Health & Happiness Show

  • Health & Happiness Show
  • Tonic (Bar/None) 1993 
  • Instant Living (Bar/None) 1995 
  • Sad and Sexy (Cropduster) 1999 

Hoboken, New Jersey’s reputation for homey country music largely postdated the Bongos’ early-’80s heyday, so singer/guitarist James Mastro, who joined that trio in progress way back when, could be making up for lost time in his new group, the name (if not exactly the music) of which pays homage to Hank Williams. Tonic presents the Health & Happiness Show as an ebullient outfit with a catholic approach, using mandolin, fiddle, accordion, lap steel and electric instruments to weave a warm and winning skein of styles: stately Band-like waltzes (“I Do”), frisky folk-rockers (“Drunk-Eyed Waltz”), skillet-licking blues (“Engine Engine”), Gram Parsons country (“We Are Here”) and Celt-rock (“The Man Who Married the Moon,” “River of Stars”). The craft-conscious quintet invests each original song with dignity and devotion, reinventing itself while leaving a distinct overall imprint.

Instant Living is another fine — but completely different — record. Showing an all-electric backbone in lieu of the debut’s rustic trappings, the group brings its stylistic adventures home to a more organic, consistent sound that encompasses slide-happy Little Feat, elements of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Although the feedback-laden roots rock of “Sugar in Your Eyes,” the crisp desire of “You Is Fine” and the noir howls of “On Your Way” set the tone, there’s still room for variety. The fiddles and stirring beat of “Tossed Like a Stone” summon up Tonic‘s Gaelic ambience, “Anytime” has a peaceful, easy feeling and “Many Kindnesses” suggests R.E.M.’s old folk-rock side.

[Ira Robbins]