A Review: Ultraviolet Hippopotamus
Ultraviolet Hippopotamus might be my new favorite touring band. Usually, this sort of declaration is something I usually don’t concern myself with, but it’s hard for me to ignore how consistent Ultraviolet Hippopotamus has been since I started seeing them. I’ve caught about ten to fifteen UV Hippo shows within the past year, and each time I’ve been floored by their highly technical musicianship and overall energy. However, with great performances come greater expectations. As an ascending band looking to do big things, these expectations can either be a positive force or a debilitating burden. But sometimes, in that rare occasion, none of these preconceived notions matter. I’ve found that in some circumstances, a band can survive simply by doing what they love and spreading that love through their craft. Sometimes, love is all that is necessary. On March 27th, 2010, I traveled to Mac’s Bar in Lansing to hopefully catch another passionate set from Ultraviolet Hippopotamus.
When I arrived to Mac’s, the bar was already full for another show. Apparently, Mac’s had double-booked the venue on accident, so Ultraviolet Hippopotamus would only be playing one extended set. Bummer.
I’ve seen a fair amount of shows at Mac’s Bar. Much can be said about the aesthetics of the bar. Worn, trashy, dirty…these are all adjectives I’ve heard used to describe Mac’s. However, I see the bar as something different. Each time I go to Mac’s Bar, I feel a sense of history beneath my feet, almost as if greatness had occurred on the premises in a previous lifetime. Besides, the bar had to get worn down somehow. Based on the laidback, anything-goes vibe I feel when I’m at Mac’s, I imagine those who contributed to its wear, like myself, had a righteous time doing so.
The band took stage around 12:45 A.M. to start their set. After a brief greeting from bass player and lead vocalist Brian Samuels, the band jumped into its set opener, “Run Rabbit Run”. A great tune to start a set, “Run Rabbit Run” is a high-energy bluegrass/reggae hybrid that got the crowd grooving from the get-go. At this point, I realized the crowd was a bit smaller than what I was used to seeing for a UV show at Mac’s. There were two other Michigan jam bands playing in Lansing that night, and I couldn’t help but think all the folks who chose the ‘other’ show had made the wrong decision. Regardless, it was clear from the start of the set the lack of attendance wouldn’t affect the band. Their purpose remained unchanged.
From “Run Rabbit Run”, the band segued into “Scar”, a tune that starts reggae and slowly transforms itself into a soulful rocker. This is an element of Ultraviolet Hippopotamus’s songwriting which I love; the band is constantly changing its musically styling, shifting seamlessly from genre to genre with no apparent loss of energy or enthusiasm. With six members in the band, it’s incredibly important for each member to buy-in to what is being presented as a whole. This is not an issue with UV Hippo. The band gives space for each member to effectively communicate what he want to say, but the essence of totality is never lost.
“Scar” spilled over into the beginning trance beats of “Matt’s Atlas”. This signaled the first opportunity for keyboardist Dave Sanders to let loose on his Moog. When Dave is rockin’ the Moog, Ultraviolet Hippopotamus is at their best. The signature sound the band creates during these high energy Moog sessions is unbelievably good. The sound is pure brain candy and it leaves me wanting more every time I see UV. Dave has the ability to carry a melody for an extended period of time, lulling the crowd into a trance, then drop some of the nastiest synth runs I’ve heard performed live. This would all be lost if the band couldn’t fill the space behind the keyboard wizardry. The band does, though, fill the space tremendously, creating large peaks and overall sound swells that threaten to blow the roof off whatever venue they play. This Mac’s show was no exception.
“Matt’s Atlas” slowly worked its way into “Ms. Brown”. A lighthearted rock tune, “Ms. Brown” is a great example of a tune that truly can stand on its own. I often find that newer jambands take a backwards approach in their songwriting as they attempt to create jam vehicles instead of great songs. Sometimes a band simply needs to step back and play something to which we can all sing-a-long! Based on the diversity of their tunes and the make-up of their set lists, one can easily tell that Ultraviolet Hippopotamus knows how to play a show that remains fresh throughout.
The next segment, “Matt’s Atlas > Zelda > North Coast” proved to be my favorite of the night. The segue back into “Matt’s Atlas” was fiery and ferocious as drummers Joe Phillion and percussionist Casey Jones slowly increased tempo of the jam until the point of destruction. At this point, I leaned over to my buddy and said,” Jesus Christ! Dave’s chops are terrifying!” The band really got after it during “Matt’s Atlas” as they repeatedly threw giant peak after giant peak at the audience. This type of intense jamming certainly isn’t for the gentle eared. Those who can handle the intensity, though, are often greatly rewarded in the end.
As the band began to weave its way into “Zelda”, the band’s take on the Nintendo hero’s theme song, the crowd was hard pressed to contain its excitement. Instead of playing the tune note for note, the band lets loose on “Zelda” and plays it in their likeness. Unlike another popular touring jamband who also plays “Zelda”, Ultraviolet Hippopotamus owns it, making their versions exactly that…their own.
“Zelda” eventually crept into the opening notes of “North Coast”, a bluegrass-inspired rocker. Every time I’ve seen the band play “North Coast”, they’ve absolutely played the hell out of it. It’s a song the band really enjoys playing, and their love of the tune shines through their performance. This “North Coast” kicked serious ass and featured an awesome call and response section featuring Dave and guitarists Sam Guidry and Russell James. Take it to church boys!
UV Hippo stopped “North Coast” on a dime, dropping straight into “Words”. “Words” is yet another example of Ultraviolet Hippopotamus’s ability to fuse multiple musical genres into one tune. “Words” begins with a reggae feel and travels through a progressive segment before finally embarking on a highly danceable trance rock journey. Some bands would be envious to have as much flavor in their entire show as Ultraviolet Hippopotamus can provide in merely one song. I have much respect for any band that isn’t afraid to be different or go against conventional song structures. In the case of UV Hippo, what’s created is not only different, its presented in such a convincing fashion that the audience can’t help but think this is the way the song should be heard.
The next tune, “DNT”, is a newer tune that has recently been reworked for vocals. Although the band is still getting used to the new tempo and vocal phrasings, “DNT” has been tighter and tighter each time I’ve heard it since its reworking. The instrumental section of “DNT” contains some of my favorite composed Moog work from keyboardist Dave Saunders. “DNT” added some much needed funk to the show, allowing the crowd to seriously cut loose on the dance floor.
As the band finished the final notes of “DNT”, drummer Joe Phillion signaled the band to begin their last tune of the night, “The Marine”. “The Marine” is a bit more progressive than the usual UV Hippo tune as it features composed starts and stops along with unique harmonic ideas. After a vocal section during its middle, “The Marine” finished with a high-energy, cryptic sounding trance jam that left me speechless. What a show!
This particular Ultraviolet Hippopotamus show was heavy on bluegrass and reggae while being a bit light on the funk. This is fine by me as the band played some serious funk the previous night. That’s what makes this band so interesting. There is no playing to what they think the audience might want to hear…they play what they feel and they love doing it. And when a band plays what they love, everyone wins. Feel like a winner and go see Ultraviolet Hippopotamus. I do every time I see them!
Ultraviolet Hippopotamus Live at Mac's Bar on March 27, 2010.