(Photo from TheBayBridged.com)
Hippo Campus is a young band, and it shows through their massive success in only the best ways. Though a great majority of the room had at least a few years on them, the four men of Hippo Campus have a commanding stage presence that more than filled the room – already filled, by the way, with refreshingly enthusiastic fans. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show where I could hear the audience singing along.
When I passed the Middle East in Boston with a friend five minutes before doors, there was a line around the building. An hour later, after some last-minute Cambridge wanderings, the line was exactly as long as we’d left it. Oketo and Hippo Campus were pulling fans as quickly as the venue could get them inside. Oketo is a perfect touring partner for Hippo Campus, with similarly vibrant and energetic grooves, if slightly darker and tenser. We only caught the last few songs, but the raw sound we heard seemed closer to their three-song eponymous EP than the longer, tamer I Am Here You Are Now. Most notably, lead singer Steven DeLair’s engaging growl adds an extra edge and some unique character to the almost-ambient rock. Listening to their studio releases after having first encountered them live, I think I would have been disappointed that the delicate, jazzy woodwinds vital to their studio sound were not included in the live show, but I do think they were very impressive, regardless.
(Photo from @thehalocline, Hippo Campus’s Instagram that is equal parts artsy and hilarious.)
Hippo Campus was preceded on stage by a simplified, but recognizable version of the percussion rhythm opening “Souls”, a perfect, highly recognizable choice that allowed a gradual introduction and hard-hitting crescendo by the end. Immediately, Nathan Stocker’s shimmering guitar riffs cut through the mix like glass, for the band’s characteristic upbeat energy to spill through. Whistler Allen’s solid, but light percussion and Zach Sutton’s confident bass keep the band in a tight, powerful groove. The musical chemistry is undeniable. Finally, frontman Jake Luppen focuses the jam towards the audience with bouncy vocals just begging – sometimes literally, with uplifted palms – for a singalong. Luppen’s lanky frame and nervous off-stage energy snap into a confident and charming persona behind a microphone (à la Brandon Flowers), which he occasionally breaks to make goofy faces into the audience. Sutton slinks soulfully under the momentum of his bass on Luppen’s left, while Stocker bobs to his right, with glassy eyes trained toward nothing in particular. In high-energy moments, Stocker whips his long, wild hair and breaks down into an exhilarating embodiment of the jam. Allen sits stoically behind his drum set and deftly holds everything down. Just watching them is an almost physical experience, but the grooves are perpetually inviting and with such an enthusiastic audience, there was never a moment of stillness.
Luppen has a voice that’s even easier to appreciate live, especially in his higher range, and Stocker surprised me with outstandingly sturdy harmonies and a clear, strong vocal solo on “South”. Allen and Sutton also contribute to vocal harmonies and a few punctuated shouts here and there that contribute to Hippo Campus’s distinctive full choruses. Luppen’s occasional growl was especially satisfying in “South”, a big hit for the band that I never fully appreciated until appreciating it live, when suddenly I thought, this might be their best song. (That being said, I still think overall the title would go to “Close to Gold”, which features all of Hippo Campus’s best unique features: prominent guitar riffs, a quick, confident bass groove, elegant percussion, huge chorus vocals as well as heavy-handed one-on-one harmonies, and punchy unison rhythms for the whole outfit.) A funny thing I realized when trying to predict the next song in the set is how difficult it is for me to match songs I’ve heard dozens of times with a name. It may be the way I encountered them (the albums are so short, I always listen to the whole thing at once), but it also made me realize how important the guitar parts are to me, since most songs, in my head are: the one that goes like this [vocals, lyrics inc. title]; but Hippo Campus songs are almost exclusively: the one that goes like this [guitar riffs]. They played two new, unreleased songs that were distinctly more slow and assured, the first of the two actually hinting at old fashioned southern and soul roots.
As a side note: I was disappointed Luppen didn’t play his yellow Moniker, which happens to be one of my favorite instruments of all time.
Final thoughts: Hippo Campus are a lot of fun live, and definitely worth it to see, if you’re brand new to the band, or better yet if you love them, know all the lyrics, and want to meet like-minded fans. They’re already blowing up and any opportunity to see them now is even more valuable in the face of the heights they’ve yet to reach (they’re already played Red Rocks, so jump on the bandwagon, quick).
Here’s a great video that captures their infectious live energy: