Will Hoge began the final night of his 2009 tour by sitting in a chair at the front of the stage, playing acoustic guitar. By show’s end Saturday night at Radio Radio, he was in full Pete Townshend windmill, testifying frontman mode. He was sweating, screaming and generally doing what Will Hoge does in a live setting: channeling his inner Petty and Springsteen to create Memphis via Nashville soulful rock and roll. And damn, if he isn’t about the best at what he does.
Ambling on stage in a white dress shirt, back vest, and black tie with an unbuttoned collar, Hoge dotted his 2 hour, 10-minute, 28-song show with songs from his five studio albums, leaning most heavily on his first (“Carousel”) and his latest (“the Wreckage”). Opening with the title cut to the new record – it served as a metaphorical reminder of the nearly year-long battle Hoge fought to recover from a serious scooter accident in August 2008, suffered on his way home from a studio session during the recording of the album.
While the sold-out show (a sign was posted on the front door of Radio Radio just before 8:30pm) pushed showgoers together and created a palpable energy of expectation, Hoge’s initial two songs, played seated, had much of the audience struggling to see the singer and dive into the moment. His voice is gritty, blue-eyed soul when he slows his music down, and his plaintive, tough yet-sensitive lyrics shine.
But with “Highway Wings” from the new record, Hoge stood up, the audience energy came with it, and the rock and roll began. The three song-suite, featuring the ultra-hooky “Secondhand Heart” and the rocker “She Don’t Care”, played to Hoge’s strengths: Petty-esque, anthemic pop/rock, dirtied up with loud Fender Telecaster rhythm and a band that fits nicely and loudly into the mix.
The sound at Radio Radio is always some of the best for any venue in the city, and this night was no exception, treating the audience to clean, crisp instrument separation: just the right thump of Adam Beard’s bass and Sigurdur Birkis’s drums (and they may be the best rhythm section I have seen in 2009), with dueling, jagged guitars, and vocals that rode just atop the mix. Nearly perfect.
Hoge and his band built energy in five or six song bursts, starting with an acoustic song or two before heating up the room with the electric guitars. As the band rocked Hoge would hold his blond Tele above his head, and lean backwards and sideways into the microphone to sing a lyric.
He mentioned how nice it was to have an audience that knew the words, and responded by playing “Heartbreak Avenue”, a song he said the band rarely tries, pulled from the “Carousel” album. “Favorite Waste of Time” had a Smithereens crunch to it, while “Better Off (Now that You’re Gone)” from his underappreciated “Blackbird on a Lonely Wire” album showcased the band’s ability to take a sugary rock song and infuse it with off-the-beaten-Nashville-path twang. Halfway through the show, it was evident Hoge was back. Sure, he sat a few times, either to rest or for effect. Either way was OK, because when he did stand, strap on the electric guitar, and rock, that’s the Will Hoge experience that most seemed to relish.
And you have to be proud of Indy to pack 500 or so into a club for a band whose music doesn’t fit neatly onto the radio in 2009. It’s a shame, a sham, and a pity; Hoge is the guy delivers energy and connection with his rock music, not to mention some great fuckin’ lyrics on top of the guitar snarls and snare snaps.
The staccato riffs of “Your Fool” revved the song and audience up, and the current radio song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” proved to be anthemic, as expected, singing about the powers of ambition filtered through the radio of a kid. It began a sweep into the back half of the show that found the audience finding their voice, and singing with Hoge.
The crowd knew and sang with “Ms. Williams”, the Elvis Costello-ish “Hard to Love” and laughed along with a story of him breaking into one of the band’s two hotel rooms to find the guitar and bass players on the web, watching video’s of 80’s heavy metal band the Scorpions..
Ending the set by sitting at the piano for “Too Late Too Soon”, Hoge and the band soon came back for a nine-song, end of tour blowout encore, channeling the Georgia Satellites, Todd Snider, The Faces and The Who as they sweated their way through “Just Like Me,” , Long Gone” and a beautiful “Highway’s Home” featuring guitarist Devin Malone on pedal steel.
Near the end. Hoge said the band was going to do a “social experiment” and took them into the back of the room, with only acoustic instruments, and sang and played unamplified, quieting the crowd with harmonies, before he jumped back on stage to perform a sublime, gospel-influenced, “Washed by the Water”. It found Malone moving over to play the keyboard, and eerily emulating a church organ. The audience sang the chorus back to Hoge as the singer waved and walked off the stage.
Will Hoge’s ability to rock and roll with aplomb and walk away with a big smile was a far cry from the days following his accident, after a van driver failed to yield and Hoge smashed into the side of the vehicle. He broke numerous ribs, his sternum, leg, knee cap, shoulder blades, and required more than 100 stitches. So it’s quite a distance traveled for Hoge. Just only once did he quickly mention how “tough it had been” before he fell back into his show, performing like he was glad to be back.
Great, up-close video from the show – November 21, 2009 at Radio Radio