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The Hatters Live (Atlantic)
Strange Cranium graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991 with a degree in Neuroscience and Music History. During his college years, Billy and his fellow Quakers, Adam Hirsh, Adam Evans, Jonathan Kaplan and Tom Kaelin created a rock band called "The Hatters", who release three recordings on Atlantic Records: "Live Thunderchicken" (1993), "The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord" (1994) and "You Will Be You" (1995). In 1991The Hatters jumped in a Bus and spent 5 years on the road, living in the mountains of Nederland, Colorado during short breaks. The Hatters toured about 300 days a year and had the opportunity to share stages with the likes of Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, Buddy Guy, Blues Traveler, Collective Soul, the Allman Brothers, Joan Osbourne, King Sunny Ade, Jimmy Cliff, and A Tribe Called Quest.

APRIL 1993 calendar at The Wetlands (featured in the movie, Wetlands Preserved.)

1993 Calendar

Classic Video
"Found with Your Drawers Down" c. 1990

The Hatters
The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord (Atlantic)
From The Ripple Effect
The Hatters – The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado OverlordOk, straight up, guys. Pop quiz time. What was the best damn album of 1994 that you never heard? Well, since we already know that the average Ripple reader is vastly more intelligent than the rest of our saccharine illiterati, I'll bet you simply looked up at the title of this post to the get the answer. And yes, oh loyal reader, there it is, the Hatters in all their glory, creators of clearly the best, unheard album of 1994.

Now, in truth, it's not hard to see why no one picked this little gem up. First of all, take a look at the album art. Someone at Atlantic Records art department should've been beheaded for releasing that monstrosity onto the world. It frightens me just looking at it. But in the end, the boys got no one to blame but themselves. Check out that mouthful of an album title. Really, there can't be too many people clamoring to hear an album about an avocado overlord no matter how madcap his adventures might be.

But, let's put all that behind us, if we can, and focus on the music, because, damn, this is one fine album.

The Hatters, formed in Philly then moved to New York were they traveled in the same jam band circles as Blues Traveler (in fact John Popper lends a hand on one track) and that association gives you a starting point for where these guys were coming from. But to label them as merely a jam band would be doing them a grave disservice. With expert musicianship, a true gift for melody and the most soulful vocals coming from a white boy since Greg Allman, the Hatters were a devastating blues rock outfit. Think of them as the Allman Brothers for the nineties, with a smattering of country flavor and a true classic rock heart.

"Sacrifice," starts the gig off with a beautiful 70's rock riff, dropping right into funky scratching guitars before the song morphs into the gorgeous piano strains of "Bring That Wagon Down." But as good as those two songs are, The Madcap Adventures is that rarest of albums where each song that follows is actually better than the one before. Think about that for a moment. Usually a band load up the front end of an album with all their best stuff, saving the filler for the end. When was the last time you could say that an album actually got better as it played on?

Musically, there's not a wink link. The dual guitar work of Adam Hirsh and Adam Evans is stellar, fiery, easily on par with that of the best of the jam bands, rocking harder than Phish or Widespread Panic. Each note from the blistering solos is perfectly selected, never noodling, just refined. The rhythm section of Jon Kaplan and Tommy Kaelin never falters, and never overwhelms the song, rather each component blends perfectly, keeping the melodies in the forefront. But perhaps the Hatters greatest secret weapon (other than the incredible vocals of Adam Hirsh, which we'll get to later) is the piano work of Billy Jay Stein. No matter how hard these guys are rocking or flying off into jam band nirvana, Stein's beautifully melodic playing keeps the songs grounded in a very accessible pop structure. Some of his melodies and passages are so beautiful, you could easily envision an entire chamber orchestra picking up the melody and running away with it.

Now, for Hirsh's vocals. Trust me, if you like a guy to reveal his passion with every syllable, bear his heart with each word, Hirsh is the guy for you. His voice squeaks, cracks and at times, nearly yoddles across the melody. "I Could Be The One," is a love-near-breakup song of amazing passion and honesty, a capsule of exactly what each one of us has wanted to say, at one time or another, to our lover, when things seemed to be falling apart. The soul and pain in Hirsh's voice, tripping and dipping across Stein's piano chords, is so intense you can't help but feel it. I swear, every time I hear that song, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Yes, I'm getting misty now just thinking about it.

"Bad Side," "Empty Handed," and "Sip of Your Wine," should appeal to every fan of classic rock, blazing guitars and mean riffs. "Dig the Ribbit," gets up and funks in a down home way as Hirsh coveys the joys of frog jumping. "Madness of the Green," and "Found With Your Drawers Down," are fierce rockers, with extended funky jams. Meanwhile, "For Tomorrow," and "The Last Walt," are quite simply, beautiful.

I've played this album for nearly anyone I could corner and block from escaping. Yes, even the local grocer. And truth be told, everyone who's heard it has always responded with that same wide-eyed, god-damn-where-did-you-find-this look of appreciation. I must have purchased and passed this CD out 10 times at least. It really is that good.

Unfortunately, The Hatters couldn't translate their incredible work into financial success. A live album that preceded Madcap and a second full-length CD finished them off, leaving the world just a little more barren. Adam Hirsh is still recording, as Tree Adams and Billy Jay Stein is up and running at Strange Cranium. You can find their websites below. But whatever you do, don't miss this moment of Hatters magic. They really did capture lightning in a bottle, and Hirsh is the man to sings its praises right to your front door.

Makes me wish I knew what a damn avocado overlord was anyways. --Racer
Whatever Happened To... The Hatters
Christopher Luise, 2001-05-21
From JamBands.com
{Editor's note: Ever since Sister Mary Carmen retired her "Ghosts of Jambands Past" column, we've been aching to add some feature stories looking backwards at groups that have stopped performing together. Here is the first one, on popular NYC-based band The Hatters. If you have any suggestions or a band you wish to profile, please send info our way to jambands@jambands.com}

What could have been. For those who saw the extraordinary jamband The Hatters (originally The Mad Hatters) perform live between 1989 and 1995, they know what that means. In baseball, players who have speed, the ability to hit, fielding skills, arm strength, and power, are called five-tool players. Well, The Hatters were a five-tool band. Possessing amazing chops, a tight rhythm section, unique songwriting, powerful stage presence, and an enthusiasm to play non-stop from the time they took the stage till they were dragged off, The Hatters were one of the most exciting jambands of the '90s.

Adam Hirsh and Adam Evans were a devastating combination on two fronts. Evans, lead guitarist, accompanied Hirsh's soulful crooning with sweet backup vocals. Likewise, lead vocalist Hirsh was equal to Evan's searing guitar riffs, with unbelievable chops of his own. Songs like "Feelgoodius Kind," "Clip On," and "Found with Your Drawers Down" showcased fiery dual leads, equal to any dual-axe band around. Complementing, and often showcased, was the keyboard playing of Billy Jay Stein (or to Hatters faithful, CAPTAIN CRANIUM!!). Stein, an accomplished musician, weaved the melody. He pulled off the impossible many times, shifting the eyes of the audience from the dueling guitars over to the man playing the keys, usually in the darkest part of the stage. Melodious songs like "The Last Walt" and "Bring that Wagon Round" or jamfests like "Dig the Ribbit" and "Daydream" featured the piano and organ of Captain Cranium. The backbone of The Hatters, the rhythm section, was rock solid in two incarnations. The original drummer and bassist were Bill Rives and Antonio Ramirez, respectively. These fine musicians pre-date The Hatters' three albums on Atlantic Records, but for anyone who saw them live as The Mad Hatters, they enjoyed thunderous layers which allowed the rest of the band to carry the jams. Inheriting the bass and drumming duties were Jon Kaplan and Tommy Kaelin. The Hatters didn't skip a beat, and in fact evolved into a new stage of musicianship which eventually became the meat of their three recordings.

The first of The Hatters three albums was released in 1993. Live Thunderchicken was a combination of three studio cuts surrounded by seven blistering live songs. The live portion of the album was recorded at The Wetlands in New York City. Adam Hirsh recalls, "The Thunderchicken album was a last minute idea that the record company had when they decided to push back the release of our studio album. They sprung that news on us the day before our show at the Wetlands when they offered to pay for a truck to come in and do a live album. Even though we hadn't played out in a while since we had just spent two months recording, we jumped at the chance and jammed our way down Eternity Street for better or for worse."

Live Thunderchicken starts out with the studio tune "Clip On" that originated as a jam from Hatters shows with one line of lyrics. "Clip On" evolved into a full-length song, which featured a thick groove, high-energy riff, and intriguing lyrics. ...I can tell the clip-on's by the angles of their chins, I can tell the clip-on's by the languor of their kin... "Clip On" was written in response to watching some of our peers who were going on to lead comfortable lives while we scrounged along on the road, sleeping in the van, etc. I guess it was our own little 'fuck you song' to the folks who thumbed their noses at us as well as to the folks who didn't believe in what we were trying to do," Hirsh says.

The other two studio cuts on Live Thunderchicken are "Sip of Your Wine" (featuring John Popper) and "When I Write My Last Song," but the bulk of the recording is the live songs from The Wetlands. Compositions such as "One-eyed Captain Laing," "Daydream," and "Eaagh... the Jester Cried" were proving grounds indeed for The Hatters. Drummer Tommy Kaelin credits the spontaneity, "Had there had been more notice about recording The Wetlands show for our first Atlantic release there would have been a temptation to really work out a lot of the stuff ahead of time. We were forced by circumstance not to overthink it." The highlight of Live Thunderchicken is "Feelgoodius Kind" and "Wave On," which are interconnected by a spacious jam. "We worked out the jam from Feelgoodius into Wave On, but that was about the extent of preparation," Kaelin remembers. "It was a great time, one night, one show. Lots of raw unbridled energy. It was a special show for us," Kaelin says.

The sophomore effort, titled The Madcap Adventures of the Avocado Overlord, was released the following year even though it had been recorded before Live Thunderchicken. It's a diverse album, ranging from all-out jams like "Madness of the Green" to the blues-touched "Bad Side," to soulful ballads such as "For Tomorrow," "Bring That Wagon 'Round" and "The Last Walt." "Madcap was a joy to record," according to Hirsh. "Every day we barbecued, jammed, and partied till dawn." Kaelin agrees. "There was an exciting 'there is a whole world of potential and possibility' kinda feeling. It might have been the most fun of the three recordings." Kaelin credits the contribution of Billy Jay Stein's keyboards on the second album. "My two favorites from that recording are "I Could be The One" and "The Last Walt"." The aforementioned "The Last Walt" is a remarkable song gracefully hidden among the jams; a combination of Stein's unique phrasing, Evans' tasteful leads, and perhaps Hirsh's best lyrical performance. "I just love the whole vibe of 'Walt.' Billy really does some beautiful keys on that one," Kaelin remarks. "I think 'I Could be The One' might be the most soulful song we ever recorded. It's a straight up live take. Adam (Hirsh) is just ripping out in that take which was the second. The first take was even better, but after Evans' solo, Hirsh broke down and we couldn't finish the song. On take two we made it through, barely. It was an emotional heartfelt scene. Music can be a deep and personal thing." Hirsh reflects on the Avocado Overlord album, "I think that we may have been too conservative with our guitar sounds but I think in hindsight, we wanted to make a really pure vintage sounding record and we focused on getting the songs across more than anything. Nevertheless, the final product was something that I think we were all very proud of."

The Hatters' final effort was 1995's You Will Be You. It marked a distinct change in their sound. Hatters faithful took to the change and hoped for bigger and better things for the band. The album had a harder edge that reflected the current success of bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. This is evident in tunes such as "Dive" and "Underfrog." There is an undercurrent of mellow tunes, though. "Colors," "Where the Wind," and "I'll Walk" are a definitive change of direction in The Hatters' songwriting. The masterpiece of the recording is the title cut "You Will Be You." It is a creative mixture of heavy riffs, a funky groove, and stellar Adam Hirsh crooning. Lead guitarist Adam Evans is riveting as usual, with rollercoaster jamming that can be frantic at one moment and eerily subdued the next. Jon Kaplan and Tom Kaelin steer the rhythm ship while Billy Jay Stein's colorful organ mark You Will Be You and he finishes the song and the album with an emotional piano piece which is actually an untitled hidden track.

The album did include a curious piece called "The Naked Song," which was a true departure from previous performances. According to Hirsh, it came out of duress. "The band had begun to feel the pressure from the label to bring out a hit, so we came through with a couple of grunge pieces and a 'Hootiesque' little cheese morsel called 'The Naked Song' which I wrote as a joke one day... I guess that's how it goes, the moment you take your eye off the ball and write something silly it ends up all over the radio." The singer still holds You will be You in high esteem, though. "The thing is, with this record, we still kept the jams intact and in fact I think our guitar playing and sonic experimentation was even more interesting, so I don't malign the record. In fact, to me it makes a pretty good listen still." Hirsh states. You will be You was completely pre-produced in a rented house near Boulder, Colorado. "We had to escape all the pressure and just be ourselves and be creative," remembers Kaelin. "We were twelve miles outside of an out-of-the-way town down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere and if the record company people wanted to come in and say 'what did you get today?' or 'I love it but you should change this' they would have to catch a flight and rent a car and track us down to our cabin overlooking the Rockies." The pressure to garner a radio hit was mounting on the band. "We were trying to find our own identity and at the same time do enough to appease the powers pulling the purse strings," Kaelin says. The Hatters were also feeling pressure from their large group of loyal fans who wanted them to remain what the fans pegged as the hippie jamband. Kaelin recalls the pressure from the fans: "The Hatters had a dark and perhaps evil side, an edge that was never hippie, but because we had an Allmans sound at times and we loved to play and jam, we got lumped in as a jamband. I used to watch the unsuspecting granola types cringe with repulsion when Hirsh would unleash the darkness upon them at some show in the Midwest or somewhere." The epic song "Yeah Bloom," according to Kaelin, expresses the feelings of isolation and disconnection the band was having with friends, family, and fans. "In a way, that theme runs throughout the whole album."

Not too long after the release of You will be You, the band members went their separate ways. "After all the miles together, I think that we just couldn't bear the lifestyle without something more to hold on to," Hirsh says. The commercial success hadn't arrived and the band had been literally on the road for years. It seems that after only three recordings The Hatters had much more to contribute musically, especially given the fact that in addition to the album songs they had scores and scores of other songs heard at their live shows which will never make it to disc. Hirsh reflects, "We never got to record tunes like 'Borrowed Time,' 'Child's Play,' 'Galley Slave,' 'Gazebo' and 'Seven Sundays.' But knowing us, we probably would've written some more music and mixed it all up." Tommy Kaelin agrees specifically regarding "Seven Sundays." "I thought it was one of Hirsh's best feel-good songs; we used to end shows with it from time to time. I wanted to play it every night and wanted to record it for You will be You but the prevailing wisdom was it was a little too bluesy for that album." If the Hatters had remained a band, what direction would they have taken? "The road was always open before us and we could have taken any number of paths," Kaelin says.

Today each of The Hatters is still involved in the music business. Adam Hirsh is on the West Coast writing and recording music as Tree Adams (www.treeadams.com). He has also had songs on television programs such as "Felicity" and 'That's Life," and motion pictures "Drowning Mona," "Poor White Trash" and "Soul Survivors." Hirsh and Tom Rothrock (Beck, Moby) are currently co-producing rap artist D. Downs is in a project called Jaw Jax (www.JawJax.com). Billy Jay Stein is a professional musician who has done work in New York theater (Jekyll and Hyde) and has toured with Broadway singer Linda Eder. Jon Kaplan now works behind the scenes producing and editing with a major music label. Tom Kaelin has drummed with Gent Treadly, The Michael Parrish Band, and The Edison Effect (www.theedisoneffect.com), which features former Hatters lead guitarist Adam Evans (who is also pursuing a career as a neurologist).

Some of the jambands from the nineties toughed it out and survive today, and some bowed out along with the century. All that is left for Hatters fans are the remarkable three Atlantic recordings and the memories of phenomenal live performances around the country. Adam Hirsh sums up the Hatters experience, "All the music that was and the beautiful music that could have been."
© 2014 Strange Cranium