Journey to Inheritance

The Last Bison isn’t just your average chamber-folk family band.

In an eye-grabbing video for their song, “Setting Our Tables,” members of The Last Bison are shown dreamily cavorting in bucolic forests and shimmering lakes, moving in reverse, emerging ghost-like from splashed waters and leafy fields, armed with cellos, violins, banjos and xylophones. It’s an apt pastoral setting for a woodsy, seven-piece folk ensemble that is truly in its own little world.

But that world is getting larger fast. In seemingly record time, the Chesapeake-based group has gone from playing private concerts for friends to headlining (and nearly selling out) the NorVa Theatre in Norfolk. The band—which formed as “Bison” in 2010—embarked on a 60-date U.S. tour earlier this year and were recently signed to a major record label (Universal/Republic). They’ve gone on tour as the opening act for Jars of Clay, performed with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and partly recorded their most recent disc at the legendary, but now-closed, Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, where Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty have crafted classic albums.

A growing fan base is responding to the unit’s unusual blend of classical instrumentation, folk harmonies and ingenious sonic colorings—bells, chimes, stomping bass drum, even the dulcet sounds of Bolivian goat toenails (which sound like a dry shaker).

“Our live show, we feel, carries the energy of a rock show,” says Ben Hardesty, the well-bearded lead songwriter/frontman of the group. “Even though the music is not rock music .… ”

“It’s pop,” interjects keyboardist Andrew Benfante, who plays a 75-year-old pump organ.

They can attribute much of their breakneck success to something pretty unusual for a local chamber-folk band—commercial radio airplay. Last year, Norfolk’s WROX (96X) picked up their song, “Switzerland,” an anthemic love note to snowy climbs, and made it a monster regional hit.

“Because radio picked us up early on, things just happened so fast. I mean, they were playing it every three hours,” says Dan Hardesty, banjo and mandolin player.

Sitting backstage with most of the group before a well-attended show at Richmond’s Canal Club, the members finish each other’s sentences, laugh at each other’s jokes, and freely admit it: They’re weird.

“If you don’t have some weird oddity about your band, it’s not very interesting,” claims percussionist Jay Benfante, Andrew’s younger brother.

It isn’t every day, for instance, that your dad is in your band. Handling banjo duties, Dan, the father of both Ben and his xylophone-playing sister Annah, is comfortable sharing the spotlight with his progeny. When he’s not on tour, he’s an associate pastor at Chesapeake’s Community Church.

“Yeah, sometimes I feel like I’m herding cats,” the elder Hardesty admits. “It is definitely a different vibe being in a band with my son and daughter. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Hey, guys, go ahead and take it,’ and other times I have to step in.” It helps that wife Carla—Ben and Annah’s mom—serves as the group’s road manager.

Adding to the family feel, the members of The Last Bison met in church and, except for dad, were home-schooled. Ben says the experience helped him to become a better musician. “I could always practice my guitar during the day. If I was in school, I couldn’t have done that,” he says.

Violinist Teresa Totheroh enters the room and describes the band as “a great experience .… it’s like having four brothers and a second dad.” The pixie-like Totheroh grew up with sisters, so I ask her if it gets tiresome being one of only two females in a seven-piece band traveling the country in a cramped van with a faulty AC? “Yes,” she says, with a comical deadpan that seems to say, “Please help me.” And there is much laughter.

The Last Bison has been pegged by some as a Christian group, but it’s interesting to note that the band never mentions religion onstage or in interviews (and good luck finding overt Christian messages in their lyrics). When asked about their influences, Andrew Benfante says, “We listen to a lot of Allison Krauss and Union Station,” and his mates concur. “Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver are big,” adds Jay Benfante, while cellist Amos Housworth admits that he didn’t listen to anything except classical music growing up. “It was all Yo Yo Ma.”  

“Somebody just told us that we were the new punk music,” Ben says with a grin, as the herd prepares for their set. “And all because we’re tactful and melodic.”

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