A Chance to Take Chances: Pin 2 Hot and the Audacity of Artistic Freedom

words and photos by Ted Lehr

The word “commodity” is spoken by Chris Butler with just the slightest hint of disdain. He chuckles uncomfortably as he uses the term. 

“It’s fun to noodle,” Chris says. “You never get to do that these days. It’s a song. It’s not…a commodity.”

We are speaking on the telephone three days prior to the debut performance of Chris’s newest musical endeavor, Pin 2 Hot.

Chris, one of the architects of the group, is most notable for his work with 1980s post-punk luminaries, The Waitresses. He has carved an equally impressive reputation in local circles, as he is a past or present member of such acts as The Numbers Band, Tin Huey, Half Cleveland, purple k’niF and more.

His latest endeavor, Pin 2 Hot (P2H), is an improvisational rock act, perhaps unlike one ever before. Using the work of legendary avant-garde jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler as a broad template, P2H takes well-known riffs of rock-n-roll songs as a point of origin and drives off in seven directions at once as they trip, sneer and soar throughout new sonic territory. 

Along with Chris on electric guitar, the rest of the group is a rogue’s gallery of local musicians. Bob Ethington (percussion), Corey Jenkins (bass), Michael Aylward (guitar), Jacob Trombetta (pedal steel), Matt Reese (cello) and Christina Cruder (reeds) are unquestionably are talented artists looking to shock and provoke.

“We don’t want to make a song,” Butler snickers. “We want to make a howl.”

The resulting effort is very much the descendant of the oft-heralded “Akron Sound.” Less a literal “genre” than an ethos, the Akron Sound is, at its core, DIY music. It’s the product of the Midwestern work ethic combined with the isolation that accompanies life in smaller-town America. In that fertile territory lies, well, art.

Chris spoke excitedly, nervously, about the septet’s debut performance. With the band’s pedigree of musicians, they could theoretically have their choice of venues to promulgate their work.  

But Chris became animated, yet earnest, when asked why Hive Mind, a grassroots performance space, was the soapbox of choice to unleash Pin 2 Hot upon Akron.

“Oh, Hive Mind,” Chris chuckles. “That’s the incubator. We could have gone to any number of clubs, but this ain’t rock-n-roll dinner theater. Hive Mind was our first and only choice [because there] you have a chance to take chances.” 

Fast-forward to Saturday, Oct. 5. It’s a cool, crisp night in Akron. Fifteen minutes before the advertised start time and the space is bubbling with spectators. It’s a decidedly older audience, one that will turn up for an event but only if friends are playing or the quality of entertainment is assured. Of the 45+ in attendance, there are a number of recognizable faces out. I spend a few minutes chatting with self-styled city culture documentarian Yoly Miller about shows we’ve recently attended. 

The buzz in the room dies down as the group takes the stage promptly at 9 pm. No opening act.

The various members fuss and fiddle with their instruments until there are assured of functionality. With a nod, the familiar strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” pour forth into the small, block building. I’m immediately taken back to the warm summer days of my youth. My father perched precariously atop an old wooden ladder. He’s busy painting the trim of the house. He barks out requests for this brush or that rag. The intoxicating and unaffected guitar work of Keith Richards keeps us company throughout the day. 

The daydream lasts but a moment before it’s punctured by the clatter of the unexpected. P2H revs right up to the edge and then steps off a pier, simultaneously going in the same direction but different directions. The music they produce is interesting, but challenging. It’s disjointed and requires strict attention. It’s 100% not for everyone and it’s 100% not supposed to be.

The music is the star. It is presented with little to no theatrics. Honestly, schtick added to the mix would probably be too much. The soufflé would collapse under the weight of it all. 

The Temptations’ “My Girl” is next. Matt Reese’s cello is dominant and dreamy. Chris and company find a beach-y through line that is assuredly beautiful. It’s probably the “best” piece of the evening.

The evening continues, broken down into two sets. Pin 2 Hot is not to be intimidated. They pay tribute to The Beatles, Lou Reed, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Link Wray. Some of it works — in fact, a lot does — and some, well, doesn’t. Some stumbles off into the realm of noise. That’s kind of the cool part, though: The risk.

The real trick of the entire evening, however, is that it is all pulled off without smacking of pretension. It feels pure, like a bunch of friends who love music and found a reason to play. You’ve gotta respect that, right?

I rolled my eyes when someone from the audience yelled out “Freebird.” Much to my surprise the band immediately broke into that familiar riff. I settle in, preparing for all nine-minutes of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic. Instead, the band plays the memorable notes and bids the audience a good evening.

To quote “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Just when you think you have all the answers, I change the questions.”

Ted Lehr has been a culture critic for The Devil Strip since 2016. His first concert was Lynyrd Skynyrd at the old Coliseum. He sat through all nine minutes of “Freebird” with a lighter in the air.