The Last Bison forges a new sound

Newly local, The Last Bison brings a fresh lineup and recently recorded tunes to the Southern on February 19. Photo by Jakob Wandel Newly local, The Last Bison brings a fresh lineup and recently recorded tunes to the Southern on February 19. Photo by Jakob Wandel

Ben Hardesty is roaming Charlottesville. The frontman of indie folk- pop act The Last Bison moved to C’ville last August. Since then, the musicians that once comprised the band in its former home base of Chesapeake have scattered. Only six months on the new terrain, Hardesty is still trying to discover where he can get the juiciest bison burger in town, but he’s more focused on new music for The Last Bison, performing at the Southern on Sunday.

The band, formerly known as Bison, gets its name from Hardesty’s fascination with 19th-century American history.

“I thought the American buffalo/bison represented a lot of things about the way our country is because it has a pretty complicated past as an American icon,” he says. “It represents power but it also represents greed. It represents the creation of civilization but also the destruction of another one. I felt it was the most honest representation of what America really is.”

The Last Bison
The Southern Café and Music Hall
February 19

The Last Bison released Quill independently in 2011, then signed with Universal Republic and went on to release two albums—Inheritance and Sleigh Ride—in 2013. After being dropped, the band followed with two more independent albums, 2014’s VA and 2015’s Dorado.

Hardesty, 25, reflects on Dorado’s songs, which are based on his life experiences. The tracks even fall chronologically on the album, making it a play-by-play of Hardesty’s most memorable moments. “Souls in the Sand” is about his childhood journey across Bolivia. His missionary parents (his father is a pastor) went to remote jungles to build churches and train locals to be pastors. While they were working, Hardesty explored. That sometimes meant getting into trouble during his encounters with the wilderness—like losing his shoes in quicksand when he was 8 years old.

Since Dorado, there have been other coming-of-age moments, the biggest being Hardesty’s father’s departure from the band (to commit to his work as a pastor). Last summer, he performed his final show with his dad, who had been with The Last Bison from the start.

“My dad gave me a guitar [at the age of 12] and said, ‘It doesn’t matter how you play, just make it sound good,’” he says.

With the member shuffling (the band is currently made up of longtime members Andrew Benfante on keys and Amos Housworth on bass) have come changes to the band’s overall instrumentation. You won’t hear violin, banjo and mandolin, as before.

“We’ve definitely reduced the instrumentation a little bit,” says Hardesty. “It was a difficult transition with the music because you never want to force anything because people can see through fakeness.”

Last summer the band started recording songs for a new album that Hardesty says have an underlining theme of nostalgia. One of the newbies, “Gold,” also recalls Hardesty’s experience in the Bolivian Amazon.  “That song is a retelling of that transition for me as a very young child and a kid trying to process all that,” says Hardesty.

Skipping forward to another impressionable time is “The Glow,” inspired by Hardesty’s anxieties about the transition into adult life. “I was scared and anxious about how everything was going to work out, but there was a moment where I just knew everything was going to be okay, no matter what,” he says.

Now if he can only find that burger on the comfort food landscape.

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