Ten years after hearing the ubiquitous “MMMBop” here, there, and everywhere, I never imagined I’d attend a Hanson concert, let alone write articles about the band. Unlike many “MMMBop” fans (and Hanson), I was an adult in 1997. After the song’s radio play petered out, so did my interest.
For the last 10 years, however, the brothers haven’t skipped a beat. Last month, I discovered the group still existed and caught up with what they’ve been doing since 1997. Guitarist Isaac Hanson, 26, keyboardist Taylor Hanson, 24, and drummer Zac Hanson, 21, got out of their contract with former label Island/Def Jam Records a few years ago after a harrowing struggle over creative differences, and hit the ground running.
In 2004, Hanson released Underneath on its own independent label, 3CG Records, and the album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s independent sales chart. The group started touring for its fourth studio album, The Walk, earlier this month. I’d heard Hanson’s live performances were must-see events. I decided to attend the September 16 show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., to find out if the hype was true.
A Brooklyn-based, Beatles-sounding indie quartet called Locksley opened the show and warmed up an already Hanson-ready crowd with a few songs, including a lively rendition of The Beatles’s “I Saw Her Standing There.” Locksley’s appealingly unpolished sound, along with the lead singer’s pleasantly raw vocals, were just enough to whet the appetite for the main course.
As the opening act exited the stage, Locksley’s lead singer shouted, “Stick around for Hanson!” And the estrogen-rich audience went crazy. Hanson didn’t take the stage as quickly as expected, but the anticipation was delicious. As “The Walk Tour” banner rose behind the drum set, the crowd’s mood changed perceptibly.
The seemingly long wait was a fading memory as Isaac, Taylor, and Zac walked on stage to high-pitched screams and yells. They opened the show with charity single “Great Divide,” the proceeds of which go toward AIDS research in South Africa.
Energized by the singing-along crowd, Hanson segued into oldies-but-sweeties like “If Only,” “Penny & Me,” “Crazy Beautiful,” “Strong Enough to Break,” and “Hey,” and new songs from The Walk like “Blue Sky,” “Something Going Round,” and “Running Man.” Hanson covered The Police’s “Hole in My Life” and Three Dog Night’s “Never Been To Spain.” Conspicuously absent from the D.C. set list were gorgeous “Georgia” and “Tearing It Down.”
But Hanson played my favorite, “Been There Before,” a bluesy/rock shout-out to rock ‘n’ roll legends. Taylor’s soulful tenor tones enrich the tune’s simply elegant chorus (“Tell me does it move you, does it soothe you, does it fill your heart and soul with the roots of rock and roll…”)
As the band played through a 20+ set list crammed into about 90 minutes, all I kept thinking was how good the vocals and music sounded: clear, crisp, and loud. The brothers moved downstage to play acoustic versions of a few songs, including “MMMBop.” Acoustic “Go,” a ballad about a relationship gone bad, is much better than the album version. Zac sings lead on this song, and his clean falsetto and acoustic drumming were pure gold.
Hanson’s trademark three-part harmony is easy on the ears. Naturally, the brothers’ vocal styles have changed through the years, especially Zac’s. In 1997, he was the hyper, long-haired, 11-year-old on drums. These days, he’s the mellowed man on drums, with a surprisingly strong and sensuous voice. Zac told me there’s more lead-switching on The Walk than on other albums, mainly because he has more to contribute now that he’s older. He sings lead on almost half the album’s tracks.
Taylor, once de facto lead, carried most of the songs at the show, and Isaac, who has a smooth and soothing singing voice, performed two solo numbers while the rest were off-stage. Hanson ended the show with fan favorite, “Rock N Roll Razorblade.”
Some bands sound horrible live, but the Hansons are in top form, especially when they go acoustic. Yes, the hype is true. Live Hanson is a must-see event. The Walk tour runs through the beginning of November.
After the show, I talked to Isaac, Taylor, and Zac about their pre-concert charity walks. In addition to donating proceeds of “Great Divide” toward fighting AIDS, Hanson partnered with TOMS Shoes to donate shoes to children in Africa. For each pair you buy, TOMS Shoes will give a pair to a deserving child.
To help publicize their charity efforts, the brothers are urging fans to join them on a one-mile walk around 3:00 p.m. before each show. Fans can buy shoes at the venue or order online through Hanson.net.
I asked the brothers why they decided to walk barefoot through these urban streets.
“The whole idea of the walk was to try to find a way to unify our fans and put the message out by doing something simple,” Taylor said. The symbolism of doing the walks barefoot is a variation on “walking a mile in someone’s shoes.”
“Doesn’t it hurt, though?” I asked.
“That’s partly the point,” Zac said. “Tay stepped on a piece of glass the other day. And you go, wow, if there’s actually an element of fear to not having a pair of shoes…” Walking barefoot drives home the message: many children in Africa are so impoverished, they don’t have basic necessities like shoes.
“A pair of shoes might not save the world,” Taylor admitted, “but we want to take people from knowing about something to…tangible action. We’ve used our tools. We’ve used music. We’ve used the shoes. Maybe somebody else uses their time.”
Hanson is returning to Africa in November with TOMS Shoes for the shoe drop. Taylor said the charity single and the walks are small efforts, but they’re something. Hanson and other indie artists have the freedom to use their pedestal to encourage passion and a connection with fans, and also use that pedestal to do something good.
Isaac added, “[Doing the walks] was also a way to take this passion that we’re so lucky to have been a part of with our fans, to strengthen it in a way and give it a tangible focus. We may not change the world, but it’s one step in the right direction.”
See related article, Hanson takes ‘The Walk’ to independence.
Concert photo by Claire