Sunday, 30 June 2019

Is this In Real Life? A review of Hanson's 2019 Fan Club EP


I was in my hotel room in Tulsa when I first listened to the EP. I’d ferried my trusted seven year old MacBook Air all across the Atlantic, complete with an equally old and battered external CD drive, with the sole purpose of ripping that CD the moment it was in my hands and listening to it in religious contemplation.




Compromise


The first song in the EP, "Compromise" starts with a piano and guitar intro, and instantly puts me in a state of acoustic bliss that reaches its nirvana as Isaac’s voice comes on some twenty seconds later. Before you can scream ‘Isaac lead’, Zac takes over vocals on the second verse, with the final part going to Taylor. After my initial split second of disappointment, it made complete sense: it’s a song about compromise, shared among the three brothers and layered with their trademark harmonies in between each verse. What is that if not a perfect example of musical compromise?

Thematically, my first thought was that the lyrics referred to the struggle of being brothers working together as a band, something that Hanson have hinted at many times. But at a closer look, “Compromise” can also be referring to the times we live in - accepting a compromise in the hope that things will change, but ultimately feeling dissatisfied. Hanson are not known for making a direct political commentary but I can’t help feeling that this song could hint at their true feelings about what happened to the U.S. since the last presidential elections. As ever when Hanson put some serious effort into their lyrics, the result is ambiguous, but that works, because pretty much everybody can relate to the song. 

“Fighting for the last word, all you end up feeling is compromised.”

Doesn’t that sum up social media fights in one simple sentence?

Verdict


Musically, Hanson are at their very best when they keep things simple: that's when their unique alchemy of guitars, piano and harmonies produces gems like this song. Musically along the lines of “On the Road” and “On and On”, “Compromise” is one of the best songs to come out of 3CG in the last 10 years.

[You can watch the full music video of “Compromise” and watch the Real-to-Reel 'making of' video on Hanson’s YouTube channel.]

Worth the Wait


Full disclosure: I really hated this song on my first listen. Musically it’s the exact opposite of what I like - a sonic anti “Compromise”. A closer look at the lyrics, however, made me listen to it in a different way: “Worth the Wait” is clearly a celebration of Hanson’s faith and despite the fact that I’m not religious myself, I find that such a song is long overdue from a band who has never taken advantage of its position to evangelise. The EP is called In Real Life and whether a fan likes it or not, faith is a big part Hanson’s real, personal life. So if for once they want to shout it out and celebrate it with a song, I’m all for it.


Verdict

A ‘play’ or ‘skip’ depending on my current mood, but when I do play it, I see a video of this song with Hanson in shiny purple robes, leading a church choir at Sunday service like James Brown in The Blues Brothers




[For further insight on the song, check out the Real-to-Reel video on Hanson’s YouTube channel.]


A song that had already been showcased at the past two BTTIs, Seymour is a Zac-on-guitar lead, a much needed change after the many sound-a-like piano songs of recent years. It’s a fun little song that tells the story of Seymour, a hapless character who gets into trouble with married women, the law and his creditors, to then undergo some kind of road-to-Damascus conversion. Musically, it’s borderline crazy-Zac-song material, complete with kazoos, a junior Hanson’s vocals, handclaps and some interesting choices of vocabulary, with the insertion of words of U.K. provenance like ‘coppers’ and ‘lass’ - the latter rarely even used south of the Scottish border. It might not be to everyone’s taste but for me “Seymour” manages to stay on the right side of quirky without becoming irritating. 


Verdict 


You got me at ‘no money money money money’. Play!




[Clip of Zac's performance at BTTI 2019]

Reading Your Mind


Another BTTI preview that I remember enjoying back in Jamaica, this song’s quiet intro doesn’t really do justice. What follows is actually a mid-tempo ballad that has been getting stuck in my head since that first spin in Tulsa. The chorus, with its harmonies and Beach Boys-style ooh-oohs is catchy as hell, and makes up for the admittedly predictable Zac style lyrics about obsessive love. So although the slow verse is somewhat unremarkable, every time the chorus comes on I’m sucked back in, and I find myself wanting to hear this song live again. After a couple of years of average Zac leads that all sounded the same, I’m glad to hear something that sounds a little more elaborate, and that employs Zac’s voice at its best, offering opportunities for belting it out as well as moments of subtlety. 


Verdict


Play it again, Zac - and bonus points for Isaac on the cello.




[Clip of Zac's performance at BTTI 2019]

Better Days


“You and me/we’re gonna make it together”

Right from the intro, we’re entering “Fame!” territory - and by the time the chorus kicks in, I’m envisioning Hanson breaking into dance and running into Main Street, swiftly joined by all their staff from 3CGs and people from neighbouring cafes and businesses - all singing ‘Better days! Better days are coming!’ as Taylor bashes on the keyboard of a piano that has magically appeared in the middle of the street. In those days we didn’t call such scenes ‘flash mobs’, but if you are old enough to remember the old “Fame!” television series, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Fame!


I shouldn’t really like this song - it’s a bit too 1980’s and sort of bombastic, but there’s something about it that stops me from hitting the ‘skip’ button. It also sounded pretty damn good live, although I suspect that it will end up buried in the vaults like a lot of EP songs and only come out at fan club events - again, another one that I hope to hear at next year’s BTTI.

Verdict


I wanna live forever! No, wait, wrong song. Never mind - play!

The Final Verdict



Compared to last year’s Animal Instincts, In Real Life feels like a better and bigger effort from the band, with at least three songs - "Compromise", "Seymour" and "Reading Your Mind" - that could easily be album material. Regardless of personal taste, none of the five songs sounds phoned in - there’s no Zac-by-numbers "Goldminer/Ghost Writer/Sophia" and no fun-but-nonsense Isaac-does Chuck-Berry lead. It feels like Hanson have woken up from the torpor of the last couple of years and rediscovered some fire, and although In Real Life is still eclectic in style and ultimately aimed at the hardcore fan base, it’s telling how Hanson are trying to push it to the ‘outside world’ by sharing some of the songs and ‘making of’ videos on YouTube, as if the band are particularly proud of this EP, six years after their last proper studio album, Anthem. It’s almost as if String Theory recharged Hanson’s creative batteries and now the guys are back in the game, ready to fight on, as the title of the next album, Against the World certainly appears to indicate. With two full albums allegedly already in the works, it really does look like better days are coming - better days than before.


Hanson's new members EP "In Real Life" is available as part of the fan club membership. All information on Hanson.net.


Monday, 10 June 2019

Hanson Day 2019: a Recap

Registration

To everyone’s surprise, registration opened before the event had even officially started, on Wednesday afternoon. I don’t know if that was planned, or if it was a last minute decision, but it was a good idea regardless. It’s obvious that more and more people are arriving to Tulsa earlier in the week, so it makes sense to try and register as many attendees as possible, as soon as possible. So by late afternoon on Wednesday I had my bracelet, my tickets and, most importantly, my EP. I’d lugged my trusted old MacBook Air and an external CD drive all the way across the Atlantic with the sole purpose of being able to listen to that EP straightaway so I headed back to my hotel room for a very exclusive Listening Party. (Check out this blog again soon for a full review of the EP.)




Storytellers


This year’s Storytellers was effectively an acoustic show, centred around the Underneath album. It’s a golden combination for me, as I discovered the band through that particular album, and I love it when Hanson go acoustic - so much so that I that I keep voting for ‘acoustic’ as a BTTI theme, albeit with pitiful results. But give me the Hanson brothers with an acoustic guitar in their hands and I’m the happiest fan in the audience. 

My only slight criticism of the show is that there was very little storytelling. I would have liked to hear how those songs had been created, but on the other hand, as my friend Kasey pointed out, Hanson tend to mumble when they tell their stories, and unless you’re right at the front and adept at lip-reading, it’s often hard to make out what they’re actually saying. So maybe it was for the best and anyway, Hanson amply made up for it with a surprise performance of Isaac on the cello, the instrument that he has been learning for a while. That first public performance of “Underneath” on the cello will no doubt go down in fan history. Watch the clip below if you don’t believe me.




The Store

I got there at 9:00 AM, thinking that, as I had already registered and the queues wouldn’t have had a chance to build up, I’d be done in a couple of hours.

Four-and-a-half hours later and questioning all my recent life choices, I was finally setting foot in the store. Despite the fact that a preview of the new merch had been put up on the website, enabling people to choose whilst still in line, it had taken hours to get in, possibly through a combination of not enough staff picking orders at the back and fans not leaving the store quickly enough. Whatever the reasons, I felt that only through highly sophisticated brainwashing, a person of reasonable intelligence would give up almost five hours of vacation time to roast on a pavement in order to give Hanson more of her hard-earned cash. Make no mistake: the store visit is nothing but a Hanson tithe.




Karaoke

The Hanson Day ticket sale chaos back in February meant that I hadn’t managed to get a ticket for karaoke, but thanks to a friend on the lookout, a couple of tickets were found. I took the tickets with immense gratitude because missing karaoke would have meant being excluded from the first night of Hanson Day partying. I didn’t fancy prospect of ending up outside, possibly - shudder - stone sober, my face pressed against the Vanguard doors like a snotty-nosed orphan outside a bakery. 

Compared to 2017, Karaoke offered precious little Isaac hosting time. The best bit was a performance of “A Minute Without You” by a group of Australian fans, who were joined onstage by the Old Man himself (check out the clip below). Overall though, I felt that the night was a little flat and by the halfway point, a lot of people appeared to have left. A suggestion? Get Isaac to actually host the whole thing (hey Isaac: we know you’re backstage imbibing mid-price nightclub-level bourbon, so why not just come out and be drunk on stage?), and find a bigger venue so that everybody can attend.





Group Photos

The Hanson Day group picture always goes quicker than lightning, making the BTTI picture feel like a 15-minute long Meet & Greet in comparison. The line moved quickly - it’s a Hanson Fan Dogma that the only fast-moving line at Hanson Day is the line for Pictures - but as we were finally getting through the door, something went wrong and our group got merged with the one in front of us. Next thing I knew, my friend Kasey, who is not known for being a shrinking violet, was kicking off at Hanson, Hanson’s staff and the whole world, yelling ‘that is not our group!’. Unsure as to what to do, I stood there looking in turn at Kasey, who refused to budge, and Hanson, who were already lined up against the wall like convicts facing a firing squad, their faces barely disguising their increasing exasperation and waning patience.

Well, I thought to myself, amused and horrified in equal measure, we certainly managed to draw attention to ourselves. Eventually the impasse was broken and we joined the group. I didn’t fare too badly, standing next to a friend from my group, Pei-Yi, who was in turn standing next to Isaac. As Hanson's photographer Trevor lifted three fingers up in countdown, I felt a hand on my back, and realised it was Isaac’s, who had his arm over Pei-Yi and me. It’s a small detail, but very telling about these guys: even if group photos must be a pretty tedious affair, they still try to make the person at the far end of the group feel like they’re in a picture with Hanson and not with just a random group of people.

A group photo, minus Hanson
The Gallery


Since my last time in Tulsa, the Gallery is now housed inside an exhibition space at the back of Chimera. Despite having to line up in a dumpster-lined back alley, I liked the new gallery’s smaller, edgier feel - a much more appropriate setting for the works of an emerging artist.

That said, I wasn’t blown away by this year’s material: Zac is beginning to take the pop-art, mass produced thing a bit too far, as his paintings all look like they’ve been traced from photographs and then given the Zac treatment. The resulting pieces are nice to look at but I miss Zac’s original work of past years - like the one with the three knights from 2015, a signed print of which I have in my study. 

"Panic in the Streets" by Zac Hanson (signed print on canvas)


The most interesting insight into the artist’s mind was provided by three individual portraits of the brothers. Isaac appears pensive, as if the weight of the world is resting on his shoulders. Taylor looks older than his age, in an over-exaggerated version of his current bearded look. In his own self-portrait, however, Zac, looks very much like himself: clean shaven, sporting a headband and aviator sunglasses and with a knowing smirk on his lips - the smirk of the artist who has deliberately made himself look prettier than his brothers.

Credit to @iamhansonguy https://www.instagram.com/p/Bx0noEgHxHi/

This year’s photo prints selection was also somewhat disappointing, with most of the photos representing random subjects and landscapes rather than the brothers themselves. I see the reasoning behind it, as the photos were taken by Taylor and therefore he only featured in a couple of mirror shots; but, let’s face it: do you really want to pay $50 for the photo of a dentist’s surgery door, just because Taylor Hanson took it, when there are better much photographers out there? 

I still managed to drop $100 for a photo of Isaac (to complete my mostly-Isaac-centred wall in my study) and a self-portrait of Taylor for a friend, and as I loaded my currency card for the umpteenth time that week, I thought ruefully at how skilled Hanson have become in extracting money out of me.

Isaac Hanson looking a bit like Dean Martin


The VR Experience

The best part of visiting the gallery was the VR ‘experience’. I had to get into another endless line that felt like a million years, but it was worth it. I sat on a revolving stool on an elevated platform while a member of staff handed me a set of VR goggles (which my friend and I disinfected with her surgical grade anti-bacterial wipes: you really don’t want the sweat of dozens of people all over your face). After pressing play on the remote control, you were suddenly transported to the 3CG studio. The band started to play “Compromise”, the first track from the new EP, as, I, the virtual viewer, sat in the middle: Isaac to my left, Taylor right in front of me and Zac to my right. Swivelling to the left or to the right, I could see exactly what Isaac and Zac were doing, and right in front of me there was Taylor, who would often look right into the camera - giving me the illusion that he was singing right at me. But what I found even more bizarre was being in the studio, which, after years of watching Livestreams and ‘making of’ videos, by now feels like a really familiar place. Then, some thirty seconds before the end of the song, the goggles’ battery died on me. Oh well - it was fun while it lasted.



Edible Digital Pants

I was - literally - late to the (listening) party due to how long it had taken to get to the VR experience at the Gallery, so I missed the first two or three songs, but I still got my lunchbox with a CD, some candy and a rubber doughnut. The only really notable moment was the end when a vo-coded Bugs Bunny voice  said something like, ‘the party is over, please leave now’. In a nutshell, Hanson’s feelings by the end of Hanson Day-week.



String Theory


I was looking forward to seeing the show from the Mezzanine, as I’d been in the front and first few rows at the String Theory shows in Europe. Once I got over the terrifyingly steep descent to my seats - the Mezzanine at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center is high, high up - I enjoyed the infinitely superior sound and finally being able to see the whole orchestra even if the tradeoff is the emotional connection that you get from being closer.

If I had to find one point of criticism, it would be the lack of an a capella encore, which I had almost taken for granted as Hanson were playing in their hometown, to their families gathered in the front few rows. At first, the orchestra stayed put and it looked as if something was going to happen, but then the lights went up. My theory is that Taylor’s voice, which sounded a little strained at times during the concert, needed resting, and that perhaps an encore had been planned but had to be aborted last-minute.

String Theory, from the dizzy heights of the mezzanine


Oh, Snap! The Dance Party

Since my last Hanson Day in 2017, the dance party had been moved to Cain’s Ballroom, so a lot more people were able to attend and there was a lot more room to move around. When we arrived, two of Taylor’s kids were handing out Mardi Gras-style strings of beads and cardboard cutouts of Hanson’s heads. Of course, I picked an Isaac. Inside, there were photo booths to have your pictures and videos taken to be then shown on the multiple screens by the side of Taylor’s DJ booth. 

In terms of a Hanson ‘afterparty’, it was pretty standard, but the gimmicks were fun and I enjoyed photobombing people’s selfies with my “Isaac”. The playlist was a combination of Taylor’s usual choices and some fan choices and on that note, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight - watched from the safety of the bleachers - of hundreds of Hanson fans doing the Cupid Shuffle. I’m nowhere near drunk enough for this, I thought as I watched in mesmerised horror.

Mardi Gras Isaac


State of the Band


By now, everybody will know what was announced at State of The Band - you can read the official news in one of the last newsletters. But the bottom line is, Hanson promised not one, but two albums. There must be a good stash of ready to publish songs if Hanson feel confident enough to make such a bold announcement, so I am feeling cautiously optimistic. And the nerd in me is very, very excited about the news that the HNET website will finally be redesigned. They’d better not lose my pins in the process.


The Members Only Concert


I think most people will agree that this MOE show was the most polished in a long time. Maybe the band finally realised that they need to rehearse the new songs and it showed, resulting in an overall glitch-free show during which Hanson remembered most of the lyrics. Hurrah! Now let’s see if they can keep that streak going. 

It was a shame that the show was not livestreamed for the fans at home but the big round camera placed at the front of the stage was a telltale sign that they were filming for the upcoming documentary and I guess something had to give. Let’s hope that some footage will be soon shared on HNET, because all members deserve to be part of the experience, in one way or another.


The Hop Jam


Not technically part of the Hanson Day events, Hanson’s headlining show at the Hop Jam was effectively the fourth show of the week.

I’m not a festival person and I would rather watch a band with my tribe than with a crowd of randoms. Shoot me but I don’t find the atmosphere at the Hop Jam all that inspiring: partly because by the time the headliners come on, revellers are a bit too drunk and a bit too sunbaked, and partly because a car park in the middle of downtown Tulsa isn’t the most picturesque setting for a concert.

But Hanson played a good show, with a predictable but upbeat setlist that pleased everybody. The best moment was the finale when all the other acts got on stage for a rendition of Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Nite”. In all seriousness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Taylor rocking it out quite like that before: maybe it was because his brother Mackenzie was onstage, or maybe because his buddies Phantom Planets were also there, but whatever the reason, he really, really rocked. 

(Video by Kristin Moore)




Summing Up

My third time at Hanson Day confirmed the feeling, obvious even from afar, that Hanson Day is getting bigger every year, with more events and more people attending. It’s better organised and events run more smoothly than in past years and other than the lines for the store, everything felt better managed. In terms of the actual events, four consecutive shows were an absolute treat and something that might not happen again at Hanson Day soon. What I didn’t like so much - but that’s something totally outside of Hanson’s control - is Mayfest’s move into the Brady District: this year there was a different vibe on the streets from Friday night and although I never really felt unsafe, I missed that ‘Hanson Camp’ feel of past years. I guess I’ve got so used to BTTI that now having ‘outsiders’ encroaching a Hanson event feels like an outright invasion.

Would I go back in 2020? I certainly would, if money was no object. But I’m already booked for BTTI 2020 and increasingly I am finding that BTTI wins over Hanson Day purely through the event’s size: 400 vs 1,000? It’s a no-brainer. And if Hanson meant it when they said there will be a World Tour in 2020, then that money would be better spent seeing a string of shows over here. 

But whether it’s next year or 2021 or whenever, I know that I’ll be back in Tulsa at some point. There’s something really special about that city, something that transcends its status of Hanson Graceland: it’s the warmth of its people, it’s that feel of a small town that has made itself comfortable in the middle of a big city. It’s the only airport in the world where Taylor Hanson's voice welcomes you through the loudspeakers when you arrive, and where the friendliest, most approachable security wave you through as you leave. Can I blame the scores of Hanson fans who have chosen to make a home there? Not one bit. 

So long Tulsa, I’ll be back, Hanson-soon.

Peek-a-Boo! - channelling my inner Isaac

You can already RSVP for Hanson Day 2020 on Hanson.net

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Hanson in Europe: a belated review of the European String Theory Tour


String Theory

As readers of this blog already know, I had my reservations about the String Theory album, which had left me pretty underwhelmed. I figured that String Theory was a project designed to be appreciated as a live concert, with a full orchestra and the kind of acoustics that only a symphony hall can offer - not something cobbled together from mostly old recordings with the orchestral parts emailed over from Eastern Europe. A lot of my US friends had been to shows during the US leg of the tour and said the same: you have to see it live. I’d set out to avoid most spoilers - watching only a few seconds of clips here and there, just to get a sense of what to expect. I had to lift my self-imposed embargo for the String Theory show at BTTI, but aside from that, I made it to February with an open mind and my expectations still untainted. And so, on a cold Sunday afternoon, five days after returning from Jamaica and dragging a suitcase that was bursting at the seams, I boarded a train to Birmingham.



Following Hanson on a Whistle-Stop Tour of Europe’s Symphony Halls

Birmingham

The orchestra steps onto the stage, the musicians take their seats, followed by the audible rustling of sheet music pages. Right from the start, the live experience of String Theory is very different from the album. As my first proper String Theory show, I was dazzled and swept away by the music to a point that I can’t really remember much, save for the audience and that was all for the wrong reasons. Drunken women yelled and catcalled the band throughout the performance - something that doesn’t usually happen at U.K. shows. To make things worse, towards the end a lot of those people rushed to the stage, taking selfies as they pouted, Kardashian-style, turning their back to the band, showing no respect to the very artists they had come to see. It was embarrassing, and the sad thing is that Hanson are probably used to it.

Birmingham, symphony style

Manchester

Manchester was my ‘home’ show - the closest one to home and also the one for which we had the best seats: I don’t even know how that happened but somehow I ended up sitting right in front of Isaac. If you haven’t experienced ‘seated front row’ at a Hanson show, let me tell you: it’s a very, very different experience from standing against the barrier. Maybe it’s the height disparity between artist and audience, combined with the fact that, at least for that particular show, the guys tend to stay put on their spot, but there were times when I really didn’t know where to look. But I digress: overall, Manchester had an even better energy than Birmingham, especially after the intermission, when the band - and Isaac in particular - came back bouncing around as if they’d just downed six espressos. The crowd was better behaved too, and I was glad to see security stop a repeat of the ‘selfies against the stage’ scene from the night before. You can’t pick your audience, but you can surely hire good security.

Isaac in his trademark 'priest pose' in Manchester


Nottingham

Nottingham was a ‘rock’ show - i.e. a regular Hanson show without the orchestra, held at the legendary Rock City, the kind of place I would have seen bands in my twenties - dark, uninviting and located in a none too salubrious part of town. Inside, it was so cold that I kept my jacket on until well into the second support act.

I had prepared myself for a solid but predictable “MOE Tour” setlist and a “MOE Tour” -style experience to match: a lot of singles played one after another, with very little talking in between songs and the band somewhat on autopilot. But I was wrong. Hanson had put together a setlist that was more classics than greatest hits, and delivered it with so much energy and passion that I can honestly say it was one of the best Hanson shows I’ve seen to date.

No jackets required in Nottingham

London

The Royal Festival Hall show in London was sold out and you could tell that Hanson were feeding off that buzz. It should have been perfect - with a great performance, a packed venue and the band in top form, had it not been for the acoustics: sitting on seventh row, Zac side, the volume was too loud and and at times I could feel the bass rattling my bones. Like in Birmingham, there were, again, a lot of drunk people who danced on the aisles right from the start and who rushed up to the stage way before “No Rest for the Weary”, which is the third to last song in the setlist and the point at which Hanson get the audience to stand up. I had hoped that in a venue like the Royal Festival Hall people would know how to conduct themselves but obviously that was not the case. To make things worse, security seemed to be more interested in telling people to stop filming than to control the crowd.

In terms of Hanson’s performance though, London had the best energy out of all three String Theory shows I had seen that week.

On stage at the Royal Festival Hall


Glasgow

If I had to rate these shows by venue, Glasgow would definitely come last. The inside of the Royal Concert Hall certainly matched the outside in terms of its severe, utilitarian style, with a so-called bar that looked more like the cafeteria of my Sussex University department’s common room in the mid 90s than something fit for a symphony hall. However, by that point the chemistry between the band and the orchestra was absolutely perfect and finely tuned after three shows. Shame that Glasgow was the last U.K. show and that the orchestra would change in Utrecht.



Glasgow, Scotland - but no kilt in sight

Utrecht

If Glasgow was the worst venue, Utrecht was my favourite. The Tivoli is a truly beautiful theatre, with the stage located ‘in the round’, and despite a large overall capacity, the venue has a very intimate vibe. My Facebook status from that night confirms my memories of Utrecht being the best show of the whole tour - best venue, best atmosphere, an utterly flawless performance by the band, not to mention the best crowd made up by the most respectful Hanson fans I’d come across in a long time. It’s always hard to pinpoint what makes a show better than another: to use the title of a famous Queen song, ‘it’s a kind of magic’, of the type that Hanson can do so well when they want to. If they could turn it into a product, bottle it and sell it, the world would certainly be a better place.

A perfect show at the Tivoli

Brussels

The last show always carries a certain bittersweet quality and Brussels was no exception. As the opening notes of String Theory began to fill the theatre, I knew that it was the last time I’d hear an orchestra play Hanson songs for a long time. My everlasting memory of the final show of the tour, unfortunately, is the moment something went majorly wrong at the beginning of “Siren Call”: from where I was looking, it looked as if the orchestra had messed up - possibly having started too soon. Taylor turned to look at the conductor with a “WTF” expression, and from a video that a friend showed me recently, you can clearly see Zac also doing the same. They eventually rescued it, but it’s a shame that it happened in the first place. I guess that’s the risk the band took when they decided to play with orchestras they’d only met for the first time at soundcheck.

After "No Rest" in Brussels


The Overall Verdict

String Theory: Album vs Live

You can’t compare the two: with a real, live orchestra, String Theory fully comes to life, and the gimmicky nature of the recorded project is instantly forgotten, replaced by the rare auditory and visual treat of seeing a rock band play with a classical music slant. Trust me: seeing Hanson perform with the backing of a symphony orchestra is really a sight to behold and I challenge even the coldest hearted member of the audience not to get goosebumps.


The U.K. orchestra was rock'n'roll

The Repetition Factor

People have asked me if it doesn’t get boring to see several shows with the same identical setlist. My answer was no: not yet anyway. It might get repetitive after a while, but with six shows, I had the chance to see the stage from different angles, getting a slightly different experience in terms of visuals and acoustics the opportunity to focus on different songs and catch nuances I had missed before. Would I feel the same if I saw the show ten, fifteen, twenty times? Probably not, but I would certainly see the show again if Hanson brought it back as a one-off, something they clearly hinted at on several occasions. Now that String Theory has been tried and tested on the road, all that Hanson need to do is to find a venue and an orchestra, get on stage and play. Come to think of it, String Theory is like cake mix: you keep a box of Betty Crocker in the pantry, knowing that all you need is a couple of eggs to whip up a cake at a moment’s notice.

A Non-Story

The one element of String Theory that didn’t really work for me was the through story with the boy as the protagonist. Aside from the frankly unoriginal theme, I found the connection between the narrative and the songs tenuous at most. Want some String Theory Sparknotes? Act I: Struggling! - Act II: Fighting Back! There: that’s all you need to know to pass the test.

The Audience

Hanson wanted to make String Theory a special experience for fans: seated shows and music to listen to and enjoy in a different way from the usual GA show. They even say that at the introduction of every concert: I don’t have an exact transcript but the gist of it is, ‘sit down and be quiet until we tell you to stand up, three songs from the end’. Unfortunately, a lot of fans are unable to adapt to a different concert setting, and think it’s perfectly okay to stand up and block somebody’s view when everybody else is sitting down. Some people also think it’s perfectly acceptable to catcall the band members, ‘Zac, I love you!’, ‘Taylor, you’re so hot!’ - in the middle of a song. And it’s a depressing sign of the times when it becomes more important to have a photo of yourself with the band in the background, than to show respect to them as they are playing a show.

Unfortunately, this is the state of things and all you can do in those situations is grin and bear it, and maybe hope that security will do their job. You can’t argue with inconsiderate people and to make matters worse, we live in a Kardashianised, Instagram-obsessed world. But I can’t help wondering what Hanson are really thinking when they see their audience treat their life long dream symphony project like a bachelorette party.

Conclusions

It’s clear that Hanson love String Theory: their passion for the project clearly came across at every single one of the performances I saw. Would I see it again? Of course: and I hope Hanson will bring it back, maybe as a one-off show here and there, maybe in between regular concerts - in a reversal of this year’s UK tour with the show in Nottingham. String Theory was more than just a series of shows - it was a whole different experience, and I loved the fact that we could dress up and rock up to our seats fifteen minutes before a show, without having to queue for hours. We don’t often get seated shows in Europe and that was definitely part of the fun. But I’m looking forward to having the ‘real’ Hanson experience again too and Nottingham certainly whet my appetite in that respect. So let’s hope a new album is in the making because, for all the bells and whistles, you really can’t beat the alchemy of Hanson, Andrew and Dimitrius and a bunch of new songs - live on stage playing to a packed standing crowd. Didn’t I tell you? It’s a kind of magic.



Hanson will be performing String Theory in Tulsa on 17th May 2019 (sold out).

Monday, 4 March 2019

BTTI 2019: An Executive Summary


It started badly, with a repeat of last year’s weather that was more Back to the Quagmire than Back to the Island, and as a result, our first day was spent between huddling under the Level gazebo and swimming in the rain. It definitely felt like a lost day, although at least the rain had stopped in time for the show to take place on the beach rather than in the dreaded “Greenhouse”. 



This year, there were no official daytime activities other than a Q&A on String Theory, which was interesting enough until I found myself zoning out at the umpteenth “I come from a village in Brazil” mention. The lack of activities meant that we had more time to spend by the pool - something many of us welcomed. But on the last day we found out that the Dunn’s River excursion, which for this year had strangely been included in the price, had featured a surprise appearance from Taylor. My friends and I had been to Dunn’s River before and as a result, we had chosen to skip the excursion: needless to say, we were disappointed to have missed out. Apparently some people had been given hints from IG staff that it would be 'worth' going on the excursion; but that information had not reached us. So a Hanson surprise turned into a missed opportunity for anyone who had stayed at the resort, not to mention for fans with mobility problems, for whom a climb up that treacherous waterfall was out of the question anyway.

Aside from the Dunn’s River fiasco though, this year’s BTTI was the most fun for me. I had a great group of friends, I splashed around in the pool, I did yoga on the beach and made the most out of the free time that this year’s activity-free schedule afforded us. It was great to see a couple of members of staff again - Christina at the buffet and Juliet at the Level Grill (and yes, she remembered rescuing me from the helicopter-like bug on Pictures Day the previous year).


I loved sitting by the bonfire late at night, catching up with with friends I’ve known online for a while but never properly got to hang out with before. For the first time, I fully embraced the party vibe of Taylor’s DJ set, dancing with my roommate like we really didn’t care. I stayed up until ridiculous o’clock every night, got very little sleep and je ne regrette rien. I can’t help it: the nighthawk in me likes nothing better than those late night, liquor-fuelled conversations that just happen in that twilight zone between the end of a party and closing time, when the lure of an empty barstool and the unmistakable scent of sanity will cause the strangest, whackiest Bukowskian characters to latch on to you in a determined, but ultimately futile attempt to gatecrash your party.

There's a reason why Hopper's "Nighthawks" is my favourite painting

And inevitably I felt nothing but utter despair the next morning, when, after three hours’ sleep, I found myself having to pack a suitcase in record time - a record I however managed to beat, with no hair straighteners left behind.

Almost two days later and I was home, looking tired and bedraggled and sporting the kind of greasy skin you get after three flights and a diet of airline food. I unzipped my suitcase to be greeted by a ton of laundry, a beach towel I will never bring myself to use and a bank of awesome memories that will see me through the rest of the year.

This year, however, there’d be no time for the usual post BTTI blues to set in: less than a week later I would be packing my suitcase once again, albeit for way less exotic destinations: String Theory was coming to Europe. So goodbye Jamaica, hello Birmingham: but that’s for another post altogether.




Back to the Island is an event run by Island Gigs on behalf of Hanson. All information for the 2020 event can be found here.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Pick a Favourite Hanson Brother: the battle of the solo sets

(Trigger warning: this post contains references to the loss of a parent.)


Zac: A Coming of Age

Setlist

If you read my blog posts on last year’s BTTI, you might recall that I’d been very unimpressed by Zac’s solo set. Well, this year Zac amply made up for it: first, I loved the setlist, which included two new songs, “Reading Your Mind” and “The Ballad of Seymour Better Times” (the latter had first been performed at the 2018 solo set). I will never tire of “Musical Ride” which sums up the life of a Hanson fan, and I’ll forgive Zac for messing up the beginning of “Fire on the Mountain”. Predictably, “Bittersweet”- by now a regular staple of these solo sets - made an appearance, and the rarely played “Use Me Up” also got some airtime, preceded by a funny introduction in which Zac recalled how that song had caused concern among some fans about his mental well-being.

I first saw Zac perform a solo set in 2015, and back then he performed song after song without much talking. Without his brothers on stage, Zac seemed a little uncomfortable, too focused his performance to interact with the audience. Fast forward to 2019 and it’s impossible not to notice how the youngest Hanson has come out of his shell - how relaxed he now looks on stage on his own, joking, introducing songs, making fun of his mistakes. It was without a doubt the best Zac solo set I’d seen so far, and afterwards, I found myself contemplating the possibility of switching to Team Zac. There, I’ve said it.

YOU! Join my team, now!


Isaac: Give A Little Déjà Vu

Setlist

I could have sworn that Isaac had played “Too Much” - a David Garza cover- last year, but a quick check through past setlists proved me wrong: he’d last played it in 2017. Similarly, “More than Anything”, which Isaac had not included in last year’s solo set, had still, however, made an appearance in the 2018 Members Only setlist.

There were still some repeats from 2018: “Smile”, the now ever-present “A Life Without You”, “River” and “Being Me”, and a few returners from 2017 - my Hanson-imprinting-song, “Deeper” and the universally loved Isaac lead “Watch Over Me”, which was interesting to hear as a solo. We also got treated to a performance of “Bad for Me” from last year’s Animal Instincts EP (you know, The One With Two Isaac Leads?).

It was a good, solid set and I enjoyed it, but I would have liked to hear at least a couple of never played - or rarely played - songs, like “I Don’t Know” (which my friend Kasey has been requesting at every available opportunity) or the still elusive “Grace Unknown”, which Isaac attempted, and unfortunately messed up, in 2016. Maybe next year. As it stands, my favourite Isaac Solo Set remains Cancun 2015 when he totally brought down the house, with even people from neighbouring hotels cheering from their windows.

I need to hang on to my team...but how?



Taylor: Ocean’s Eleven

Setlist

One can’t help wonder how many people handed over their credit cards to Island Gigs for BTTI 2019 on the strength of Taylor’s ‘swim in the ocean’ the previous year. I’m telling you, that man knows how to get his hands on your hard-earned cash. This year, however, there were no stampedes into the ocean, just a succession of songs that made the set feel unusually long. Taylor’s solo sets tend to be short and on point: he comes, he plays, he conquers, and in an mmmbop, he’s gone. I was convinced that this year’s set had run longer, but a quick check of last year’s setlist proved that I just imagined things (that’s the Taylor Hanson effect for you) - both 2018 and 2019 sets included 11 songs.

Among those eleven, he played “Lost Without You”, which rarely gets the full band treatment, and “This is Criminal” - a song from Fools Banquet which most fans seem to really like, but that left me largely indifferent.

I was left anything but indifferent, however, a couple of songs later when Taylor played “Never Let Go”. I’d heard that song live plenty of times by now but that day something felt different; maybe it was the setting, the ‘other’ show that was doing its thing in the background, palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze, the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. Whatever the reasons, this time that song really got to me, and I was taken back to a hot day in June 2016, to a hospice room next door to the one where my father, too, had spent his last days, eight months earlier. In a room that was named after a classical composer, I waited all day for my mother to let go. She had already gone, really, sent on her way by a cocktail of drugs administered before we could get there. She had let me and my sister go the night before, when she'd sent us home so that she could watch the Rosary on TV and we could get some rest.

Sometimes only music or poetry can articulate how you feel, so I’ll let the song do the rest.

Just lay down, and let your worries sleep
Don't think now, the water's dark and deep
Cause you know
That I love you and never let go

Just lay down, put those worried thoughts to rest
So when life pulls you down, on my shoulder rest your head
Cause you know
That I love you and never let go

Soon I had tears streaming down my face - a first for me, in a lifetime of concert going. As I frantically searched for tissues in my bag, I was also acutely conscious that I was three rows into the crowd, facing the piano at exactly the right angle to be in Taylor’s line of sight. For once, I was really glad that he had kept his sunglasses on, so that I didn’t have to see him see me.

But you know what? It makes me feel a little better to know that there were a lot of other people in tears during that performance, and I like to believe that there was some collective healing going on at that moment, for all those of us who needed it. Does it move you? Does it soothe you? Sometimes the answer is a very straightforward yes.

Tears aside, Taylor’s solo set was terrific and even managed to de-throne Zac from my personal BTTI 2019 Solo Set Chart. That presented a new problem though: would I have to switch to Team Taylor?

My team has a waiting list: get in line!


(Full video of "Never Let Go" at BTTI 2019 - credit to Monica Pereira)


Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Members Only Show: "a really bad night" for Hanson?


Members Only Show


The Members Only Show set is probably the BTTI ‘theme’ that gets the most votes every year because, well, when else do you get to hear those songs? For 2019, the Members Only set would fall on the final show - a momentous but inevitably bittersweet culmination of the event. I had high expectations: I’d loved the String Theory show and earlier in the day, I’d seen Taylor perform the best solo set I’d seen in five years. 

Technical problems crept up two songs into the set. On my phone pad, where I keep a note of the setlist, I’d jotted down ‘sound!!!’ next to “Best of Times”. Shame, because the Isaac lead from the 2013 Sound of Light EP has become a kind of unofficial BTTI anthem and it’s one of those special ‘island moments’ that I always look forward to. Four songs later, the guys came to the front of the stage for “On and On”, one of the most visually striking songs in Hanson’s repertoire, providing a rare opportunity to see the three brothers play guitar together. Only, this time the only Hanson with a guitar was Zac, as Taylor and Isaac waited, to no avail, for someone to bring them their instruments.

Dude, where's my guitar?

Zac started to play and for a few awkward seconds we were reminded that Taylor doesn’t know what to do with himself when he’s not playing an instrument or bouncing around the stage, whacking his thigh with a tambourine. After performing some comedy air guitar, Taylor finally went to fetch a shaker. That solution didn’t keep Taylor happy for very long: he unceremoniously handed over the shaker to Isaac before heading over to the sound tent. The whole situation was frankly bizarre: I don’t know why nobody had brought Isaac and Taylor their guitars - it could be that they were still being tuned, or maybe their tech forgot, although that seems really unlikely as even the Melia’s stray cats would have known that during “On and On” three guitars would be needed - and I’m pretty sure their sound tech could actually stand in for the band by now.

Taylor is very unimpressed

There was one glitch after another, and at one point - I can’t remember exactly when -  Taylor’s keyboard was taken away and replaced with a different one. The show then took a turn for the seriously wrong with “Stop Me in My Tracks” - my notes say ‘forgot most of the lyrics’. Hanson forgetting lyrics is nothing new, but this time it felt different because the guys weren’t making a joke of it. And then, during “Dance Like You Don’t Care”  - another BTTI staple - the whole thing fell apart: Taylor, seemingly unable to recall more than a few lines of the lyrics, looked panic-stricken, and at one point, as he opened his mouth to sing, no sound was coming out. To me, Taylor looked as if his mind had gone completely blank. 

Of the three brothers, Taylor is undeniably the perfectionist and a consummate professional who rarely makes mistakes on stage - if anything, he’s the one who shoots his brothers dirty looks when they mess up - with Isaac usually, and more than justifiably, at the receiving end. Seeing Taylor Hanson freeze onstage is something I was not prepared for, and it almost felt wrong as I watched in utter disbelief as the usually unflappable Hanson brother tried, and failed, to get it together. At one point, a couple of us exchanged worried looks; someone said ‘maybe he’s sick?’. Whatever the reasons for the meltdown, I felt really sorry for Taylor in that moment, and I wished I could have told him that everything was going to be okay - that he was playing to his fans, and that we would always have his back. But my telepathic communication skills are somewhat underdeveloped and, when, a couple of songs later, Taylor sat at the drums for “I Don’t Want to Go Home”, he looked utterly dejected.

Hanson still managed to partly rescue the set towards the end, with some classics from their repertoire - “Thinkin’ Bout Something”, “Give a Little” and “If Only” - songs that, by now, the band could probably perform in their sleep. It was a good save, undone, however, by a frankly terrible performance of the ultimate BTTI final set song, the eponymous “Back to the Island” which Hanson and their musical guests usually sing together. Lewis Watson was on the congas, while Jacob Tovar mysteriously refused to join the band on stage; then the song started and as usual, Isaac forgot some of the lyrics. But Isaac forgetting that song’s lyrics is almost expected: there was something else, but as I’m not a musician, all I can say is that, to me, it sounded really, really ‘off’.

At least it's over!
When it was over, the guys disappeared inside the sound tent and I thought, is that how BTTI 2019 ends? But soon a tech was taping lyrics sheets onto the stage floor, and then the band came out again for a Zac-led cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. I am not exaggerating when I say that Zac saved the day - or the night - with that performance. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that, in many ways, Zac was the real star of BTTI 2019 but I will save that for my final post. Then, still probably trying to make up for a less-than-perfect show, Hanson treated us to a flawless rendition of “Wish That I Was There”. Hanson harmonies are like unicorn dust, and for a couple of minutes, I was under the spell again, endorphins flooding every available space between my nerve cells. “Ahhhh” - I thought, “That’s what it’s supposed to be like. Here’s my credit card, and as you’re there, have one of my kidneys too, oh- and my soul.”

When Zac said 'this is my rockstar pose!'

Sadly, the rush from that particular Hanson-hit was short-lived, and as the band took their final bow and left the stage for the last time on the island that year, I stood there and wondered, “what the hell did just happen tonight?”

The last bow

And yet, despite the daisychain of errors that had plagued the show, I’d still enjoyed the Members Set, at least in part. The setlist had a good mix of songs from Members Kits and recent EPs and when things were going right, the guys were full of energy. When I was filling the BTTI 2019 feedback form last week, I ranked that almost-disastrous final show higher than the technically successful but somewhat underwhelming Rock All Night set.

Everybody can have a bad night, including Hanson, and the Members Only concert at this year’s BTTI was clearly a case of ‘a really bad night’. There might have been other factors at play; during his solo set, Taylor had openly admitted to being tired, something that an early start for the excursion to Dunn’s River would not have helped. In addition to that, BTTI was taking place on the back of a busy year for Hanson, who were flying to Europe a week after the event for the next leg of the String Theory tour.

So it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to figure out that maybe Hanson let standards slip a bit this year, possibly through the false sense of security afforded by the success of an event that was now in its seventh year - a magnified case of ‘it’ll be alright on the night’. But one only had to see the look on Taylor’s face to know that he knew that it wasn’t alright: and so, perhaps, that disappointing show was a much-needed wake-up call for Hanson, the motivation they need to raise their game for BTTI 2020, to refresh the setlists and above all, to remember that a lot of things can go wrong even in tropical paradise.