Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A BTTI 2017 Post-Mortem - Part 1: Dissecting the Shows

It was only going to be a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience: the solo sets had sold it to me, and besides, I’d never seen Hanson play with the full band. A one-off. Yes, it was only going to be a one-off.

Well, that was 2015. On a grey and wet British New Year’s Day, I boarded a Jamaica-bound flight, ready to do it all again for the third time in 2017.

Those who have read my blog posts from BTTI 2016 might remember that I wasn’t exactly awestruck by last year’s event: I’d found the shows lacking something, not to mention I'd been left seriously disappointed by Isaac’s solo set (for an Isaac ‘girl’, this is a serious matter). Aside from having fallen in love with Jamaica, I guess my mixed feelings about 2016 were part of the reason for wanting to go back: I had such fantastic memories of the 2015 shows in Cancun that I wanted another taste of that experience. I knew BTTI was more than a holiday with friends: it was a chance for me, as a European fan, to load up on Hanson concerts in between the ever infrequent, stripped down, ‘on a shoestring’ European tours.


Let me tell you right away: this year’s shows were awesome. Well, as close to awesome as they could be considering the technical problems that continued to crop up for the whole week. But awesome nonetheless. Read on to know more - it's time to nerd out.

NIGHT 1 - THE ROCK SHOW





The first show was a rock themed set that included regular crowd pleasers like ‘Fired up’ and often requested but rarely played tracks like ‘Ugly Truth’. As it seems to be now custom at BTTI, unforeseen events inspired an impromptu song and ‘I’m Tuning’ was born, joining the BTTI Hall of Fame with other ‘classics’ like ‘Sand in my Crevice’ (2015)  and ‘I’m not Ready’ (2016). Those moments make shows really fun and strangely, I’ve not seen at anything like that happen at our European shows; I wonder if it’s because Hanson are more relaxed when they have Andrew and Demetrius around them?

A rock-themed Hanson show is still going to be a little on the soft side - after all, Hanson ain’t Slayer- but there was no hiding the fact that all songs were uptempo: not a slow ballad in sight (a good thing, in my book). I loved hearing ‘Great Divide’ again, and I will never, ever tire of ‘Already Home’ (one of my Top 3 Hanson songs of all time). “Desire” is one of my favourite U2 songs and one of Hanson’s best covers, so it was great to rock out to my new favourite band covering my old favourite band, despite the fact that the old-time U2 fan in me could not help notice that Taylor got the lyrics wrong once or twice (I forgave him). The set ended with another cover - the Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” - a song which always sends the Zac girls crazy. I’m not a fan of that song but it’s still pretty impressive to see how Zac morphs from his usual Hanson persona into a glam rock God - albeit one in accountant’s trousers instead of spandex leggings.

My verdict about the first show? Great energy, a great setlist and the guys were in top form. If I had to really nitpick, I’d say that there weren’t enough Isaac leads but - are there, ever?

DAY 2 - ISAAC SOLO SET




Setlist

I had a feeling that Isaac would not allow for a repeat of his 2016 meltdown. The fact that his solo set was the first in the week was itself a promising sign (you can guess the conversations at the planning stage: “Ike, isn’t it best if you do it first, then you can drink for the rest of the week…”). He opened with ‘River’ and continued with ‘Smile’, both tracks now standard features of Isaac’s BTTI solo sets. Next was ‘Two Tears’ - another oldie which, in all honesty, I find cute enough but I’d much rather hear Isaac use his voice on more recent songs. He then revisited BTTI 2016 with “A Day Without You” which he had played for the first time last year; during ‘So Lovely’ after the line ‘got a job in immigration’ Isaac quipped ‘that sounds like a really depressing job’  (I’ve always questioned that line: seriously, Hanson, what were you thinking?). 

After a performance of ‘Next Train’, things took a sombre tone. Isaac introduced ‘Call Me’ explaining that it had originally been written for a friend who had received bad news, and in the past year, that same friend had died of cancer. At that point, people behind me began to cry - not just weeping but sobbing loudly. I found myself in a strange mental space: despite having lost both my parents to cancer in the last year or so, and despite the emotion-laden performance that was taking place right in front of me, I didn’t feel sad, nor did I shed a single tear. I guess I’ve had enough sadness lately to last me a lifetime, and I just wanted to enjoy the show.

In fact, I was soon going to be very, very happy. Earlier in the day, during tie dye, I'd plucked the courage to walk up to Isaac and ask him if he could, by any chance, play ‘Deeper’ - the song, as I explained, that had introduced me to Hanson and which I had only heard once at BTTI 2015. Isaac had made a face as if he would consider it, saying that he might be able to play it during his solo set. But now song after song went by and I was losing hope, resigning myself to the fact that even Isaac Hanson can’t fulfil every fan request. Then finally I heard those familiar chords, introducing the very song which, back in 2005, gave off a spark that refused to die out until seven years later when, by pure accident, someone mentioned Hanson to me and ...the rest is history.

Had we not already been standing, the set would have ended with a standing ovation after Isaac performed a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which included a short but heart wrenching transition into the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace”. I’m fan of Leonard Cohen rather than of that particular song, and I find it irksome when people only know it as ‘the song from Shrek’ without knowing anything about the man who actually wrote it, and I think it’s one of those songs that have been (badly) covered to death. But even I had to make an exception - Isaac did it justice, and I couldn’t help but admire his courage for tackling such a musical totem.

Without a doubt, with BTTI 2017 Isaac got his groove back, delivering a set which will go down in Hanson history for its emotionally charged performance - and rightly so. As for me though - well, Isaac played my song: could it get any better?

NIGHT 2 - THE ACOUSTIC SHOW




Setlist

The second show had an Acoustic theme, which made for a concert very much like the ones we get in Europe: just Hanson, no backing band and a much more stripped down sound. It started off well: I got a chance to hear them play ‘Stories’, one of the few ‘early Hanson’ songs I really like. “Sure About It” and “Wish That I Was There” are two songs I somehow always mix-up in my head; they have a very similar sound and vibe and they sound great acoustic. I was in luck that night, as the guys played both. 

The set contained a few Hanson classics, like ‘Lucy’ (one of my Top 3 Least Favourite Hanson songs) and ‘Weird’, which always sounds good acoustic. “For Your Love” took me back to the Anthem World Tour and as for “Musical Ride”, every time I hear it live I ‘get it’ a little more. “Broken Angel” sounds infinitely better these days than in the recorded version from 2004 and Zac gave us a poignant and appropriately nuanced performance of this deceptively simple song while Taylor and Isaac sang harmonies - Isaac looking totally committed to the song in his characteristic ‘priest’ pose with his hands folded in front of him.


I could say that I was surprised by the choice of  final song of the show - ‘With You in Your Dreams’. But after Isaac’s set, I wasn’t: it was clear that they had chosen that song for personal reasons: it wasn’t for us, it was for them. Isaac looked as he was struggling to keep it together for the entire song, and so did some of the fans in the audience (Holly describes her reaction to that song in her blog The Traveling Fan). But it was my own reaction which surprised me more than anything else. You might remember a blog post I wrote a few months ago, in which I worried about how I’d react to that song after losing both my parents. Would it be too much? Would I have to leave the beach in floods of tears? Well, none of that happened. Sure, to hear ‘that song’ was emotionally stirring but on that beach, with my friends around me and my favourite band on stage, just like it happened during Isaac’s set, I wasn’t sad. Maybe the same song will hit me at another time - those who have experienced grief will know how triggers lurk in the most unlikely places, ready to pounce on you when you’re weak and unprepared. But there’s always time to cry, later, another day. 

DAY 3 - TAYLOR SOLO SHOW


Setlist

Let’s talk about Taylor Hanson, shall we? But where do we start? Taylor is a strange animal. Onstage with his brothers, even behind his piano, he’s the ultimate frontman. He doesn’t just sing, he kind of draws the audience in in a way that I’ve never experienced with any other band, involving people at the back by the mixing desk as much as the front row. Watching Taylor Hanson perform is a bit like gambling in a Vegas casino floor: with no clocks anywhere, you leave two hours later, dazed, dazzled and considerably poorer. (On reflection, doesn’t that just sum up our life as Hanson fans?)

When Taylor plays a solo set, however, things are a little different. At least, they used to be: the previous two solo sets I’d seen were ...good. Polished. His set at BTTI 2016 was considerably shorter than Zac’s and Isaac’. Great songs, great voice, everything is usually perfect - because Taylor is the consummate professional but I’ve always found his solo performance a little soulless; as if, without his brothers acting as sidekicks, Taylor is just Taylor rather than ‘Taylor Hanson’.

But this year’s set was different. Taylor seemed more relaxed playing his own; he joked and talked with the audience as he introduced each song and even sang a medley of different version of ‘Happy Birthday’ for the birthday people in the audience.  He put soul into “I Will Come to You’ and ‘Save Me’ - songs which I usually find too boyband-like for my liking. Performed with just voice and piano on a tropical beach, both songs acquired a depth I’d never perceived before. (I will still skip the original versions).

However different everyone’s taste, I’m sure we’ll all agree on the set’s highlight: an incredibly rare performance of ‘Breaktown’. After the first few yells of recognition, you couldn’t hear a pin drop.
If you are ever in doubt that Hanson ‘listens’ to their fans, this should convince you once and for all: ‘Breaktown’ is constantly mentioned on the forums (alongside other rarely played songs like ‘World on Fire’). It felt like a special gift to all of us there, and I truly hope that the band will post a video of the performance on the website for those who could not be in Jamaica.


The set ended with ‘Follow Your Lead’, one of those Walk-era songs that manage to uplift, inspire and heal at the same time. I left thinking that that was by far the best Taylor solo set I’d seen so far.

DAY 4 - ZAC SOLO SHOW




Zac’s solo set last year was a huge improvement on 2015, and this year he surpassed himself once more. Although it wasn’t the longest of sets, a lot of the time was taken up by Zac introducing each song and explaining what the lyrics were about. As someone who loves to nerd out to song lyrics, I was in heaven.

The set started with “Chasing Down My Dreams” a little played track from the 2012 'No Sleep For Banditos' EP - (incidentally, the first physical CD of Hanson music I ever owned). It sounded better live than in the EP, in part because I find Zac’s peculiar enunciation of ‘chasing/chess-ing’ in the recorded version really distracting. The next song, however, was what I’d been hoping for. A couple of days earlier during tie dye, after asking Isaac to play “Deeper” I’d also asked Zac if there was any chance of him playing “Fire on the Mountain” that week. He said “sure” without any hesitation, but...three days had passed and quite frankly, I didn’t expect him to remember.  But then I heard those first notes, followed by ”somebody asked for this song”: yes, it was “Fire on the Mountain”. 

“I’d kind of like to talk about what this song is about but it’s like way too deep for the beach” Zac said, proceeding to actually delve into what the song is about (life, basically - you can watch the entire performance here)

There were other gems in the set, including ‘No Sleep for Banditos’, ‘What Are We Fighting For’ and ‘Siren’s Call’ - the lyrics of which Zac explained in depth during the introduction. For those who have watched the various ‘making of’ EPs, it’s easy sometimes to assume that Hanson put together lyrics because of how certain words sound together rather than their meaning. So, I was surprised to find out that Siren’s Call was about dealing with depression and how focussing on others will stop you from giving in to those dark, morbid thoughts. You know how I’ve often accused Hanson of writing ‘fridge magnet poetry’ lyrics for some of their EP songs? Erm..ok. I might have to take it all back (for now).

A peculiar choice for a solo, semi-acoustic set was the inclusion of ‘Do You Believe in Love?’ from the Play EP; it was a good effort but it didn’t really showcase the song at its best without Zac’s breakneck speed drums. Still, you have to admire Hanson for taking risks with their songs (remember Isaac’s experimental solo performance of “Grace Unknown” on the electric guitar at BTTI 2016?). 
One thing that became clear at this BTTI is that even Hanson have favourite songs: for the third year in a row Zac sang ‘Bittersweet’ - a song dedicated to his wife Kate. It’s a sweet, moving song which however belongs in the ‘can’t listen to’ category for me because of its lyrics:

Looking forward to growing old and watching you turn grey
And if you don’t mind I would like to go first
Because without you I wouldn’t live a day

Luckily, the set ended on a higher note with “Get So Low”, which some of us still refer to “The Shit Song” because of the uproar it caused among some particularly conservative fans back in 2013 when it emerged that it contained the word ‘shit’ (personally, I truly enjoyed hearing him read out the word ‘motherfucker’ during “Cards Against Humanity”). Although the piano certainly got a good bashing (this is a song in which Zac clearly mistakes the keyboard for a drumset), ‘Get So Low’ isn’t one of Hanson’s strongest songs to say the least, and I can see why it didn’t make it into ‘Anthem’ - nothing to do with its controversial ‘s’ word.

Zac’s was the last solo set of this BTTI and the moment it finished, I knew that it would be very hard to decide which one I’d enjoyed the most. If you need one reason to go to BTTI, do it for the solo sets (just don’t blame me if you then get addicted to the whole thing).

DAY 4 - EP SONGS





On the night of the final show I had the best spot, 4th or 5th row, Isaac’s side (of course). I had great people around me and a really good view of the stage. When Isaac kicked off the games with “Best of Times”, by now a kind of semi-official BTTI anthem, I just knew that we were in for a great night. We knew it was going to be an EP songs themed set and the choice of songs didn’t disappoint, together with four Isaac leads (Best of Times, Time Baby Take It, Leave the Lights On and Freak Out). As the night went on, it just got better and better. 
I love seeing Hanson play guitar together, and that’s exactly how the band performed ‘On and On’ and ‘On The Road’ - both among my favourite Hanson songs. I’d only heard the latter live once, back at BTTI 2015.
Unfortunately, the set was plagued by technical problems which were obviously bothering the guys - especially Taylor (who in these occasions looks as if every nerve ending of his body is plugged into a nuclear reactor which you know is about to explode at any minute). There were a few forgotten lyrics - one of my pet hates. A friend of mine said that once at a Matt Nathanson show she noticed that he kept a binder with lyrics by his feet and leafed through it before certain songs. I personally wouldn’t have a problem if the guys did that: Hanson have a huge song catalogue and it’s understandable if they forget the lyrics to an obscure Members Kit song they wrote 15 years ago. However I feel less forgiving when Taylor forgets the lyrics of ‘Feeling Alive’, which was released just over 6 months ago. None of the above issues spoiled my experience though: it was a fantastic set and a fantastic conclusion of an incredible week. It would take too long to discuss every choice of song individually, but off the top of my head….

...I was right about my prediction that ‘Freak Out’, a song I usually skip, would be great live (hands up in the air in the chorus!); ‘Feeling Alive’ was uplifting and moving; you can't not want to dance to ‘Dance Like You Don’t Care’, and ‘No Rest for The Weary’ deserves to become a Hanson classic, period. The final three songs were ‘regular’ Hanson songs, and we did the ‘round and round’ finger dance to ‘Where’s the Love',  jumped to ‘If Only’ and danced to ‘Give a Little’ - another song I only really enjoy live. Then, the inevitable closing, and guest acts Andrew Ripp and John Fullbright joined Hanson onstage for the traditional rendition of ‘Back to the Island’. That’s always a bittersweet moment of the event for me - on one hand, I love that song and I love to see the band performing it, but on the other hand...you know that the last show is well and truly over. 

I’ve only been a Hanson fan since 2012, and compared to some of the veterans out there, I haven’t seen many shows - a handful of ‘regular’ shows in Europe, three BTTIs and one Hanson Day show. So you will have to excuse me if my perception is not as sophisticated as others’; I don’t have a mental catalogue of every single Hanson song I’ve ever seen performed and I’ve only seen a grand total of 16 ‘full’ Hanson shows (not counting solo sets). But of those 16, I’ d single out that last show at BTTI 2017 as the best one: the energy, the vibe, the setlist, the location - it was so good that even the many technical problems couldn’t ruin it. Is this a fair assessment of the show, or was it just a combination of things - the friends, the music, a night sky with so many stars you would not believe it; having survived the worst year of my life with my sanity intact? 
But does it matter? The final BTTI 2017 was a show I’ll never forget: “that is all Ye know on earth, and all Ye need to know.*”



*John Keats

Stay tuned for Part 2

7 comments:

  1. You are so right about Zac playing "Get So Low" on the piano the way he would play the drums! I never thought about it like that. As for their little made up songs, I feel like that's more a fan club thing than a location or full band thing. I feel like at fan club events, they can be a little more relaxed and goofy without worrying about making a bad first (or only) impression on someone that could turn into a fan if they put on a good enough show. They know they're already stuck with us through sandy crevices and tuning mishaps and beyond. :-p

    I agree with pretty much everything you said here. I love "Do You Believe In Love," but it wasn't quite right as a solo without the harmonies and fast drumming that make it the song I love (but it was still something unique and experimental and worth witnessing at least once). I wish I had had the same amazing experience you did at the final show, but I'll blame my location and the crowd around me for killing the atmosphere a little bit. The setlist itself was phenomenal!

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    1. I agree that the fanclub events seem to spur the impromptu songs. I can't think of any tour show that I've gone to that has had that happen, although I have heard them change up lyrics to be a bit more silly at radio shows and then of course there was Zac's science song, balls in the water, also at a radio show.

      I also agree that this years shows were really good! They certainly set the bar high for the upcoming tour.

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    2. The crowd does seem to make a massive difference. I had a good spot and I was mostly surrounded by fellow Isaac girls. Strangely, there was also a lot of space to move around too - it was almost a 'planet aligning' type of situation.

      It makes me feel a little less like 'the poor relation' to know that the guys don't do all that fun stuff at regular US shows, either. Hopefully one day I'll come to a show over there and experience the 'real thing' for myself (Tulsa doesn't quite count in that respect, being fanclub only). But eh, shoestring shows are better than no shows :)

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  2. Of course they listen their fans and I love that! I asked Taylor to sing Breaktown (again) and he finally did it! It was a dream come true. Obviously Taylor's solo was my favorite concert.

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    1. Breaktown took everybody by surprise!

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  3. I love this recap! You have such a way with words when it comes to capturing the Hanson experience. Re: the solos, I completely agree about being in heaven when Zac gifted us "nerding out" fodder during his set, but that Do You Believe in Love needs to be a full-band song. Also that Taylor managed to create a laid-back/spontaneous vibe without sacrificing his trademark professionalism. And finally, I think you're onto something re: Isaac bringing his A-game extra hard after disappointing some fans last year.

    I'm still not onboard with the members-only set being the highlight of the week, and it seems increasingly like I'm in the minority there, but I can live with that. Especially because I'm still drowning in love bubbles from the acoustic set: Georgia! Strong Enough to Break! Madeline and MMMBop and TBS acoustic! Kiss Me When You Come Home! GEORGIA! Maybe I'm just a folksy hippie at heart, but I feel like the song choices and the harmonies and the vibe were just perfection that night.

    Thank you for posting this in all its nerdy, cheeky, honest glory. I'm glad you didn't "chop" anything!

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    1. It's understandable that your favourite set was the acoustic one, as it had your favourite songs. I also think, as Holly said in her post, that the people you have around during a show make a difference and maybe you were around the wrong people. Either way, I think we both agree that it was a fantastic week. You can see why people become addicted to BTTI now, right? #Resistanceisfutile

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