Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Highway's Home: Will Hoge Live in Grand Rapids

The Will Hoge Band
Live at the Pepsi Stadium Club - Fifth Third Ballpark
Grand Rapids, MI, 2/09/12

Will Hoge's music has saved my life, on numerous occasions. That might be a bit of an overstatement, but I can't do justice to how much his records, especially the last three, have meant to me over the past couple of years. On my list of all time favorite artists, only Will Hoge and Chad Perrone have come into my life since I started college. The other ones, the ones who have released truly terrific records since 2009, the ones who have big potential to be on that list, still have another album or two to go before I'll feel comfortable giving them that distinction. I think that really speaks to the power, the immediacy, and the strength of Hoge and Perrone's music, both the albums that made me fall in love with them and the back catalogs that turned me into a die hard fan. Both have songs that have completely leveled me at some time over the past three years. Perrone's music served as soundtrack for the best summer of my life, for the first time I fell in love, while Hoge's has helped me through some difficult moments: he was there with The Wreckage in the fall of 2009, supplying the musical backdrop to my first semester in college and for the transition therein; his latest, Number Seven, simultaneously drove me to tears and inspired me on the night last fall when I first started to consider pursuing a different major; and Draw the Curtains has always been my favorite and has been a record I've returned to for answers, for comfort, and for inspiration time and time again over the years. So after all that, it was a dream come true finally getting a chance to see Hoge play a live show. To put it simply, I wasn't disappointed.

Hoge, who is currently touring in support of last fall's Number Seven, made a stop in Grand Rapids two Thursdays ago, playing in a reception venue off of the Fifth Third Ballpark (which took the title of "weirdest place I've ever seen a show" pretty easily). The opener for the show (who I gathered was not actually on tour with Hoge and his band, but a Grand Rapids native who was offered the slot separately), was the acoustic duo of Flashing Blue Lights. Their set was intimate and laid back, establishing a nice coffee-house atmosphere with their pleasant originals and recognizable covers. After the band had played a Noel Gallagher song ("If I Had a Gun") and a Ryan Adams one ("Two"), my brother and I started taking bets as to what would be covered next: I guessed Counting Crows. I wasn't too far off, as the band bid farewell with a nice rendition of the Foo Fighters' "Next Year."

Hoge and his band are unique in the artists I've seen in that they have no road crew. The band was out onstage, setting up their gear, doing sound check and tuning their instruments, and once they were ready, they just walked out and rocketed into the first song of their set: "Fools Gonna Fly," also the opener off Number Seven and one of my favorite songs on that record. The song's singalong chorus proved to be the perfect orientation to Hoge's live sound. The band was clearly on point from the get go, and lead guitarist Adam Ollendorff immediately distinguished himself as one of the best guitarists I've seen with any band, a title he'd defend on numerous occasions throughout the night. "Secondhand Heart" reminded me why I need to give Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, Hoge's second (or third? I'm really not sure of this) record, more credit, and "Sex, Lies, & Money," a big, dumb, blues-rock song with shout-along lyrics, was a no-brainer for a live set, even if it is probably the weakest song off of Hoge's masterpiece, Draw the Curtains. As for "Too Old to Die Young," which capped the near-perfect four song introduction, the song cemented itself as an anthem as I sang along with it at the top of my lungs, and it was easily one of the Number Seven cuts that thrived the most in its live setting.

The band broke for a few moments, allowing them to tune their instruments, grab a drink of water, and banter with the audience a bit. Hoge explained to us that the name of the town on the setlist tonight was "Cold Ass, Michigan," and added that his band would be compiling a database of setlists from this tour so that when they come back, they won't play all the same songs. It's an interesting idea that I wish more acts would undertake, though to be honest, if I've seen Butch Walker seven times and have never minded seeing songs multiple times, I doubt I ever will. "I'm actually here for a baseball tryout," Hoge laughed, riffing for a moment on the curious venue we'd all found ourselves in. He went on, explaining the initial confusion he'd encountered in regard to the White Caps, the team who plays at the Fifth Third Ballpark. "At first I thought your team was called the White Chicks," he said. "That would have been way cooler. It would have been awesome to say I was the pitcher for the White Chicks." As laughter washed over the audience, Hoge walked around to the back of the stage and sat down at his piano, launching into a raw and visceral take on "When I Can Afford to Lose," the opening track from Curtains. It's a song I've always liked, but it soared even higher in this environment, distancing itself from the production values of the studio and allowing Hoge's exquisitely moving vocal to radiate through the venue.

After an extensive anecdote about a show he played recently at an all girls catholic school and his penchant for offending nuns, Hoge played through a pair of sparse acoustic numbers: the first was "Trying to be a Man," a tragic storyteller song from his latest album, the second "The Wreckage," a meditative break up tune that also probably had some connection to the near-fatal motorcycle accident Hoge suffered prior to the recording of the album the song lends its name to. The band added musical flourishes to both pieces, but for the most part, both achieved the "pin drop" dynamic amongst the audience, and only exemplified Hoge's magnetic and entrancing ability as a performer. The silence was not prolonged, however, as the band rocketed into "Ms. Williams," one of two songs tonight from the Carousel album, and one of the few songs of the night that I felt less familiar with. The opening riff to "Highway Wings" sounded like a summer anthem waiting to happen, and the band built around that euphoric opening to create one of the absolute highlights of the night. "Highway Wings" is a song I've always loved, but I've also always felt that the studio version on The Wreckage doesn't nearly do it justice, that the production doesn't make it sound as anthemic as it should. However, hearing it live only doubled my adoration for it, and I hope someday, we'll see a live album with the more recent stuff on it, that song included.

Speaking of songs that found new life in their live formats, "Just Like Me," a Tom Petty-ish rocker, became even more scorching here as Hoge channeled all of his anger and bitterness into the lyrics and left them dripping off the stage. "Silver Chain," a darkly atmospheric rocker from Seven reached heights I never thought possible, with Ollendorff delivering an extended guitar solo that was nothing short of mindblowing, and "Pocket Full of Change," a commentary on the music industry that served as the opener for Hoge's 2006 album, The Man Who Killed Love (another one I think I'm guilty of underrating), tore the stage apart with raucous energy and rock 'n' roll charisma. Hoge took center stage with an acoustic again for "Goodnight/Goodbye," a song from The Wreckage that was instrumental in making me love his music in the first place. It's a heartbreaking song that tells the tale of a couple who have fallen out of love with each other, but aren't willing to face that truth. While the original version is enhanced with elegiac piano lines and a gorgeous female back-up vocal, the song cut right to the core of me tonight, stripped down to its barest essentials, and as Hoge's voice broke on the bridge, I couldn't think of many songs that are sadder.

"This Highway's Home" has long been one of my favorite Hoge songs, and the Draw the Curtains closer was more than flawless tonight. It's probably one of Hoge's most definitively country songs, name-dropping Hank Williams in the chorus as a stunning pedal steel guitar floats through the entire thing (delivered perfectly by Ollendorff). As I watched Hoge and his band play the song live, I gained a new appreciation for it, because really, this song is their theme song: these guys are working musicians, no major label behind them, no road crew to set up their shows, and not even an opening act to keep them company on the road. Hoge drives the band from show to show in a beat up old van, and none of them probably ever get a good night's sleep. And yet, despite all of this, here they stood before me onstage, giving every bit of themselves to these songs and to their audience. So when Hoge sang that last chorus, it really hit hard:

"With a suitcase full of empty dreams
A guitar with broken strings
A busted heart that longs to sing the blues
A mind that always leads me wrong
A head full of Hank Williams songs
I'm sorry honey, but this highway's home."

It's like Hoge and his band have no choice but to give themselves over completely to the music, because they can't imagine doing anything else, because nothing else would ever feel right, and as someone who has certainly felt that way in moments of his life, that idea really resonated with me. It was the night's key moment, but there were still a few more to go: Hoge appropriately segued into a snippet of the Hank Williams classic "I'm So Lonely I Could Cry" before exploding into "Goddam California," another one of the highlights of Number Seven and of the night. The song's bridge is one of the best parts of any song Hoge has written, and hearing him sing it live only made that more evident. "No Man's Land" didn't come across quite as strongly, but the clever tongue in cheek lyrics made it a welcome enough inclusion. And the a guy standing a row or two behind my brother and I asked the band to play "Better off Now That Your Gone" for his "bitch ass ex-wife," and Hoge happily obliged, dedicating the kiss-off anthem from Blackbird on a Lonely Wire as such.

In the past year, Hoge has been invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry on multiple occasions, and he introduced his final song of the night by explaining that the band had been trying to get back to the Opry's roots, which were in music that was performed entirely acoustically. The "house lights" (if you can call them that in this venue) went up and the band unplugged their instruments, jumped down from the stage, and walked to the center of the room. The song of choice was "Washed by the Water," yet another Draw the Curtains classic, and one that Hoge wrote for the people of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (think Springsteen). The song has always been a favorite of mine, but seeing him perform it in a format that almost no live acts ever attempt made it completely transcendent. Whether it was the tweaked chorus harmonies (which I'm almost certain were a clever nod at "The Weight," a classic tune by The Band), or the way Hoge closed his eyes as he played, even as he was surrounded by dozens of fans and listeners, it was a breathtaking moment, and while the lack of a traditional encore was slightly disappointing, I could think of no better way for the band to cap off such a stellar show.

I've always felt that Hoge was a musician from a different era: he's a troubadour and a storyteller in the truest sense of the words, and tonight, he reminded me of many of the great songwriters that came before him. On Draw the Curtains, Hoge broke down the barriers between himself and his audience, baring his soul and delivering something that was so relentlessly honest and so palpably visceral that it struck a chord with me right from the get go: he did the same thing onstage at this show, and even after I'd waited two years just dying to see him live, he still exceeded my expectations. It's a shame Hoge isn't more popular than he is, because I can't think of many artists of this era with more great albums, more perfect songs, or with more of a tendency to leave everything they have on the table, whether it's on an album or as part of a live show. But the fact that this show was probably the smallest I've ever attended, in terms of audience size, that information only served to prove two key points: one, that Hoge and his give their all during every performance, no matter the circumstance, and two, that they're the single best kept secret in music today, and I'm just thrilled to be in on it.


  1. Great review of one our generation's greatest singer/songwriters! I have seen Will at least 4 times now and every performance has been amazing. I have seen him in small coffee house style venues as well as large theaters and even an outdoor bar side stage! He plays well to all different crowds because his music encompasses different styles and genres. He can rip it up and burn it down or just play it slow and break your heart. He has become one of my wife's favorite artist after I introduced him to her and now names The Wreckage as her favorite album ever. At the most recent show of his we went to, he did the "acoustic" song near the end of the performance and it was amazing. Hearing a sold out theater get so quiet so we could all enjoy his song without the need of amplification was astounding. I have seen this become a trend with other acts in his similar genre. Needtobreathe have been doing this for at least a couple of years as well as I have seen Carbon Leaf recently and they did the same thing. I really think it is a trend that is picking up in popularity with artists that want to show their audience that the essence of the SONG is the only thing that matters. Strip away the distortion, the effects, the "auto-tune" and just play the song. It is very cool and I hope more artists and bands do it as well. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your writing and I will continue to follow your blog. We have very similar musical tastes and I enjoy your take on my favorite artists. Thanks and keep it up.

    1. Thanks a lot! I appreciate your comments, and I always like hearing from other Hoge fans, since I feel like I rarely get to talk about him with anyone but my brother. I think the unplugged idea is genius, and I wish more artists would be willing to step away from their amplification and do that. Butch Walker has done it in the past, but not at any of the 7 shows I've been to, and I've seen Carbon Leaf as well, but they were clustered around one mic for the whole time and never went full unplugged, leaving Hoge alone in that category.