: they were relatable guys, fun-loving, fallible, human. And at the end of the day, it’s that humanity that comes through in their music, even now, twenty-five years on.
“One of the great things about that time was discovering music together”, Tree said in assessing what it all meant and still means to him. “Not just the stuff we were playing but listening. We’d spend hours and hours driving all over the place and we’d sit and listen to … You know, we would discover new music and get on a kick where all of a sudden we’re listening to some Herbie Hancock record and we’re like, ‘Oh, man. We gotta do something like this little groove.’ Then that night, Jon Kaplan starts playing something that’s right off of that record. We were evolving together. It was exciting. We were really young. I saw some different states of mastery of the instruments we played. I do think Adam Evans is one of my favorite guitar players of all time. I really just loved the way he played and I loved building these landscapes for him to go on around.
“That was one of the exciting things we had going on. I think everybody in the band contributed in really cool ways and had great things to offer. Billy is another one. His melodic sense is always right on point. He could take ripping solos, as well.
“I meet people in the business all the time who’ve gone solo and people who are just trying to get out of the gate. As I put it in perspective, I see we actually got pretty far with it, but it felt like it could have gone further, and I think that was disappointing for us. But I think at the same time, we have all these great memories. We had a lot of magical moments and I look back at it with a lot of love.”
Wave on. See you on the side of the road. Steer your course for a brighter day. And whatever you do, please, for the sake of the Avocado Overlord, dig the ribbit.
We saw them several times at both Khyber Pass and The Peppercorn Pub. I think I saw their show with Tommy Kaelin at the Peppercorn. They re-started a few songs in the first set as he got his bare feet ‘wet’ with a few of the songs. The final time I tried to catch them was in late ’92 – we heard they were playing after hours at the Ruhe Farm in Emmaus. I never made it to the show – left a bar in Bethlehem, and hit a telephone pole on the way to Emmaus. After reading this, it seems somehow fitting. . . Thanks for the memories – “Just another daydream of the friend I drank last night . . . “
I think your hitting the pole is a perfect metaphor for the band. I’m really glad you enjoyed the piece and always love hearing about the long lost faithful. Maybe we’ll get one more reunion show out of them!
I Rex. I can’t remember if I replied beyond “liking it.” I am really happy you came across this piece and glad it conjured some good memories. Life was so much simpler then!