Breaking into Chicago isn’t easy. It’s a tough thing to move up from having a handful of people attend a show, to packing a room like Martyrs’. Over the past few years I’ve watched a whole bunch of bands tour through here, each time hoping their audience would grow. Let’s just say that the success has been wildly varied. When it comes to Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a bit of a struggle. They are obviously one of my absolute favorite regional bands and they sell out a number of venues in nearly all the Midwestern states. But for whatever reason, they haven’t played to any packed houses as a headliner in Chicago. Now, I’d also be lying if I described this night’s show as ‘packed,’ but this was definitely the biggest step in the right direction yet, with a great crowd — especially for a Wednesday night — that was loose & fired up for Hippo.
Hometown boys Digeometric held down the opening spot for Hippo this time around. This is a band I’ve gotten to watch basically since their inception. There have been some ups and downs, a few uninspiring experiences mixed in with glimmers of potential. On this night, they put together easily the best set I’ve ever heard from them. Kenny Pecho has grown into a larger role, featuring some interesting basslines that form their backbone of their groove. And when both Alex Francois and Marty Gierczyk have a saxophone in their hands, this is one incredibly funky outfit, especially when they threw down a cover of the classic funk jam “Pick Up The Pieces” by Average White Band. This set left me feeling a lot more enthusiastic about Digeometric.
It didn’t take very long for Hippo to get the fire roaring. This early-set version of “Stoked On Razaki” was fierce. Russ Olmsted tore off on a serious shred session, completely balls-to-the-wall, which was in stark contrast to the last “Razaki” I saw from them (at Jammin On The Wolf) which was much more laidback. This jam got everyone in the room locked in and immediately established that this was gonna be a different kind of Chicago show. Then they busted out a monster of a sandwich with “Medicine > Run Rabbit Run > Welcome To The Machine > Medicine” that completely took the show to another level. The segue into and build up for “Machine” was fantastic, and the song itself was greatly appreciated by the audience, as we collectively kind of got into the show another notch higher. But then everything got harsh, as “Machine” slipped away and Dave Sanders owned the room with that unsettling tumult of shearing synths that marks the transition back into “Medicine.” The shift in mood in this song goes from completely grating to gentle lullaby in the blink of an eye, a remarkable texture gradient that reminds me a little bit of Phish (gasp!).
They reached the end of their setlist with a cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” complete with a Joe Phillion percussion slight of hand, mixing a half time rhythm in all sly-like, pushing an individuality on a song everyone knew. There wasn’t one single butt in a chair by this point; Hippo had the entire place dancing. So setlist be damned! This was easily the biggest crowd Hippo had played to in Chicago yet (as the primary act). They had to keep on rolling and ended up playing something between an encore and a second set, much to the delight of everyone in the room. A pair of older songs, “Cheshire Cat” and “Head In The Trees” led the way, with Phillion stepping up on a rare drum solo during “Cheshire.” “Metaphorical Pipe” painted the prog-rock energy of their most recently penned material before they ended with the classic, stick-it-to-Chicago cherry on top. Naturally, with the Tigers taking over 1st place in the AL Central, Dave Sanders felt the need to rub it in, gleefully opining about the baseball genius of Justin Verlander before tearing the cover off their gnarly instrumental tune “Verlander.” Being a Tigers fan myself (*ducks*), this was the perfect way to end Hippo’s best Chicago show to date. Slowly but surely the fans here are growing, Hippo is finally breaking into Chicago in a serious way.