From the band’s very first address to the audience, it was clear the Hop Along show at the Belmont last Saturday would be a relaxed evening with hearts warmed by great music and charming and humorous band members. Throughout the evening, banter between spectators and band would blur the lines between the two for an intimate show appropriate of the Belmont’s shoebox performance space.
Before this, Washington, D.C.-based Bat Fangs warmed up the stage, announcing their provenance via the bassist’s Capitals tee and a brief introduction from singer/guitarist Betsy Wright. Wright and drummer Laura King formed the band after bouncing around a few other groups, and their experience oozed out of their ripping guitar riffs and flourishing tom hits. As if their stage presence didn’t scream of enough rock n’ roll cool, they introduced the song “Bad Astrology” by yelling out, “was anyone here just born bad?” It took a moment for the audience to respond, probably because they first assumed it was a rhetorical question meant for the band members themselves. The answer was a clear “yes.”
Hop Along took advantage of the sizzle left by Bat Fangs’ riot grrrl torch and immediately launched into the lead single, “How Simple,” off their album released earlier this year, Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Onlookers lining the front of the stage and pockets of them throughout the venue bounced and hooted along to the contagious melody of the refrain, reflecting the more optimistic half of the lyrics, “Don’t worry we will both find out/ Just not together.” The set that followed would include most of the 9 songs from the short-but-sweet track-list. Origin-indicating shirts seemed to be a motif of the night, with a member wearing a Modern Baseball shirt, this time referencing a fellow band from Philly.
Front-woman Frances Quinlan broke the ice by thanking the crowd for coming out on their “only Saturday of the week,” adding that, “it’s just bazonkers.” Over the chuckling crowd-members, she ironically added, “yeah, I’m a wordsmith.” Though meant in jest, one of the band’s greatest strengths is Quinlan’s songwriting. She excels in stringing together monologues that put the listener in the shoes of characters imagined, observed, or of her own in ways that are still deeply relatable even through layers of idiosyncratic imagery.
The band then took a brief detour through their past discography with “Kids On The Boardwalk” from 2012’s Get Disowned and “Texas Funeral” from 2015’s Painted Shut. By the time the irresistible rhythm guitar of newer song “Somewhere A Judge” rung out, anyone in attendance not previously unabashedly crying out memorized lyrics would have understood their excitement. Indeed, successfully singing along with Quinlan and coming at all close to replicating the often unexpected turns in melody and her many vocal inflections should definitely be considered a feat. Quinlan’s voice has the ability to take on as many identities as the diverse assortment of those described in her lyrical narratives, from understated whisper to disinhibited howl and somehow, in combination of both, a throaty yelp full of simultaneous force and restraint.
“What’s the Montreal version of a Waffle House?,” Quinlan asked, foreshadowing the next song, “I Saw My Twin,” about Quinlan spotting her doppelgänger in a West Virginia location of the restaurant chain (the crowd’s decided equivalent: “La Belle Province”). Afterwards, Mark Quinlan, the band’s drummer and Frances’ brother, lightened the topic of lives that could have been and the thin veil of celebrity by joking, “just about 420 songs left.” In response, a member of an enthusiastic group in the crowd that had previously screamed out an open invitation to their address after the show, yelled in ecstatic recognition, “the weed number!” The tone of the show became serious yet again as Frances started off “Look of Love” as she does in the recording, with just her voice and her acoustic guitar. Lyrics containing the album’s title wove a story about a guilt-ridden childhood experience in which her wish that a disliked neighborhood dog would stop barking at her is fulfilled by a car accident. Though Quinlan had warned the audience of melancholy subject matter just prior, the song ended in an uplifting reflection on the beauty in life after death upon returning the dog’s grave and seeing birds feeding on the garden over it.
The thematic intensity continued, this time taking a turn for the biblical with “What the Writer Meant” and “Not Abel.” Hop Along’s latest work differs from their previous efforts with the addition of strings either bowed or plucked in the background of most of the album, including these songs. Understandably, this feature was not translated to their tour, but the absence of the arrangements was barely noticeable with Quinlan’s poignant lyricisms and the band’s camaraderie that both made their playing seamless and the audience feeling like a part of the family.
With this atmosphere in mind, I almost expected Hop Along to make light of the traditional encore formalities and perhaps continue straight into the end of their set after a wisecrack about not leaving the stage. Though in the end they went through the motions, they promised to return as soon as possible after treating fans to old favorites “Well-Dressed,” “The Knock,” and “Tibetan Pop Stars.” I have no doubt they’ll have an even greater troupe of loyal music lovers waiting when that happens.
~review by Dylan Lai