After Saturday’s show in the Mainroom at First Avenue, I no longer have any qualms about calling Hippo Campus a boy band — and I mean that as high praise. Boy bands rule – they were the first music I became a fan of, back when the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were selling zillions of CDs at chain stores.
Hippo Campus are obviously a little different from those groups, though: they’re a self-contained rock group with serious chops, writing knotty indie rock songs full of crescendos, tempo switch-ups, and full band fills. Nonetheless, what makes them a boy band is their music’s single-minded devotion to conveying the oceanic ebb and flow of youthful emotion. For all the members’ veteran-like polish as performers, their songs still unfold with unmistakably teenage attention spans.
By around 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, the line outside First Ave stretched nearly to the door of the neighboring Depot Tavern, and this was a full hour before doors would open for the show. The line largely comprised people of a certain age (mine). The show was all-ages, but my cousin Jesse, a member of First Ave with whom I attended the show, told me this kind of line was remarkable, even for national acts.
Inside the venue, the crowd split, with a happy mob of high school and college-age folk on the floor, and everyone else clogging the balcony. Pre-show, the crowd on the floor would cheer whenever an act they liked appeared on the projections of upcoming events and past highlights: Walk the Moon, the 1975, Vampire Weekend in 2010, and First Ave’s semi-formal, day-after-Christmas “Bey Ball” tribute to Beyonce got the biggest cheers.
First openers Danger Ron & the Spins took the stage promptly at 6:04, bringing a retro-psychedelic garage rock sound, complete with pleasingly weird guitar tones (reminiscent of the first Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, or of the many garage punk bands in Ty Segall’s orbit in San Fransisco), as well as manic drumming. Their set progressed from relatively chilled-out excursions – one song even rode what sounded like a mutant, misremembered bossa nova groove – to punky outbursts, highlighted by their bassist leaping around the stage during the one tune for which he switched to guitar and vocals.
After Danger Ron came Bad Bad Hats, another young local group who’ve been opening for Hippo Campus on many tour dates this summer. They released their first full-length, Psychic Reader, in July. Many in the crowd were there as much for Bad Bad Hats as for the Hippos, with random cheers and shouts occurring between songs while lead singer Kerry Alexander told jokey stories.
Bad Bad Hats are one drop in a wave of excellent groups to come up in 2015 plying melodic, crunchy, big-hearted indie rock with clear and distinctive female vocals and confessional lyrics. One thing that sets them apart is Alexander’s carefree personality, evident in the way she jokily engaged in classic rock star moves – at one point standing back-to-back with bassist Noah Boswell during a guitar solo – and the way she repeatedly referred to her songs as “numbers,” as though she were several decades older and playing a supper club.
During the lull after Bad Bad Hats’ set, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and Smash Mouth’s “All Star” played, on repeat, over the venue PA, in what I assume was a deliberate choice by Hippo Campus, and the throng of young folks on the floor sang along to every word of each chorus, each time. As “All Star” began its second repetition, First Ave’s projector slowly rose, revealing Hippo Campus as the audience let out a collective, high-pitched cheer.
Lead singer Jake Luppen wore a sort of matador-esque outfit, complete with fringed jacket and bolo tie, enthusiastically playing the part of budding rock star. The band started slowly, with Luppen repeating the line “don’t try to fight it anymore.” The rest of the band gradually joined in on harmonies, building anticipation before they launched into the folky opening riff of “Bashful Creatures.”
The set list comprised both of Hippo Campus’s EPs – last year’s Bashful Creatures, and South, which dropped in October, played in full, though out of order.
Hippo Campus’s bag of musical tricks seems specially calibrated to set rock club audiences reeling. Though their guitars are perpetually clean, they hit hard, and when the rhythm section busts into heavy half-time grooves (as they frequently do), the group get just a fuzz pedal or two away from stoner metal territory. Each of their songs has as many melodic ideas as some bands would use for a multi-sectioned epic, but Hippo Campus run through them in the lengths of three minute pop songs.
What’s most impressive about them, though, is the way they make every component of their songs, every off-kilter frill, into a hook of its own – for example, the way “Souls” ends with an offbeat, jazzy chord, or the way they disrupt the sing-along coda on “Close to Gold” with a sudden half-second of silence right before its final repetition. Live, the audience’s response to each of these little intricacies is heartwarming: at least on Saturday, the fans followed along for every one, cheering for all the left turns written into those songs.
Hippo Campus did not sound too dissimilar to the way do on record. Live, Nathan Stocker’s leads invite a few more comparisons to instruments other than guitars — like kettledrums, pianos, or the manipulated keyboard tones Ian Williams uses with Battles. The band made their initial reputation with their surprising polish, and that certainly hasn’t been lost from a year spent touring. They invited a couple of “friends” up to guest on trumpet and sax for a few songs, but the brass were mostly lost in the mix, aside from a couple of tasty sax licks that poked through on the encore tune, “The Halocline.” (The trumpet player’s dancing, however, deserves hearty commendation as one of the visual highlights of the night.)
Saturday’s show was Hippo Campus’s first time headlining in First Ave’s Mainroom. It sold out well in advance, which gave the whole thing the feel of a victory lap for the band, who’ve spent much of the past year working hard: touring, wowing SXSW crowds, and getting a surprising (but unsurprisingly successful) performance on Conan under their belts.
Guitarist Nathan Stocker appeared genuinely touched by the crowd’s warm response, lingering on the stage at the end of the set to stare out in Taylor Swiftian awe at the legion of happy fans. His elation was understandable: so far his band’s career has been one continuous upward trajectory, one which hopefully will carry through to their next step: a full-length debut album. More than anything, Saturday’s show felt like the end of Hippo Campus’s first chapter, and the beginning of the next one.
Writer Austin Gerth is a member of the class of 2016 at Concordia College. He also writes for Concordia’s student blog, The COBBlog; and Concordia’s student newspaper, The Concordian. Photographer Bridget Bennett is a student at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities.
Bad Bad Hats