Concert Review: Hanson (Pepsi Arena, Albany, New York, September 11, 1998)

It’s getting increasingly difficult to be a look-down-my-nose style music critic these days when (so-called) low-brow music is getting to be more likable than the stuff that I’m supposed to be shoving down the masses’ throats because it’s good for them. Case in point? Last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, where the critically-disdained Backstreet Boys offered a performance that demonstrated a far higher level of musical competence than the songs tossed off by Madonna (once low-brow, now feigning high-brow with her faux English accent and Eastern/electronica shtick), Hole and the Beastie Boys, among others.

Bongwater’s Ann Magnuson once sang “Frankly, at this point I’d rather see ‘Brigadoon’ than ‘Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer'” and while watching the rest of the Video Music Awards I realized exactly what she meant, as I found myself more engaged by the pathologically cute Hanson brothers and Jennifer Love Hewitt than I was by the just plain pathological Old Dirty Bastard and Courtney Love. And I actually viewed this as a good thing that night, since I was scheduled to review Hanson in concert 24 hours later with my seven-year old daughter Katelin in tow and felt that for her sake, at least, I should try to avoid oozing the sort of disapproval that I normally exude at such concerts.

But guess what? I didn’t need to use any of that paternal self-restraint, because young Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson put on the most entertaining and engaging show I’ve seen at the Pepsi Arena in at least a year, maybe longer. Hanson had better songs and more musical common-sense than Phish. They had far fewer anonymous supporting musicians making them sound good than did Fleetwood Mac. They worked harder than Aerosmith. They were more mature than AC/DC. They had better hair than Metallica. And they sang far better than any of those bands, sounding far less Chipmunky in concert than they did on either their multi-mega-platinum breakthrough album, Middle of Nowhere, or their recently re-issued early singles collection Three Car Garage.

Midway through their set Friday, Hanson recreated those early garage days by dismissing their three supporting players and playing a half-a-dozen semi-unplugged style songs while all piled up on top of each other and their instruments at the front of the stage. It was during that mid-show mini-set that they finally won me over completely as Zac laid down some great rock-steady Ringo beats, Isaac played a series of credible Neil Young-style one-string guitar solos and Taylor did the best young Stevie Winwood impressions imaginable as he throttled his wheezy organ and sang sweet soul as well as any skinny white kid’s ever gonna sing it.

After Isaac took a solo turn on a sweet piano ballad, Hanson’s hired hands returned to the stage and the fully-fortified six-piece band ripped through another dozen tunes, including an impressive interpretation of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and (of course) that most infectious and audience-lathering of singles, “MMMBop.” And despite their tender years, less-than-muscular builds and generally too-nice demeanors, the brothers Hanson played extremely hard and loud throughout their set, which was probably necessary given the volume of the audience as their shrieks collectively coalesced into a sound akin to what you might experience if you had all of your teeth drilled at once.

At the show’s sonic crescendo, Katelin tapped me on the arm, looked up with a marvelously wide-eyed expression and said “Dad, something’s making my chest feel all funny inside!” I told her I felt that way too, although I didn’t divulge whether it was because of Hanson’s ferocious beat or because I was just simply moved at seeing kids young enough to be my own living and playing what I can only write about. Remind me why it is that I’m supposed to be in a position to look down my nose at acts like this one?

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