Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A Song to Grieve - June and Everything After

But don't forget the songs

That made you cry

And the songs that saved your life

Yes, you're older now

And you're a clever swine

But they were the only ones who ever stood by you


Sometime last year, when I had yet to experience the kind of monumental pain that comes with loss, I had a conversation on social media with a fellow Hanson fan about one of the band’s best loved songs. The fan said she hoped that Hanson wouldn’t play 'With You In Your Dreams’ at the next concert she was due to attend. She had just lost a parent and was worried that WYIYD was going to make her sad during the concert; in other words, it would be a bit of a mood dampener. A mutual friend jumped in the conversation, agreeing with her. I disagreed with both and a debate ensued: why should artists censor themselves, I argued, and refrain from playing some of their most emotionally-charged, powerful songs? What about songs about breakups then? Should they avoid those too? What about songs about drinking - upsetting tee-totals? Or songs with religious undertones, maybe atheists wouldn’t like those. Where would it stop?

Then my father died, and everything changed. Only then, remembering that conversation, I realised I’d been a total jerk. BTTI was coming up a couple of months later and I suddenly knew what my fellow fan had been talking about: about not wanting to dissolve in a puddle of tears, mascara streaming down your face, in front of another 400 people, not to mention the band. I understood how she didn’t want to be sad for a handful of hard-earned days on a tropical island.

As it happened, they didn’t play ‘that song’ and I survived BTTI unscathed, although there were times when songs that were most definitely not about grief felt like a stab in the heart - like when Isaac decided to play something he’d written at age 14 called ‘A Life Without You’. It was about a teenage breakup (it was an Isaac song, after all) but to me, it was about the life still ahead of me, without my dad.

It was just a song, but for people like us, who live and breathe music every single day, there is always a song that mirrors what you’re going through. Music is like no other art form or medium; it’s way more powerful than a painting, a movie or a novel. People who don’t listen to music - I often wonder, how do they live? What do they find comfort in when their heart is broken? An episode of Big Brother, a re-run of At Home with the Kardashians? 

I can’t help thinking that, deep down, I’m lucky - lucky that I have songs in my life, snippets of auditory magic that have taken me by the hand, walked with me and stayed with me at the worst possible times. If that sounds like a good metaphor, actually that’s not even the case: I had my music with me when, day in, day out, I'd walk to the hospice where my mother, like my father a few months earlier, was spending her last few days. I walked there and back four times a day, twice daily in the ruthless midday heat of northern Italy in June. It was like being catapulted into a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, minus the tumbleweed.

Out in my own private meteorological hell, with nobody to drive me and no public transport, I’d just plug in my headphones and walk. During those walks, I listened to NEEDTOBREATHE over and over, letting their uplifting sound push me along, one foot at a time, for those 1.8 km that felt more like ten. I’d listen to ‘Rise Again’ (‘heaviness is only temporary/the daylight will soon break in) and found solace in ‘Multiplied’ (“May this offering stretch across the skies/And these Halleluiahs be multiplied”) even if I’m not religious. ‘Wasteland’ described the landscape around me but with a light at the end of the tunnel; “Hard Love” encouraged me to grit my teeth and hold on a little longer. And ‘Happiness’ - well, “Happiness” was like stepping into a Star Trek-style holodeck for a couple of minutes and shower in atomic particles of joy.

Strangely, during that time and in the weeks that followed my mother’s death, I hardly listened to Hanson. When I found myself awake at 3 or 4 AM, as my mind insisted in replaying me the movie of the last few days over and over, it wasn’t Hanson lulling me back into some kind of slumber, playing on a low volume through my headphones. It was NTB’s entire catalogue I'd put on shuffle, and eventually doze off to: it was their 'noisy' music with its drum crescendos, duelling banjos and Bear's rich, soulful voice that somehow got me through the night.

It’s not that Hanson’s music wasn’t right - it’s just that I’d found something that fit the moment. The thing is, it doesn’t matter who the singer is: when the rubber ring song appears, you just grab hold of it and hang on for dear life, praying that it will still keep you afloat if you allow yourself to stop treading water for a moment. “Go on,” the song seems to say, “take a breather. I promise I won’t let you drown.”


Music, huh? The things it does to you. It rips your heart into pieces you one moment and heals you the next. It will stir emotions inside you like nothing else, and leave you like the elegantly dressed gentleman in that Friedrich painting, standing on top of a rocky precipice, staring at a foggy landscape. Note how he doesn’t fall. Romantic poets used to call that experience ‘the sublime’ - and frankly, I can’t think of a more fitting description for that moment when music saves your life. 

These days are tough, these days are long

Sometimes it's hard, you carry on
But I hear a voice singing and I know it's true
NEEDTOBREATHE, ‘Happiness’

The Wanderer by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

You can find NEEDTOBREATHE's music on their YouTube channel.
This is a clip of Hanson performing 'With You in Your Dream' in London in 2013. I was at that show so it's extra special to me.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Two Months Later, It's Still Loud - a review of Hanson's 2016 Members EP



Très chic


Okay, I wasn’t too keen on this song when I first listened to it in my hotel room in Tulsa. It sounded a bit weak, and another example of Taylor trying to hit high notes when a lower note would serve the song better. The lyrics didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, either:

Damn good looking/Oh, you make me say/Ooh, la la la

It gets worse:

And your lips are red to tease/And your hair is drawn back tight/But you play it off with ease/While you leave me paralyzed


Those are typical Taylor lyrics: he seems to have a penchant for fictional (we assume) femme fatales who bossy him around at the snap of their perfectly manicured fingers while he makes sex noises and reduces the fan base to jelly in the process. There are several such songs in the Hanson catalogue: ‘Give a Little’, ‘Cut Right Through Me’, ‘Show me the Way’ - and they tend not to be my favourite as I feel that, lyrically speaking, Taylor can do a lot better than that.


Things took a turn for the worse when I visited the I <3 Hanson store and saw the ‘French’ themed merch sporting the lyrics ‘Oh La La La’, complete with Eiffel Tower. Now call me a pedant (please do) but the French interjection is ‘Oh là là’ - two là làs, and accented ones too. If you’re going to have a French reference, at least make sure it’s correct. N’est-ce pas?

And then.

Then something happened. I heard the song live, and somehow, under the Hanson Spell, the silly lyrics didn’t seem so bad. Back in the UK, I put the EP on my iPod and found myself not skipping the song. Fast forward a couple of months and I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘Oh La La La’, despite its botched attempt at French and vapid lyrics is actually a damn good pop song: it’s catchy as hell and makes you want to stand up on your feet and dance around the house as you vacuum the floor. Yes it’s candy floss, but it’s damn fine candy floss nonetheless.




'Stop Me in My Tracks' starts with one of those roaring guitar riffs that you thought you’d last heard back in the 80s. What on earth….? Is this ‘Born to Run’? ‘Summer of ‘69’? Or, on second thoughts, are Hanson doing Matt Wertz doing the ‘80s? The idea is too post-modern for words.
So, whatever. Because here’s the thing: I love this song. It begs to be listened to whilst driving, ideally on a US freeway - although for those of us here in Europe, a more mundane, slow moving, congested motorway will have to do.

Anyway, back to the song, I have to admit that my opinion has been influenced by the review of a fellow fan, Michelle.

In her review, Michelle gives an alternative reading of the lyrics: instead of the predictable song about a girl, she argues that the song is Hanson’s love letter to their fans:

Every time I'm feeling dead inside
You're the one that brings me back

and then:

I don't wanna wake up dead inside
You're the one that makes me
You're the one that makes me feel alive

Or how about this:

You're the one that makes me feel alive
You're the one that makes me
You're the one that stops my heart

Since reading this interpretation of the song, I can’t see it in any other way. Can you?


He's got it (yeah baby he's got it) [photo by HNET]

I’ve found that Taylor’s vocals have been hit-and-miss in the past few years, and have often wondered why he insists in singing in such a high register when his voice sounds a lot richer when he takes it down a notch or two (last year’s collaboration with the Blues Traveler being a case in point).

And then came ‘No Rest for the Weary’, followed by a sigh of relief from me. This is exactly the kind of song that showcases Taylor’s voice at its very best: rich, soulful, full of emotion. It’s the kind of song that you want to play to your infidel friends to show them that the little boy who sang ‘Mmmbop’ grew up and got soul.

Lyrics wise, this is one of Hanson’s most inspired songs in a long time - at least since last year’s 'Grace Unknown'.

There’s evocative, effective words juxtaposition - “I'm a rich blasphemer/And a poor man's saint”; there’s a clever use of referencing to someone who may or may not be Jesus, without being too prescriptive: “Cause I take my cue/From a condemned man /So I break their rules /Whenever I can”

As others have argued, the ‘condemned man’ could equally be someone like Martin Luther King - this is the beauty of Hanson’s lyrics: even if the band has never made a mystery about their Christian background, their songs are always open to interpretation. These guys are too smart to paint themselves into the lyrical corner of Christian rock.


Will someone, for the love of God, give this man something loud?

As an ‘Isaac girl’ you’d expect this to be my favourite song of the EP but sadly this year Taylor stole the first and second spots with two of his leads. I blame the lyrics, which tread perilously close to the line between ‘interesting’ and ‘cliché’. Example:

“I go down to the river of life”. I’m told the river is a biblical reference but Bible or not, the river of life sounds a bit trite for me as a metaphor.

In the corner is a lady in black
For British fans, how can this line not evoke one image and one image only, i.e. the Scottish Widows advert?

Every pint is a picture of home

Again as U.K. fan I have problems with this line: for me, nothing is more mundane than the word ‘pint’. “Anyone fancy a pint?” with all its depressing connotations of after-work drinks is a phrase so ingrained in British popular culture that I find it very hard to swallow it in the context of an emotionally and spiritually charged song such as ‘Something Loud’.

Mercifully, an opportunity for redemption comes in the form of the chorus, which has clearly been written with crowd-singalong in mind:


Give me something stronger (crowd: STRONGER!)
Pour some holy water (WATER!)
Baptize me in fire (you got it!)
Bring me something loud, loud, LOUD! (fist in the air X 3 now!)

With that, despite an overall not entirely successful string of metaphors and ill-fitting brewery-related imagery, Mr Isaac Hanson won me over: yes, I am weak, and I find it hard to resist his vocals when he belts a song out like he does with 'Something Loud'. Also, as one of the lucky people who got to hear the song live in Tulsa, I can attest to the superiority of the song’s live version thanks to the absence of that annoying ingredient of so many Hanson songs: the horns.

Hanson had better play this at BTTI next year, or else.



Even Ulysses couldn't resist a siren's call
When I heard clips of this from 'The Making of Loud' streams, I immediately thought that it sounded a lot like 'Panic in the Streets'. Friends who know about music tell me that it’s because of the synthesiser they used in both songs. Whatever the reason, 'Sirens Call' has a very familiar sound, echoing not only 'Panic' but also last year’s EP track 'What Are We Fighting For' - that kind of mid-tempo, melancholy-laden Zac lead which I am rather indifferent to.


Lyrics-wise, it’s sophisticated enough to talk about sirens as mythological creatures rather than Disney characters. For me, it’s all a little too predictable and reminds me of 'What Are We Fighting For' - one of those songs which have an almost epic theme, asking deep and meaningful questions and saying all the right things like “who’s going to carry the flag” and “who's gonna fight the tide” to then fizzle out into nothing. It’s a song which should deliver a lot more but which ultimately feels hollow.

On the plus side though, I absolutely love the drums in 'Siren Call', which makes me wonder if it’s Taylor actually drumming here or if the clips they posted of him are just for show? Whatever the answer, the relentless drum beat really stands out, and steals the show from the vocals, rescuing the song for me and saving it from the dreaded skip button.

My Final Verdict

Play it Loud

I still regret my overly generous review of last year’s Inside the Box EP, which I would now call a disappointment, with the exception of course of 'Grace Unknown'. I wonder if the band realised that the majority of fans also found 'Inside the Box' below par, because they certainly raised the bar with 'Loud', which I would call a return to form - certainly the best since 'Sound of Light' (which for me, however, remains unrivalled in its position as Hanson’s Best EP of all time).

There’s plenty of energy in this EP to reassure all fans that this band still has it: passion, energy and that certain je ne sais quoi which can only be translated as “Hanson Magic”. In years of drought the pull is weakened by songs that don’t quite manage to steal your heart the way you think they should. Then, when you are about to lose faith, they hit you with something 'Loud'. You hear the silent call from far beyond, and off you go, bewitched, spell-bound, ready to board the next flight to Tulsa, because those pesky brothers have pulled it off once more.
Oh dear. Here we go round again.



Hanson's 2016 EP "Loud" is available to all fanclub members. Sign up here.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Tulsa vs BTTI: a clash of Titans

This is a blog post I’ve been dying to write for a long time.


Over and over, the question ‘should I go to BTTI or Tulsa?’ crops up on the forums and on social media. I have never been able to give an informed answer to that - having only experienced BTTI, now that I have been to Tulsa and witnessed first-hand the events and soaked in the atmosphere, I am finally qualified to answer. So let me give you, in no particular order, my comparison table of Hanson’s biggest yearly events.


The new mural at the back of 3CG



COST (NB: this is from a European fan’s perspective)



BTTI
The cheapest room at BTTI costs $1,625 - (£1,111/€1,461 at today’s ROE). That’s for the 4 days, without taking into account any extra days which you might want to allow yourself to settle in or to do some sightseeing, or if you can only get flights on certain days of the week.


Flights range from £600+ and quite frankly you’re more likely to spend in the region of £7-800 or more (that’s €1,000 +). Once you’re there, however, everything is included other than tips (which are discretionary), spa treatments and excursions. No transport costs, no merch (there’s none available for sale) and limited shopping opportunities unless you’re determined to raid the resort’s gift shop.


In exchange for that cartload of money, however, you get a lot: 3 full Hanson shows, 3 solo shows which so far have only ever happened at BTTI, 2 guest shows (if you’re a fan of the act, you’re in luck), an individual, professionally shot photo with the band, and the opportunity to spend some time with Hanson during the activities. No, you won’t really hang out with the band (and those who say they did are lying - remember, a photo can tell a thousand stories) but the chances are that if you really try, you’ll get to say hello to your favourite brother at least once.

A major selling point of BTTI is the individual photo with the band: Hanson don't offer that at any other event, with even HNET M&Gs taking place in small groups of 5-10 fans. Here you will have plenty of time to dress up, do your hair and make up, grab a Margarita to steady your nerves and get a spot next to your favourite brother, before a professional photographer captures a moment that will keep you going for the rest of the year.


Finally, it’s worth noting that Island Gigs offer a payment plan for BTTI, allowing you to spread the cost of the holiday across 7 months. That makes it a lot easier to pay for it if you don’t have the money upfront and don’t want to incur high credit card interest fees.


TULSA
If you’re a European fan, the general wisdom that Tulsa is a cheaper event compared to BTTI doesn’t really apply. The problem is that you need to get there, and flights to Tulsa cost practically the same as flights to Jamaica (I spent over £800 - roughly $1,200 on both occasions). Hotels in the US are cheaper than in Europe and if you travel The Fanson Way and split a room with 3 other people, accommodation will cost very little. Food and drinks quickly add up but there’s so little time to eat that you’ll probably only eat breakfast and one meal a day. The biggest expenditure will be merch - I wasn’t going to spend any money at the store (‘maybe I’ll buy a t-shirt’) but of course I did, tempted by the favourable rate of exchange and not having to pay shipping and customs fees.


What you get in return for your money is the free concert and State of the Band - half of which is now devoted to the MOEYs. You also get a group picture with the band. Lectures, karaoke and fan club dinners have to be purchased for a small fee, and bowling is the most expensive event as it also includes a t-shirt. There are plenty of opportunities for ‘grab-a-Hanson’ moments, especially during the Hop Jam (but you’ll need to buy a ticket to get into the beer festival) but be aware that Hanson have been known to say no to pictures and autographs.


AND THE WINNER IS…BTTI. Despite the initial heart-attack inducing outlay of money, from a purely financial point of view and once everything is taken into account - the number of concerts and the unique opportunities (such as the individual photo) that it offers - BTTI is without a doubt better value for money for the European fan.


You get what you pay for



HANSON SIGHTINGS (also known as ‘grab-a-Hanson’ moments)




BTTI
If you haven’t been to BTTI, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that Hanson hangs out with fans, sharing cozy moments at the bar, piña colada in hand, discussing music and everything in between: you’ve seen the photos, right? Wrong: those pictures are instant snapshots of aptly snatched ‘grab-a-Hanson’ moments. Outside of the activities, the guys are usually nowhere to be seen. However, the activities do offer an opportunity for ‘interaction’ (for lack of a better word), depending on what’s on offer on any given year. It’s pot luck, but with only 4-500 fans there, the odds are usually in your favour.


TULSA
Over the years, I have seen tons of photos of fans with Hanson taken during the Hanson Day events. This year, as I was there in person, if we exclude the day of the Hop Jam, I only saw Zac at registration and Taylor at the gallery (I didn’t get to speak to them on neither occasions, although Taylor was there, talking to the girls behind me). It’s a case of being in the right place at the right time and having the patience and determination to loiter around all the various ‘hot-spots’ until you spot them. The Hop Jam makes things slightly easier as everything takes place in that street, but as the day gets busier and the crowds get bigger, the guys have been reported to say no to photos and autographs. My overall impression is that the guys are more relaxed on their home turf than they are on a tropical island in the Caribbean. Go figure.


AND THE WINNER IS….I’m going to call it a draw. Whilst the boys are obviously more at ease when they play a home game, the sheer number of fans in Tulsa makes it harder to snatch that precious moment. Therefore, 1-1.
Grab-a-Hanson: BTTI 2016 (Photo by SophiaSmiles)

Grab-a-Hanson: Tulsa 2016 (Photo by Tom Gilbert, Tulsa World)

MUSIC



BTTI


As I said earlier, at BTTI you get 3 Hanson shows and 3 solo sets, as well as 2 guest acts. This year I ended up really enjoying Paul McDonald’s show - I would have paid for that. The Hanson concerts are often themed - you can have a cover show, an acoustic show, one year there was even a Christmas show. There are plenty of opportunities to hear rare and members-only songs, and if you’ve never seen Hanson live, you’ll still get to hear Mmmbop at least once.


European fans note: this is a chance to see Hanson play with the full backing band without having to travel to the US. It’s a totally different type of experience than the ‘trio’ performances we are used to in Europe. I hate to say this but the full band wins.


TULSA


As the event is (technically) free, Tulsa cannot compete with BTTI. There’s one concert only, and Hanson are no longer headlining at the Hop Jam. On the plus side, the atmosphere at the Tulsa show is without a doubt very special concert, especially as the new EP songs are performed for the first time or, like this year, new songs are being recorded live. However, it’s still only one single concert and you’ll come out of the venue wanting more.


AND THE WINNER IS...BTTI - especially if you’re an overseas fan who doesn’t get to see the band very often.



BTTI 2016: Photo by Hanson Italian Fanpage

ACTIVITIES



BTTI


Depending on what the resort offers, the activities at BTTI are not of the highbrow, intellectual kind. Expect to make bracelets, pottery, or tie-dye (and ruin) your BTTI shirt in the company of Hanson. Some activities have had more fan involvement than others, and as a general rule, Zac is usually good at mingling with fans during his sessions, while Taylor (at least this year) looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Isaac’s activity was a trivia and there was no mingling whatsoever. If you’re good with crafts then you’ll probably enjoy making things as well as getting close to the guys, but if, like me, you’re absolutely hopeless at anything that you make with your hands, then you might find the activities a bit lame.


TULSA


Since 2014, Tulsa’s Hanson Day has offered lectures with each brother. Topics have ranged from photography to songwriting, with Zac writing a Digital Pants-style song on stage for the last 3 years. I think it’s fair to say that Isaac’s lecture this year (‘You Matter!!!’) - a kind of self-help, motivational talk in which Isaac channeled his inner Tony Robbins - blew everyone away in one way or another: some people, myself included, loved it, others walked out of the Brady Theatre saucer-eyed, with a ‘wtf’ expression on their faces.

AND THE WINNER IS…Tulsa. Give me a long, rambling lecture anytime instead of making an abomination of a bracelet that I’ll never wear, or have me paint a clay duck that even Zac Hanson is too embarrassed to look at.

Isaac's Lecture at Tulsa 2016



FUN WITH FRIENDS



BTTI


Some people attend BTTI with a friend while some other fans will find a ‘random’ roommate via personal recommendation or the FB BTTI Roommate Group. Sometimes your roommate might be from a different country and not speak much English (that’s what happened to a friend of mine). It’s easy to make new friends but you’ll need to be comfortable with talking to strangers and stepping out of your comfort zone, as a lot of people tend to stick to their own little groups. My advice would be to ‘connect’ with other fans prior to getting to BTTI (there are several BTTI-themed FB groups) so that you vaguely know people beforehand. And if you’re rooming with a complete stranger, try to take up some ‘references’ first (the fanson grapevine is better than LinkedIn).


As for having fun with your existing friends - it doesn’t get much better than lying by the poolside, discussing the previous night’s concert in total chill-mode, cocktail in hand, with no care in the world. Yes, it’s that good.


TULSA


I found Tulsa to better lend itself to making impromptu friendships - I don’t know if it’s because there’s more time spent queuing for things, or if the more chaotic nature of the event causes people to become separated from their group and therefore in need of company. There’s also the fact that a lot of people share rooms with 3 others (sometimes more!) so inevitably for one friend, you’ll meet potentially 3 new people. This could be either a great thing for an extrovert, or a shy person’s nightmare. You decide.

The Dance Party and Karaoke are great opportunities to socialise with your friends outside the strictly ‘Hansonised’ events, and the abundance of bars in the immediate vicinity of the Hanson Day venues mean that you’ll never be too far away from alcohol (if you’re teetotal, don’t worry: there’s always OJ).


AND THE WINNER IS....I’m calling it a draw. Whichever of the two you end up attending, you’ll likely meet a lot of new people, although you’ll also probably come back worn out by all that constant socialising and yearn for a week’s retreat in the quiet of a Benedectine monastery.


Finally met blogger Miranda (The Good Groupie) and Kelly ('nerd out')
Photo by Miranda


THE FINAL WORD



Although technically BTTI scored 2 wins vs Tulsa’s single win, I’m reluctant to call it a winner. Firstly, the cost implications are very different for European fans compared to those who live in North America. Secondly, the two events are so different in nature that they complement each other. In an ideal world, I’d wholly recommend trying both.


Whichever you choose, you’ll have no regrets. So stop looking at that new handbag, or that pair of designer shoes. You don’t need expensive things which will eventually break and become useless. As Sven Lapiner of Island Gigs said to me:


“They say life experiences are much more valuable than material things. You can't take material things with you but memories in your head will always remain there.”


Join the Hanson fanclub here.
Rooms are still available for BTTI 2016 - all information can be found here.