A thirteen-song set, followed by a single-song encore, without a single lyric in English, and with a front line of musicians playing instruments that are as foreign to the vast majority of audience as the musicians playing them. And the room was still packed to the point of barely able to move, with cheers and adoration moving back and forth between the stage and the crowd. That was the scene last Wednesday night when The Hu, an eight-piece rock band playing primarily traditional folk instruments, hit the stage at The Ready Room in St. Louis. The added support of the guitar, bass, and drums brought the harder-rock backbone to underlie the Mongolian folk flesh that is the music of The Hu, and it makes for an amazing sound on record, and even more astounding in person.
The night kicked off with another less-than-traditional act in Ontario duo Crown Lands. With Cody Bowles on vocals from behind the drum kit and Kevin Comeau on guitar, occasionally bass guitar, and I can only guess what else with all the things going on on that side of the stage, Crown Lands has a true throw-back sound that is challenging to describe. Nowadays it seems like everyone has to sound like someone, so if you want a rough description, try this: Imagine Robert Plant and Jack Bruce merging for vocals, while also being John Bonham playing the drums, while letting Malcolm Young move from a rhythm guitar slot to take the lead. That might get you in the right neighborhood, but it's still something you have to see and hear for yourself to grasp. With tracks like “Mountain,” “Mantra,” and “Waterfall,” Crown Lands has a lot to say, and as much of a joy as it is to listen to them play, it's just as important to take the words and meaning of the songs to heart.
That brings us back to the headliner of the night. The Hu is one of those bands that, no matter how badly someone wants a comparison to know what they sound like, there isn't going to be one. There is simply nothing I can think of that comes close to what these guys are doing. There are acts out there performing traditional folk music, and some even bringing in traditional instrumentation. But to blend those things with a thundering heart of a metal band while maintaining the core of melodic, mournful strings and rumbling, Richter-tripping throat singing, that's something that's new to me. With songs that tell stories of the people of Mongolia, The Hu has already found a warm welcome in the US, and that fanbase is growing. This show is a good demonstration of that, having originally been scheduled at The Firebird, with a capacity of around 400, and being moved to The Ready Room, with nearly double the room, based on demand.
On tour, there are eight performing members of The Hu. (For the sake of brevity, I'm going to use their nicknames here, but their full names are available online.) The “front four” consist of the band members you generally see in the videos, including the two morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) players Enkush and Gala, Temka, who plays the tovshuur (Mongolian lute), and Jaya, who serves as the primary vocalist as well as playing the tsuur (flute) and jaw-harp. It's hard to label anyone as the lead vocalist, because Jaya, Enkush, and Gala all perform the throat singing the band has become well known for, with Gala being the foremost of these.
Behind these front four, percussionist Ono, drummer Odko, guitar player Jamba, and bass player Batkhuu Batbayar hold down more expected positions in a hard rock or metal band, and bring the whole package together. The eight member coming to bring tracks such as “Song of Women” and “The Legend of Mother Swan” to life on stage, enthralling crowds who, in most cases, have no idea what they're actually saying. “The Great Chinggiss Khaan” tells the story of arguably the most legendary in Mongolian history and culture, known more commonly in English as Genghis Khan. Songs like “Shoog Shoog” and “Wolf Totem” turn out to be fan favorites with crowd participation joining in on the catchy hooks, all the while telling the tales of war and battle and raising the black banner of war that would be followed by Mongolians. It's a little bit of subversion that all good metal music should infuse into its crowds. Arguably the most well-known song – “Yuve Yuve Yu” – which had the crowd singing along for both the initial performance and the encore run-through is a true dichotomy of a piece. Lamenting that the people of Mongolia have forgotten that they were once the conquerors of the world, it also warns that being arrogant about it is a road to ruin, as well. It's a really deep piece that has a fun, bouncy hook that draws the audience in and makes them sing along without even knowing what they're singing. How strange!
In a rarity for me, I managed to spend a very brief moment with the guys of The Hu after the show. They are genuinely gracious, polite, and enthusiastic about what they're doing, and I hope that sticks with them. I also hope that audiences continue to grow for them. This year, I've heard that they conquered California at the Aftershock festival, and following a few more weeks of shows here in the US, they're off to Europe. If you have a chance to see these warriors of song in your area, don't miss it. It can't be explained, it can only be experienced.