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."
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.
"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.
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.