In the spring of 1997, as a high school senior eagerly awaiting graduation, I was unfortunately without a car. My friend Rick drove a used Chevy Blazer (and therefore me) and owned one CD: the single version of Hanson’s “MMMBop,” which he played continuously.
Rick had purchased the disc after hearing the song on the radio, but once it became a No. 1 smash in almost a dozen countries — and the moppety mugs of Isaac, Taylor and Zac were plastered all over TV — Rick “lost” the CD, eventually claiming he’d never even owned it.
This backlash was all too common in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and while it may never be cool to listen to Hanson (or at least cop to listening to Hanson), the three-piece from Tulsa never really went away — the band of brothers is currently putting the finishing touches on its as-yet-unnamed eighth LP (due in 2010) and touring the U.S. behind a mostly-acoustic EP titled Stand Up, Stand Up.
On Saturday, the group’s Use Your Sole Tour bopped into L.A. Live’s jam-packed Club Nokia (it stops Wednesday at House of Blues Anaheim), and while Rick was noticeably absent, the adoring legion of Hansonites were out in force to support the band that most of them never stopped supporting.
It was eerily reminiscent of a Phish or Grateful Dead concert, as the (heavily female) fans near me rattled off recent set lists, discussed best-ever versions of songs and recited how many shows they’d seen on this particular tour. One thirtysomething woman claimed the Club Nokia show was her 200th Hanson show.
I’ll let that one sink in: 200th Hanson show.
During the two-hour headlining slot, the trio catered to this tirelessly loyal army of fans with continuous interaction, playful (if not contrived) stage banter, stripped-down acoustic numbers and even a few covers voted into the set by fans.
Opening with “Where’s the Love” and closing with a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” (featuring not only the three stellar opening acts — Hellogoodbye, Steel Train and Sherwood — but also members of Rooney and, if you can believe it, “Weird Al” Yankovic), Hanson played a set of 20 or so songs that showcased the band’s catchy, hook-laden, gospel-tinged pop. And the audience knew ever single word.
Here’s the deal: if you’d never listened to Hanson, only knew “MMMBop” from the radio, and someone told you that an unnamed up-and-coming blue-eyed soul trio was playing Club Nokia, you’d be hard-pressed to tell its songs apart from anything John Mayer has released to mainstream radio in the past five years. Even the teenybop tunes have been updated and given more powerful punch.
The songs are solid — upbeat, piano-based pop/rock songs, louder than you’d expect, with electric guitars and synthesized horn lines — even if after two hours the formula gets repetitive, while numbers like “You Never Know” and “Crazy Beautiful” would have benefited greatly from an in-the-flesh three-piece horn section. (That would definitely up the Hanson Authenticity Ante.)
At least from a rabid-fan perspective (and I’m solely judging by the amount of screaming and applause around me), the night’s highlight came when the band trotted out a series of new songs. After beginning electric with the U2-sounding “World’s on Fire” and continuing acoustic with “Carry You There” (both from the new EP), the band left the stage except for drummer Zac, who positioned himself at brother Taylor’s white upright piano for “Use Me Up,” a supplicating plea that wouldn’t sound out of place on, dare I say it, one of the half-dozen albums the “retired” Ryan Adams is undoubtedly preparing for 2010.
Heartfelt and tender without sounding wimpy or trite, “Use Me Up” should not only enter Hanson’s regular rotation, but stand at its forefront as a shining example of a light-years-away move from the sugarcoated teen shtick the band popularized in the late ’90s.
And speaking of “MMMBop” … yeah, they played it, after Hellogoodbye playfully teased the intro during its set. Isaac didn’t seem tired of picking out the intro, Zac wasn’t put off by the 4/4 drumbeat and Taylor sang it as if he had rarely performed that one song that made Hanson overnight celebrities 13 years ago.
It reminded me of an interview in the ’80s, when Jimmy Buffett was asked if he ever got tired of playing “Margaritaville.” Without skipping a beat, he responded (and I’m paraphrasing) that his most popular song had been paying the bills for years — how could he ever stop playing it?
“MMMBop” helped Hanson sell over 10 million copies of its major-label debut, Middle of Nowhere — and it’s been paying the bills for years, during which time the brothers could easily have slipped into one-hit-wonder obscurity. They haven’t, however, which is not only a testament to their incredibly dedicated fan base but also their desire to be taken seriously by the music mainstream.
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, Hanson ain’t going nowhere. And now that my friend Rick has an 11-year-old daughter, maybe he should dig up that “MMMBop” single — a new generation of Hanson fans might just be waiting in the wings.
(Hanson plays tonight at House of Blues San Diego, $32.50-$47.50, and Wednesday at House of Blues Anaheim, $30. Photos by Bryan Johnson.)