There are times when I feel that my musical tastes are quite pedestrian. Each week I discover a few more great bands out there making jaw-dropping music and play them on the podcast. Is it possible that this many amazing bands exist, or do I simple have no critical filter at all? If not, should I have one? Of course, as soon as my meddlesome mind begins to ponder this, I stumble upon commercial radio or see the Grammys nominees for Song of the Year, confusing the matter entirely. It seems my tastes aren't exactly pedestrian – at least not by the classical definition – but instead my preferences tend to silo themselves. There are sounds and scenes and genres I like, and nearly all bands working within that milieu quickly become dear to me. So while I still may have a broken critical filter, other issues are at play here.
All of this is to give you context. When Philadelphia's Hop Along published a tour itinerary that would bring the band to Kansas City, I was thrilled. The band has become one of my favorite acts of the last few years, and this would be the first time I would see them live. As I thought about the show, I wondered about the crowd I might encounter. I wondered if Hop Along were a band others liked, if the band were good, or if my own opinion was any indicator of others' taste at all. At 8:30 I headed to Riot Room to find out.
The experiment began with a short twenty-minute set from local Doby Watson. Watson's acoustic folk is subdued and a bit staid, never straying far from the likes of Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, Damian Jurado or the other luminaries in the folk as indie/indie as folk genre. Watson's voice has a slight twang that makes it interesting, but not the explosive gravitas of the genre's mainstays. His songs are short affairs, no doubt the result of the cross pollination with the punk bands with whom he often shares basement gigs. As a result, there was no time for the literary allusions that develop in the aforementioned musician's songs – just honest sentiments expressed without the filigree. On this night Watson was accompanied by Adam Brumback, who provided some backing vocals as well as electric guitar. Brumback's guitar and effects pedals were generally called upon to provided texture and foundation, but on the occasions he was asked to play in sync with Watson, the fuller sound was welcome. In general, Watson's set was well received, but neither the audience nor I showed any outward signs of having fallen in love.
A short turn around brought a four-piece version of La Guerre to the stage. As La Guerre is solely the project of Katlyn Conroy, it has been able to nimbly embrace each of her musical whims and explorations, leaving audiences to wonder what any live performance may bring. On this night, her past dalliances in electronic music and commercial pop gave way to a fuller indie rock sound that earned accurate comparisons to Conroy's past output with Cowboy Indian Bear. While Conroy's voice was still the centerpiece of this La Guerre, and her keyboard and synthesizer remained at the heart of her compositions, she was now surrounded by musicians who provided backing vocals, additional keyboards (as bass), guitar, and drums, tilting the effort further into the rock camp than ever before. This unexpected deviation was surprising and pleasant, particularly as it was realized in the brand new, groove-heavy song that the band played in the middle of its set, and during the heavily percussive track that served as the band's finale. Conroy announced that the band has just finished an album, but was unsure when (or even if!) it would be released. Until then the curious will have to catch La Guerre live to experience this phase of La Guerre's evolution. While La Guerre has traditionally been outside of the silos I mentioned earlier, I certainly understand the buzz, and wholeheartedly endorse it.
When this show was announced, I thought La Guerre was a curious choice for support act – why not book a local high-energy indie rock or punk band to match the gusto of the headliner? However, as women amassed at the edge of the stage for La Guerre, engaging with and embracing the band, I realized that the commonality in the bands wasn't going to be based on power chords or volume, but on empowerment and artists sharing their stories. The realization left me feeling awfully foolish.
Hop Along started pleasantly early (for a headlining act), at just a bit after 10:30. The crowd had long ago packed the stage, restricting me to a small vantage point as far stage left as possible. This put me near guitarist Joe Reinhart. Coming into the night, my view of the band was based almost entirely on the stirring vocals of Frances Quinlan, not only had I ignored her guitar work, but that of Reinhart as well. In both cases – but particularly the latter – this was a mistake. While the rhythm section of drummer Mark Quinlan and bassist Tyler Long were exceptionally solid, neither commanded much attention musically (though Mark Quinlan was exciting to watch as he frequently popped off his throne, or threw his long hair about). But as much as I was newly smitten with Reinhart's sinewy guitar work and musical toolbox, it was the clenched and scratchy vocals of Frances Quinlan that drew my, and everyone else's, focus. Having never seen the band before I wondered how it worked. What faces does she make? How does she hold her jaw? Does she disconnect from the personal lyrics she sings, or does she embrace that emotion in her performance? Would she sound anything like she does on the records?
Well, those were my questions, but not likely yours, so the short answer is that Quinlan had a surprising amount of control in her voice, willing it wherever she liked, despite producing tones that sound as if they might burst her at any minute. Furthermore, Quinlan was a pleasant frontwoman who spoke to the audience without cliche during her many tuning stops. Her banter was generally happy and friendly, and her band joked freely, especially as the stage continued to fill with smoke supplied by the overzealous fog machine. When the tech asked if it was too much, the band reported from behind the haze that it only wanted more. In for a penny, in for a pound, Reinhart thought. Afterwards I spoke with Reinhart, and he was just as friendly and personable as he appeared on stage. Still, there were tense moments as well. Quinlan's introduced single "Powerful Man," saying, "This is a true story, I wish it wasn't, but it is.'' The band then launched into the heartbreaking tale of child abuse that Quinlan witnessed but was unable to stop. The audience knew Quinlan's story, and probably one of their own.
At 11:30, Hop Along ended its set thirteen-song set with "Sister Cities" – the song that also closes its latest release, 2015's Painted Shut (Saddle Creek Records). The band didn't tease (much less return for) an encore, and surprisingly there was no organized call for the band to return, despite the appreciative fans that still packed the club. This reaction provided the data point I was looking for. My critical filter may still be suspect, but in the case of Hop Along, my adoration is deserved, and not just automatically granted based on the band's taxonomy or lineage or milieu. Yes, readers, Hop Along is genuinely amazing.