It's a good rule of thumb to keep expectations low for a reunion show, especially if it's one involving a band that doesn't play together very often. That way, if a group is particularly good, you can be pleasantly surprised. If band is only okay - or, heaven forbid, terrible - your disappointment can be (somewhat) mitigated.
Hum's sold-out reunion show at the Old Rock House, its first St. Louis appearance since December 2000, thankfully fell into the former category. At times, the Champaign, Illinois, band sounded a bit rusty; portions of songs dragged or just felt less than locked-together. But more often than not, Hum sounded like a young, hungry band with something to prove.
The adoring, headbanging crowd - which was comprised of superfans, people revisiting their youth, kids who missed the band originally and even pockets of random drunk Cardinals fans -- didn't need Hum to do much of anything besides show up and play old favorites. The band obliged, of course: It opened with "The Pod," from its biggest album, You'd Prefer an Astronaut. The song embodies Hum's methodology: seismic-waves riffs hover somewhere between the intersection of metal, post-rock and punk, while calculus-level rhythms and ominous basslines rumble together beneath the fray. Vocalist/guitarist Matt Talbott screamed his throat raw at the song's end, like he did on the studio version, and nailed it.
Hum's sound - drop-D tuning, chugging riffs, shuddering bass and thundering-hooves drums -- has been aped by many, many, many terrible bands. (For what it's worth, the band itself also owes quite a debt to Nirvana and the Cure.) These imitators have dumbed-down this sound rather severely, so much so that hearing Hum now unfortunately can conjure some really awful neanderthal-rock.
What saves Hum - and what likely prevented the band from becoming more popular originally - are smarts, nuance and talent. "Afternoon with the Axolotis," as it was on 1998's underrated Downward is Heavenward, was a shimmering, ambient meditation. "Green to Me" built and built higher on a bed of foggy chords, but Talbott's vocals - pensive, longing and vulnerable - made the song a serene experience. The mega-hit "Stars," in contrast, felt a bit perfunctory and slowed down noticeably in the middle; its climbing-up-stairs chords felt a bit sluggish.
But as individuals, the members of Hum were ferocious. Bassist Jeff Dimpsey and guitarist Tim Lash held down the sides of the stage and bashed out their parts with steely resolve. Drummer Bryan St. Pere was maniacal, a heavy hitter that shook his kit to its nuts and bolts. Talbott isn't known much outside of gear-geek circles for being a fantastic guitar player, but last night, he clawed out chords and effects with ease -- making the case that more people should recognize his talents. His voice hasn't aged a bit either; the metal-plated, warmly robotic intonations were as soothing as a lullaby. The quartet coalesced best on standout "Scraper," which felt like a blow to the head from a sledgehammer; the song's gnarled punk riffs and strident tempo resembled Fugazi or Jawbreaker.
Unfortunately, the sound could be really sludgy, depending where you were in the venue. Talbott's murmured vocals were often buried in the mix - rendering them indecipherable -- and the guitars sounded muddy and distorted. This made for unpleasant listening at times -- especially since the band kept getting louder and louder as the set went on, culminating in the white-hot electricity-zap "I'd Like Your Hair Long." The light show as well had a few wince-worthy moments. Namely, flashing the stage lights to encourage Hum to come back on stage for the encore felt really, really cheesy, because it's pretty much anticlimactic that the band was coming back for more.
In the end, though, the quartet seemed gratified - and grateful -- that anyone still gave a damn and that people were so enthusiastic about its appearance. You can't really time-warp back to the past, sure - but you can make a quick visit and have it be sweet and enjoyable.
Critic's Notebook: The band hung out on the side patio before the show talking to fans, which thrilled many people.
This reunion show is just one of many the band's been doing in recent years. In fact, Hum is playing in Chicago at Millennium Park on May 31 and also in Champaign on July 10.
Andrew Youssef, who writes/shoots photos for the OC Weekly, among others, flew in from LA just for the show. (Now that's dedication.) He took photos and reviewed the show here.
Setlist: (with a nod to Amateur Chemist for the help/clarification) "The Pod" "Iron Clad Lou" "Stars" "The Inuit Promise" "Comin' Home" "Afternoon with the Axolotis" "Green to Me" "Inklings" "Suicide Machine" "Scraper" "Little Dipper" "I'd Like Your Hair Long"
Encore: "The Scientists" "I Hate It Too"