The Soundcheck, February 2013
Welcome to Hoonah
By J. Gabrielle
There was a brief period last summer, when sultry, sexy leading lady, Jessica Larsen would quietly hold her hand out as though begging for change and say, “Have you any Hoonah?” I thought at the time that hoonah was like manna? Perhaps, for the band it is.
Hoonah is in the panhandle of Alaska located 30 miles west of Juneau and there resides 747 people who don’t know a band in Virginia is named after them. This town is the namesake of the band from Roanoke called “Welcome to Hoonah”. Visionaries, band mates and lovers Jessica and Spencer McKenna happened upon the sleepy fishing village during an Alaskan cruise. They later found out “Hoonah” means a place on a precipice: a perfect name for their fledgling start-up band.
“Hoonah” makes visions come upon me of the quirky T.V. show of the early ‘90’s: “Northern Exposure”. The band looks like they could live in the little town of Cicely, Alaska with its cast of eclectic characters.
This band came upon the scene in 2012 with a strong sense of itself. They have a decidedly 1930’s depression-era approach to their graphics, marketing and costuming. This is perhaps due in large part to lead singer/guitarist Spencer McKenna. He continues to serve in the popular band “Grass Monkey” and is in his own right an excellent graphic designer. Jessica gives him his kudos. “Spencer wants to be a full-time musician”. She notes that he practices hours daily on guitar, scales, harmony, and anything else he thinks will improve his performance. They also work with photographer Rabiah Kwhah Gohar. Jessica loves the timelessness of her photographs and the golden tones.
“That is what we’re going for! Really retro, sultry, Americana! A Melting Pot of every culture feel! She upholds the mystery and timelessness the band radiates in their performance (“Is it jazz? Is it country?) and in their ephemera.
Jessica and Spencer fine tune their concept and write most of the music they perform in their concert settings. They have been writing together for several years now. I asked them in this Valentine’s Month of Lovers how they perceived performing together and being mates. “We really thought hard on that question!” says Jessica. “We have learned it’s made us communicate better as a couple and given us a better ability to solve problems. We HAVE to communicate within the band, so we HAVE to communicate within the relationship!”
Kevin Kittredge, longtime writer for the Roanoke Times is the bassist for this tight unit. It is really nice to see him so at home in something he has wanted to do for such a long time. At a recent show at Schooners, Kittredge kept a dance beat that was hard to resist! Jessica credits Kevin with giving her the push to get her performing. The couple met Kevin at the Open Mic at Village Grill.
The band’s website says their mix of music is “is a fusion of folk-Americana, swing and Bakersfield country music, with a definitive Appalachian flavor and a touch of urban verve”.
Of course, the landing page of their website (www.WelcometoHoonah.com) calls it “Dustbowl HonkyFunk”.
Comparisons? Many. Old Crow Medicine Show and Larry’s Flask come to mind. Also, Jessica and Spencer’s unique vocals harken back to early recordings in America, particularly, Jimmie Rogers the Singing Brakeman. Both of these performers have unique voices that invoke 1920’s recordings and that make it so satisfying in 2013.
Recently they added the long searched for drummer Josh Smelser, chosen for his jazzy, swingy and suave feel. Also, Liam Kelly has come to them to round out the melting pot of sound.
I am in a unique position to ask the musicians how they want their story to end. Jessica reiterates what many hometown musicians feel….
“Welcome to Hoonah” went on to make a living playing music despite their obvious Dust Bowl Upbringing. They performed for the Heads of State and the Queens and Kings of the World and they lived, happily ever after….