Hopewell / Saints & Lovers
Pianos; New York, NY

[05-28-06]

Believe the hype. I don't find
myself uttering those words too often, but when it comes to Hopewell, I speak
without reservation. Cheryl Waters, whose KEXP radio show is beloved to all of
us 9-to-5ers who spend our days in front of the computer with headphones on,
named their last album, Hopewell and the Birds of Appetite (Tee Pee),
her favorite of 2005. Listening to that record, you see what she's talking
about – songs that are catchy and powerful, with sprawling, orchestral
instrumentals and a subtle bird theme that's more Hitchcock than Audubon
Society. The live show highlights and improves upon all of these elements
through the band's immediately contagious energy.

In their second Pianos show in as many weeks, Hopewell was fresh from the
studio, testing out new material for an audience of friends and hometown fans.
Many of the songs they performed were still untitled – frontman Jason Russo, a
witty and genial host, even asked the audience to suggest titles for one –
and, according to the band, unfinished. While there may be some tweaking left
to do, I could see where they were going. The formula hasn't changed, but the
songwriting has become tighter and perhaps even more experimental. While
Birds of Appetite
was full of swirling instrumentals and wispy vocals,
reminiscent of Russo's last band, the wonderful Mercury Rev, the new stuff
seemed to herald Hopewell coming into its own. There is something intense and
ecstatic about this band, that rare element that could make them wildly
popular while still pleasing their loyal fanbase – and they are really
starting to own it. One new piece, a vocals-heavy, space-rock love song that
the band had never played for an audience before, made me especially excited
for the new album. When, towards the end of the set, the band dove headfirst
into their anthemic single, "Calcutta," the audience just exploded. In
retrospect, I feel kind of bad for having so much fun with a song about living
in extreme poverty.

This performance convinced me, once and for all, that Hopewell exists purely
to save audiences from having a bad night. It was something of a miracle that
I came out of this show happy, as it was prefaced by a boring, '90s
rock-flavored set by Saints & Lovers and twenty minutes of commercial hip hop
provided by some sadist on the Pianos staff (quoth my similarly frustrated
friend, "If I hear the words 'pussy' or 'bush' one more time..."). And the
first time I saw Hopewell, they were opening for
self-destructive/brilliant/fill-in-the-tragic-genius-blank labelmates The
Brian Jonestown Massacre. After some frat boy threw a cup of ice on stage and
Anton Newcombe pitched a hissyfit that essentially ended the show, Hopewell's
performance justified paying the price of admission.

So imagine my surprise when, at the end of the set, Russo plunked himself down
on a barstool that had been dragged to the middle of the dance floor and said,
"That was awful." Well, if this is high school and he's that skinny, popular
girl who always talks about how fat she is, I'm going to be the brownnosing
sidekick who assures her that she's beautiful. Do you hear me, Hopewell? It
was great, okay? So don't go throwing up your lunch or anything, because you
look really hot in that "next big thing" dress.

  

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