Ultraviolet Hippopotamus 4.8 & 4.9.16

Quixote’s True Blue
Denver, CO

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By J Mimna Photography

Friday April 8, 2016:

Ultraviolet Hippopotamus (UV Hippo for short) is a band that has had a formative influence on my music tastes. I can still remember the first time I saw them, in Raleigh, NC in 2013. Watching Dave Sanders play the synthesizer, I understood for the first time just how much this instrument can add to a band. At the time, I had definitely been exposed to the synthesizer in other capacities, but this was the first time that I was ever completely riveted by a synthesizer performance. Life since that day has always been a little different in the best way possible, as the synthesizer has become one of my favorite instruments to hear played.

I was lucky enough to see the band a few more times in the summer of 2013, before I moved to the west coast. The next year, the band announced they would be taking a hiatus. After playing nearly 200 shows per year out of a small van, it seemed only natural that the band members might want to spend time at home. Last year, they did a short Michigan run as their only shows. This year, they decided they were ready to hit the road again for a couple of multi-night runs. I decided to pounce on my opportunity to catch them in Denver, figuring a west coast tour seemed highly unlikely. As I counted down the days, I could hardly believe I would be getting a chance to see the band again. It seemed like they had gone away right as I was getting the chance to really dive into their music.

This run was at one of Denver’s beloved Grateful Dead bars, Quixote’s True Blue. This is a relaxed spot in Capitol Hill, with tie-dye and music memorabilia taking up every inch of wall space. The band somehow squeezed all five members onto the tiny stage, and they came out hot for the first night of the run. They took the stage with Dave talking to the crowd about baseball and warming up his synth. I knew this was an excellent sign. My suspicions were confirmed, as they began the show with “Verlander,” off their epic jamtronica odyssey from 2013’s Translate, which was named for Detroit Tigers ace, Justin Verlander. This song is one of my very favorites, and the best way I could imagine the run starting off. They jammed it straight into “Run Rabbit Run,” from 2011’s Square Pegs, Round Holes. This one has a contagious energy associated with Russell Olmstead’s snappy guitar riff. The jam flowed outstandingly into a more relaxing tune, the older “Kindred Spirits.” This was a great chance for us to catch our breath, but it didn’t last too long as they brought it back around to conclude the composed section of “Verlander.” After reeling off that impressive segment to begin the show, the band had erased any concerns the audience might have had about the band being a bit rusty or off their game due to the hiatus.

The second set was highlighted by another amazing sandwich. It began with “Welcome Welcome,” the opening track to 2008’s Songs for the Reaper. This song is centered around Russ’s vocals, and has a bit of a country twang present. The band worked this one into “Yin Yang,” which is compositionally among their very best tunes. After a brief “Enter Sandman” jam, the song’s transcendent ending section made its first appearance. I had forgotten just how amazing this part was, and as it washed over me it caused all of the hairs on my neck to rise to attention. After teasing us with it, they jammed away into “The Bully,” leaving me flabbergasted. This song has some nice lyrics about music saving us from the darkness, but I needed to hear that last section concluded soon or else my head would explode. The band seemed to understand this, as they turned on a dime and jammed right back into “Yin Yang,” allowing Dave to finally play out one of his most amazing riffs to its cathartic conclusion.

During this part of the performance, I was also extremely impressed with the band’s light show. They didn’t have a very large rig with them, but Lighting Designer Ryan DeWitt did a great job of maximizing his results. Their music lends itself well to psychedelic visuals, and this aspect was greatly aided by Quixote’s in-house LED bars, which flash random colors onto the tie-dye tapestries behind the stage. Between this and Ryan’s lights, I was visually satisfied at all times.

“Dune Climber” saw perhaps the night’s best improvisation, with Brian Samuels taking the reins with his powerful bass groove. Dave and Russ dueled with each other atop the mix, while Joe Phillion and Casey Butts went absolutely bonkers on drums and percussion, respectively. Casey’s extensive percussion kit really fills out the band’s sound, plugging any holes that remained with fiery rhythms. “Square Pegs Round Holes” and “Tugboat” finished out the set with the band utterly crushing it. They encored with “Hey Tommy,” the last two songs with organ riffs that sound like they belong in a circus. One thing I love about this band is how unafraid they are to be goofy and fun onstage, and it really shows during tracks like these.

Set One: Verlander > Run Rabbit Run > Kindred Spirits > Verlander, Greater Good, B'Guzzler, Georgie

Set Two: 7 Hour Mile, Welcome Welcome > Yin Yang* > Bully > Yin Yang, Dune Climber, Square Pegs Round Holes, Tugboat

Encore: Hey Tommy

*Contained Enter Sandman (Metallica) Jam

Saturday April 9, 2016:

With a stellar first night in the books, and the band fully warmed up and acclimated to the venue, I knew the second night had the potential to be a world-class show. My expectations only grew as the day went on and our editor, J., mentioned to me that Paul Hoffman (Greensky Bluegrass) and Fareed Haque (Garaj Mahal) were planning to sit-in. My mind was racing through different songs that they could choose to feature these brilliant musicians, but the only one I felt relatively sure about was that Hoffman ought to play “Move Your Ass” with them, as it is their only song with a composed mandolin part.

The first set again began with a ridiculously intense track, this time “The Marine.” This song’s ending contains one of the most ludicrous funk breakdowns I’ve ever heard, with both Dave and Casey going the extra mile to really get the crowd moving. The synth licks during the jam made me feel as if I were being chased through the desert at night, and it just kept peaking harder and harder until they reprised the funky breakdown to finish things off. Next, I got my first chance to hear a new Russ song, “Vultures and Theives.” This one was heavy and guitar-driven, and I can’t wait to get another chance to hear it.

The boys next turned to a more visceral tune, “Medicine,” from Square Pegs, Round Holes. This song is based around an awesome, simple xylophone riff from Casey. This riff sounds so familiar, I have often wondered if it was a sample of another song, but never found one to match it with. The song’s intro is both subtle and moving, giving way to a jazzy dance section with great keys. Dave moves to synth for the song’s fuzzy ending, and a reprise of what at this point has to be among my favorite parts ever played on the xylophone. Although it’s not very complicated, it is just so tasteful and perfectly suited to the rest of the song.

A hard-charging “Metaphorical Pipe” came next, featuring some crazy vocal work from Dave. While I love this song’s lyrics, I wasn’t as wild about his delivery, which was very gruff and spoken-word style. This song transitioned into “Dusty’s Trumpet,” which wasted no time in initiating one of the run’s weirdest synth jams. Dave easily redeemed himself, as he absolutely wailed atop the mix. They paused briefly before launching into “Songs for the Reaper.” This is one of their best written songs, and Brian and Russ sang a great duet. It tells the story of a young man who wants to sell his soul to the devil, in order to learn the blues. This is one of relatively few singalong numbers in their catalog, and I took full advantage, along with some other diehards near the front. After another pause, they delivered the goods by playing “The Scar.” This reggae-tinged original is among my very favorite Hippo songs because of how much ground they cover. Starting off as a relaxed reggae track, it flourishes into a bluegrass-inspired live-electronica breakdown that you couldn’t help but dance to.

This had been such a ridiculous set, there was only one way to close it out. The band invited fellow Michigander Paul Hoffman to sit-in on the electric mandolin. For the first track, the band attempted to lead him through a complex song, called “EMD.” This one didn’t go off so well, and it seemed like they may not have had as much time as intended to rehearse. Paul seemed fairly lost during most of the composed section, but then once they got to the funk jam his instincts took over no problem. He ripped up a nice solo and infused some additional twang into the group’s sound. The newly-formed sextet closed out the set with “North Coast,” a wonderful song about how great it is to be from the state of Michigan. This song is very bluegrassy, and Paul clearly felt right at home as he picked along. It was a lot of fun watching him and Russ trade solos and seeing all of the Michigan love flowing so freely. I grew up in Georgia, and I live in Washington, but even I could understand that this was a really special Michigan moment.

Second set started off with “The Moth,” from 2012’s Broomhilda Suite EP. This transitioned into “That 1 Jam,” a synth-based number that is definitely one of the band’s weirdest. The composed section of the track is jaw-droppingly absurd, and the improvisation always takes it even a step further. After a few minutes of Dave taking over on this rollercoaster ride, the jam took on more of a reggae sound, eventually leading them into “Head in the Trees.” This song is amazing on the Songs for the Reaper album, but I have yet to see them deliver it live to that same standard. I’ve noticed that the vocals in the verse are always understated and underemphasized in a live setting, and this time was no exception. I think my opinion of the most important part of that song must differ substantially from the band members’ perspective.

After a pause, they played “Broomhilda,” the title track to the aforementioned EP. This tune saw some truly exceptional improv, beginning with an avant-garde samba groove that worked its way into an intense metal portion. Dave took over with some craziness on the synth, before moving over to his keyboard to conclude the jam with a classical keys segment that reminded me of “Orfeo,” a great classically-inspired inspired composition of Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins.

The band next invited guitarist Fareed Haque and the other two members of his jazz trio, keyboardist Tony Monaco and drummer Greg Fundis, to share the stage, with Greg sharing Casey’s percussion rig. Dave helped Tony get his keys correctly setup before departing the stage for the next song, “The Game.” This one was a lot of fun, but my favorite part had to be watching the look on Russ’s face as he got to play onstage with one of his guitar idols in Fareed. Fareed is one of the nastiest players I have had the chance to watch in person. He is capable of dazzling from anywhere in the mix, whether he is laying down background chords and textures or tearing it up on a solo. His jazz chops are formidable, and you could see this on the faces of the other band members. There were clearly times when he was soloing where they were wondering how they could possibly follow it, but they were always able to work together and come up with something. The jam flowed really well, but it seemed like it was over in a flash.

Tony and Greg left the stage, and Dave returned. Fareed stayed up, and in fact took over the microphone. He began telling some odd story about eating fried chicken, and he had the crowd in stitches! I finally saw what people had been saying about his legendary banter, and it was also plain to see that the band was about to bestow a “Colonel Sanders Breakdown” upon us. This tune sounds about like you might think, with frenzied picking and plenty of twang. It was great to get the chance to see Fareed play with Dave. As great as Tony is in his own way, it is very tough to replace Dave on synth at a Hippo show. The jam featured plenty of guitar duels between Russ and Fareed, with Russ valiantly working through a broken sting. This definitely freaked him out a bit, but he was able to switch guitars in time to finish things out well. The look on his face was one of pure joy and awe, and it was great to see everybody enjoying themselves so much while being onstage.

They finished up the second set with “Cherise,” before encoring with “Chorale.” The jam in “Chorale” featured some inspired palm-muting from Russ as the group worked its way through what I thought might have been a tease of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” This was a cool way to conclude an exceptional two nights of music. It was a real treat to get the chance to see an old favorite band come back and crush it that hard. After getting a chance to express my gratitude to the band, J. and I departed the venue, making sure to leave the guys with words of encouragement like “The world is a better place with Hippo!” As much as I pressed them to find out if they had any more touring plans in the works, the best answer they would give was “We’ll see.”

Although they seem to be content not touring extensively, I do really hope that the band will throw us a bone again sometime soon with a few more shows. They are so talented and still can jam so tightly, it would be a waste for these to have been their last shows. Knowing these guys, I’m sure they will get the itch again eventually. Whenever they do, there will certainly be a contingent of fans ready to get down with the Hippo one more time!

Set One: The Marine, Vultures and Thieves (New Russ Song), Medicine, Metaphorical Pipe > Dusty's Trumpet, Song for the Reaper, The Scar, DNT*, North Coast*

Set Two: Moth > That 1 Jam > Head in the Trees, Broomhilda, The Game$, Colonel Sanders Breakdown#, Cherise

Encore: Chorale

* with Paul Hoffman on electric mandolin
$ with Fareed Haque on guitar, Greg Fundis on percussion, and Tony Monaco replacing Dave on keys
# with Fareed Haque on guitar



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