August 9, 2018

String Theory: A First Impression

The Spoiler Debate

Disclaimer: I'm sure it's obvious, but if you're still avoiding String Theory spoilers, stop reading now. This blog is going to be full of them, and it goes a bit more in depth than just the setlist titles.

The whole concept of posting ST spoilers on social media has been a mildly heated topic ever since Zac released the full setlist on just before the first show in Columbus. For the record, I've always hated spoilers for two reasons: 1. It takes away the excitement I get out of the element of surprise, and 2. Sometimes the spoiled content doesn’t happen, and that just leads to disappointment. It's like being told you're getting a new car for your birthday next month. You get to be really excited on that random day a month early, and you'll still be excited on the day you actually get the car, but you never get to live that moment of waking up to an unexpected brand new car. The excitement you'll feel on your birthday is only a fraction of what it would've been if you didn't know in advance. Or God forbid you wake up on your birthday and there’s no car in the driveway (*ahem* Zac mentioning “Bridges of Stone” in a post about String Theory).

The fact that each setlist varies and virtually any song can show up has always been part of the draw for me to attend multiple Hanson shows. For a tour that is guaranteed to be the same setlist every night, I guess that’s even more of a reason to try to protect my first experience with it. I knew I’d only get one shot to be surprised, and I really would’ve preferred that moment to happen while grinning ear to ear in a balcony watching it all go down vs. casually perusing Twitter while getting ready for work and scrolling past a glaring “OMG BREAKTOWN!” tweet that I can’t unsee. 

Consider it a personal preference and one I know I can't enforce, but it didn't stop me from trying to at least protect myself. I ended up knowing over half of the setlist by the time I was at my first show anyway, but that’s life. Kudos to anyone who makes it to their own show spoiler-free. If you’re still trying to steer clear now that the tour is on, 1. I don't know why you're reading this, and 2. Good luck. You might as well get rid of the internet.

The Show

Seeing the String Theory tour is probably the most excited I have been for a show since my first few times seeing Hanson over a decade ago. I'm always excited to go to shows, but it's a different kind of excitement after you've been to so many. You anticipate the happy familiarity and the tiny moments of surprise and change that come with each show, but the novelty factor is pretty much gone. With this tour, I got to anticipate something new and different and it was a refreshing feeling that reminded me of how I felt when everything Hanson was new and exciting. I'd hazard a guess that Hanson can relate.

I felt like an emotional sap the minute I walked onto the floor in Heinz Hall and saw the orchestra setup with Hanson's instruments in front. I don't think I stopped grinning for most of the night. "Reaching for the Sky" was a beautiful introduction to the show. "Siren Call" with all three Hansons on drums gave me chills, and the orchestra made it sound so full and haunting. "Me, Myself and I" was so much more than the clip we were played at Hanson Day, and I think having each brother sing a verse was a genius way to add to the story. The orchestra added a beautiful layer to each piece of music we got to experience. I only wish it had been a bit louder and easier to hear with Hanson's instruments at times.

"Something Going Round" brought an interesting difference between the two shows I saw in Pittsburgh and Vienna. On a regular tour, Hanson cuts the music and singing just in time to let the crowd ring out singing the final word alone. They end it with "You need that something--" silence, just the crowd "--now." I love that moment live. For both String Theory shows, the crowd sang along as usual for the "When the sun goes down, it's here waiting" part. Then Taylor sang the final "Well I've got this something" and did an exaggerated cut gesture with his arms, abruptly ending everything. In, Pittsburgh, this motion was followed with an eerie almost "loud" and powerful silence. It gave the song a strong ending where you can't help but feel the major difference between the full orchestra sound immediately followed by complete silence. In Vienna, his "cut" gesture ending all of the music was followed not by silence, but by a loud fan chorus singing the implied final line proudly and without hesitation: "I've got this something, that's been going round." It was kind of a magical moment and one I'm not sure was supposed to happen. They all grinned so big, and Zac even seemed to be laughing. We either finally got something right that didn't work in Pittsburgh, or we did something so unexpected that it came out epic. I suspect the song was meant to end on the silent note we got in Pittsburgh, but it made for an unforgettable moment either way. It's also a great reminder that no two shows are ever the same, even when they're supposed to be.

"Broken Angel" was probably my one true surprise in the setlist after a month of spoilers jumping out at me and was the source of the only excited butterflies I felt all night. "Breaktown" was breathtaking whether you knew it was coming or not, though I have to say Taylor gave kind of a mischievous grin right before starting it in Pittsburgh, and it got zero crowd reaction when they started the opening notes. I can't imagine the number of gasps it would've gotten if most of the crowd hadn't known it was coming. Hanson gave the invitation to get up and dance during "I Was Born" in Pittsburgh, and a song earlier during "No Rest for the Weary" in Vienna. I absolutely loved the final four songs together and selfishly wish "Feeling Alive" had been included somewhere with them as well. "Tonight" was such a powerful ending to the show, and I don't think they could've picked a better final song. I think it's an absolutely necessary "end" to the story they've created and lived.

ETA 8/13/18- I knew "Battlecry" sounded familiar when I heard it, but I brushed it off as having that "Hanson sound" that is always going to feel familiar. It just hit me today that it is the same song Everybody Else released on their album Wanderlust back in 2011, and it must have been a Fools' Banquet collaboration between both bands. This may be old news to anyone who hasn't attempted to live under a spoiler-free rock for a month, but my mind was blown for a moment. I guess unexpectedly hearing it years later with a different band and an orchestra makes a two week delayed reaction understandable.

The Story

I don't feel like I can fully grasp the story until I get the lyric book and can really look at the lyrics of the new songs that were written with String Theory in mind side by side with the rest. Don't be surprised if there's a future blog post with a fuller analysis. But even without all of the lyrics, I think it's obvious that the story they're telling is their own journey.

The first half is the story of a band starting up, dreaming big ("Reaching For The Sky"), having success ("MMMBop" & "Where's the Love"), and then ultimately coming up against an obstacle that could be their end ("Siren Call," "Got a Hold On Me," "Me, Myself & I"). If we didn't know the story already, the end of the first half might be a cliffhanger, or a crossroads moment where they can choose to keep going or say goodbye. I suspect the obstacle at the end of the first half is the struggle they went through with deciding to break from their record label, but it could just as easily apply to any or every problem they've faced. I'm sure there have been more than we know.

Having each brother sing a verse alone on "Me, Myself and I" was a great way to introduce the feeling of isolation and self-doubt and juxtapose it with the chorus that brings all three together. Though it sounds like a song about ending a relationship, I've always thought there's room for it to be about a band parting ways. The relationship isn't necessarily a romantic one, though they're expertly vague as always. I think for the purposes of String Theory, it's a song about making a hard choice that has the power to shape the band's future. Whatever the conflict, I'm glad Hanson chose onward.

Then they're back on track in part two, still "Reaching for the Sky" and pressing on with renewed determination as seen in "This Time Around" and "You Can't Stop Us." But the second half isn't just one uplifting song after another building to a final happy climax; "Broken Angel," "What Are We Fighting For," and "Breaktown" all serve to bring a little bit of that conflict back. Personally, I think it could allude to their issues during the making of Anthem that led to some talk of the band potentially breaking up. More than any individual breaking point though, it could be about any and every moment they stop and question themselves, whether it happened once in their career or once a day forever. But instead of choosing to wallow in the misery of Breaktown, they persevered ("No Rest For The Weary"), and once again found that spark inside and let it burn into something strong and uplifting with "I Was Born." They end with the positive but powerfully ambiguous note of "Tonight," and I'm again left looking back to my interpretation of that song as being the story of a band that almost broke up. The truth is they might always be on that ledge, but I don't think "Tonight" is there to add a sense of finality or closure. I think it's there as a reminder that every day takes work, and every moment is a conscious choice to either keep pushing forward or to take a step back, and that none of it should be taken for granted. For now, they're still searching for "The Sound of Light," and that's enough to tell me that they still have that hunger and passion to keep creating and doing great things. The mere existence of String Theory is proof enough of that.

I love "Tonight" the most because it mirrors String Theory as a whole. They literally ended a show that tells Hanson's story of struggle and success through their past songs with a song that does the exact same thing. The symmetry is perfect.

The Crowd

I saw several debates between fans before these shows about how everyone should behave for String Theory. People worried about everything from how to dress and when to stand to whether or not it was okay to sing along. I was curious too, but the arguing felt pointless because no matter what side anyone fell on or how passionate they felt, it was all speculation. I figured we'd just have to wait for the first few shows to happen to get a sense for what felt right for this tour, and even then it's down to personal preference. Nobody is going to hand us a set of concert rules with punishments for violators. It's up to all of us to do what we think is right and considerate, and that's something we're never actually going to agree about.

Now that I've been to two shows in vastly different settings, I'm not sure I'm any closer to an answer. The attire ranged from home-made fan shirts to little black dresses and formalwear. As a whole, people were more dressed up for Pittsburgh than Vienna, but that's to be expected when one venue has chandeliers in the bathroom and the other sells bug spray. In any case, wear what you're comfortable in because there's no actual dress code for these shows, and whether you wear a formal dress or jeans and a t-shirt, you won't be the only one.

As for the standing vs. sitting etiquette, I think the jury is still out, and I won't be surprised if it becomes a hot topic for the duration of the tour. There was more sitting in Pittsburgh and more standing in Vienna. As far as I could tell, most people didn't get up in Pittsburgh until Hanson gave the cue to dance during "I Was Born" near the end of the show. At the Wolf Trap in Vienna, there was a lot more standing and sitting every few songs, and to me it felt more like a chain reaction to the people up front standing when they felt like it and everyone behind them standing so they could see moreso than everyone as a whole collectively standing at the "right" time. The only time I heard Hanson comment on it one way or another was Zac saying we "now have permission to dance" at the start of "No Rest For the Weary." I'm sure we all have varying perspectives on this, and we're probably all a little bit right and wrong. Personally, I'm fine sitting and listening unless the person in front of me stands to block my view or Hanson tells us to get up and dance. As long as you're not dancing into someone else's space or being the one person standing up blocking thirty rows of seated people who didn't follow your lead, you're probably fine.

There were several songs where it made complete sense to sing along loudly, and those moments were obvious. The crowd sing-a-long part of "Something Going Round." The "oohs" in "Siren Call." Most of "Tonight." But there were also a few quieter moments where people around me were still singing loudly enough to drown out the orchestra. Like I said before, there were times when Hanson's parts drowned out the quieter orchestra, probably because they're used to playing loud and not having to worry about it at a regular show. I think the same goes for fans singing. Yes, sing along quietly the whole time if you want, but it's not your normal Hanson show so maybe bring the volume down from eleven and wait to belt it out when Hanson gives you the cue. Besides, if you're singing too loudly for me to hear the orchestra, I know you can't hear it either. And man, there were so many breathtaking sounds to miss.

The Verdict

It's a beautiful portrayal of my favorite band and their life's work. It's not perfect, and despite boasting an identical set, it will probably have a slightly different vibe unique to each orchestra they invite to share the stage. For someone that lives for live performances, I oddly can't wait to get my hands on the studio album so I can hear and replay all of the subtleties of the orchestra that are quickly lost in a moment where there is so much to take in at once. If you have the opportunity to see it, go. You won't regret it, and odds are you'll sit and watch it with pride and admiration like a parent at your kid's recital. Because however many years ago, you made the choice to attach yourself to this band and call yourself a fan, and their success feels like your success. Spoiler alert: They'll earn a standing ovation and make you proud.