I have a confession to make: prior to Oct. 3, I had never listened to a Hippo Campus song before. When I entered the Michigan Theater for the indie pop band’s concert, I had no idea what to expect. I thought the $30 ticket would buy me a fun night out with friends, maybe an entry-level familiarity with the band’s new album, and a good show.
Enter Chai, a Japanese pop band unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before. What we’d thought would be a throwaway opening act turned out to be a revelation, and in pink bejeweled ski masks no less. As off-the-wall as their costumes were (white wide-leg crotchless chaps is just the beginning) their music was even more so — 50% heavy metal and 50% something like if MUNA made soundtracks for ’90s video games. And that wasn’t the only fascinating thing about them.
Chai’s stage presence and command over the audience was captivating, fit for a much larger artist performing in a much larger venue. Along with their energetic, complex choreography, their set was abundant in humor; one time, they left the stage and came back on sporting backward baseball caps, jogged a few laps, staged a fistfight and played an aggressive game of patty cake before starting the next song with no explanation. By this point, we were on our feet clapping along. They even took a selfie with the crowd, as if it were them that we had come to see. Next time, it will be.
I have never seen a crowd so enthralled with an opening act as we were with Chai. Maybe that’s why, when Hippo Campus finally came on, the only thing we could say was that it was a letdown.
Hippo Campus’s set started off slow. The first few songs were cheerful hits from their most recent album, LP3, but the band lacked energy. “2 Young 2 Die” was a bit of a confusing beginning, its mellow intro devolving into electronic chaos you can’t really dance to. Older favorites like “Baseball” and “Simple Season” eventually brought more life to the stage, with upbeat guitar riffs and unremarkable vocals that could soundtrack an Old Navy commercial. The band didn’t seem that into their own music, and neither was I.
They didn’t address the audience until quite a few songs in when we got an unenthusiastic “How are you guys doing tonight?” and were rewarded for our loud cheer with a response of “Dope.” A few more fourth wall breaks with similarly low levels of warmth did nothing to abate the feeling that we were watching them practice in one of their parents’ garages, and that our presence was kind of a nuisance.
Adding to this impression was the fact that the stage was weirdly empty, with each member sequestered to their respective corners, leaving a deserted space in the middle that they didn’t fill. Besides a few wannabe rockstar kicks from lead singer Jake Luppen, they rarely emerged from behind their mic stands, adding to the lack of cohesion and heart in their stage presence.
Luppen was dressed like a frat boy in dark sunglasses that he inexplicably wore the entire time; his body language was that of Timothée Chalamet impersonating a SoundCloud rapper with an auto-tuned mic to match. Bassist Zach Sutton and guitarist Nathan Stocker occasionally riffed together toward the back of the stage, but it was uncoordinated and awkward, and not worth the trek they had to make to get there from opposite sides. DeCarlo Jackson, the band’s trumpet player, could have been a star, but he was relegated to the back corner and only stepped into the spotlight for one brief solo, which received the loudest applause since Chai had left the stage.
The crowd, though not overly dancey, was full of enthusiasm, ready to cheer at any quiet moment and belt it out at the half-hearted command of “Sing it!” With one concertgoer head-banging through the entire performance and three girls having a religious experience in the fourth row, the audience offered a level of excitement that Hippo Campus did not deserve. It was live music broken down to its most basic elements: one or two interesting transitions between songs, a few comments from the band that could maybe be construed as funny, a couple of drumsticks thrown into the crowd at the end as a reward for sticking it out and a two-song encore that fell just short of impactful. Just enough to be considered a concert, but nowhere close to being a good one, or even anything out of the ordinary.
In a world where live music is incredibly uncertain, it’s all the more important to make concerts matter. A show is a chance to get to know an artist’s personality in a way we can’t from just listening to their music, but the only conclusion to draw from Hippo Campus’s performance is that they don’t have one. The most interesting thing they did all night was inviting Chai to be their opener.
Daily Arts Contributor Nina Smith can be reached at email@example.com.