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Hum, The Life and Times, and Dianogah at the Double Door

Jay Ryan's poster for the 1/1/2009 Hum concert

Considering that the only bands I see nowadays—seemingly, at least—are groups that I loved in high school (Polvo, Shudder to Think) that have reformed out of some combination of nostalgia and profit, adding Hum to that list shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Hum’s been doing these semi-reunions every two to three years since they officially went on hiatus with a New Year’s Eve show 12/31/1999. They played Furnacefest in 2003 (with a warm-up show in Champaign) and Rockfest in Champaign in 2005, so the two shows at the Double Door were right on schedule. The surprise, however, is that I was scheduled to be in Chicago for these performances. I had assumed that Hum would only play shows when I was firmly planted in the east coast, whether visiting family or moving there for graduate school. I was initially afraid that I’d missed my opportunity by waffling on the $65 New Year’s Eve show until it had sold out, but the addition of more manageable New Year’s Day show for $20 made my prior hesitation easier. I was going to see Hum for the first time in almost eleven years.

The only other time I saw Hum was at Irving Plaza in New York City in February of 1998 as a seventeen-year-old junior in high school. As we drove to the Double Door, my wife asked me what I thought of that show and I laughed, because it’s impossible to look back at that show with any semblance of a critical mindset. Getting to see my favorite band at seventeen was all shock and awe. Heroic Doses and Swervedriver opened up for Hum and I remember absolutely nothing about their sets. What I remember is the push of the billowing mosh pit, the thrill of hearing those songs live, the ringing in my ears from not wearing earplugs, and seeing Bush’s Gavin Rossdale and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani as we waited outside of the club to meet the band. Tim Lash’s guitar tone? Matt Talbott’s live vocals? Bryan St. Pere’s fills? Beats me.

While I still count them as one of my favorite groups, it’s been years since I’ve listened to Hum almost exclusively. I’ll save the details of my full-blown Hum obsession and its passing for a pending article on You’d Prefer an Astronaut, but the short version is that I still listen to their last three albums from time to time, but not on a daily basis like I did in high school. (Sorry Fillet Show.) As frustrated as I was with the eleven-year wait, it did help my recharge my potential enthusiasm and/or nostalgia for the concert.

The openers for both shows were quite familiar for any Hum fan who kept track of their touring partners. Dianogah’s opening set displayed their progress since 1997’s As Seen From Above. Still channeling largely instrumental double-bass math-rock, Dianogah added some flair with female vocals on a few songs, accompanying guitar or keyboard on others, and a few aggressive songs that presumably were from their newest LP, the nigh-unpronounceable Qhnnnl. I’m tempted to pick that one up to bolster my copies of Battle Champions and the Team Dianogah 2 Swedish single, but I opted to pick up the Bird Machine posters for both evenings from poster guru and Dianogah bassist Jay Ryan.

As excited as I was for seeing Hum, I would have been just as psyched for a Shiner reunion (a group I saw eleven times in six cities, or, in other words, the anti-Hum), but catching Allen Epley’s The Life and Times again was a fine alternative. Their shoegaze-meets-math-rock aesthetic loses some detail in the live setting, but the songs from their forthcoming Tragic Boogie LP (coming out on Arena Rock Records in April) came across well. I missed hearing a few of my favorite songs from Suburban Hymns like “Mea Culpa,” “A Chorus of Crickets,” and “Muscle Cars” this time, but at least they played the excellent “The Sound of the Ground” from the Magician EP. Look for them on tour in the spring when their album comes out.

With a seemingly endless string of Rush songs between sets, I began to wonder if Hum was playing an elaborate joke on the audience. But once the smoke machine started up and the house lights dimmed down to a blue glow, Hum came out to enthusiastic applause and launched into “Isle of the Cheetah.” It didn’t take long for the first coordination hiccup to hit, but once the song’s intro passed and it hit overdrive, they were back on track. Tim Lash’s leads were spot-on in this song and throughout, and he even added some flourishes. Immediately I was struck by how metal the guitar tones sounded, especially Lash’s guitar, but that influence was always present during his tenure in the band. Everything else was as I remembered it: Talbott’s nerdy vocals bursting out with emotion on “The Pod,” Dimpsey’s solid bass lines, and Bryan St. Pere’s forceful drumming. I don’t remember Talbott being quite so funny at the Irving Plaza show, but the numerous Centaur shows I caught during college were as memorable for his stand-up bits as the actual songs.

The set represented their final three albums equally, with “Iron Clad Lou,” “Pewter,” “Shovel,” and “Winder” from Electra 2000, “The Pod,” “Stars,” “Suicide Machine,” “I’d Like Your Hair Long,” and “I Hate It Too” from YPAA, and “Isle of the Cheetah,” “Comin’ Home,” “Ms. Lazarus,” “Afternoon with the Axolotls,” and “Green to Me” from Downward Is Heavenward, plus the unreleased rocker “Inklings.” I was a bit surprised to hear the throat-scraping screams of “Pewter” and “Shovel” in concert, but the encore of “Winder” was an absolute thrill. I could gripe about “Little Dipper,” “Dreamboat,” “Pinch & Roll,” and “Diffuse” being absent from the set list, but the arc of the night worked well, with the main set ending with the extended outro jam on “I Hate It Too” (marred slightly by Bryan St. Pere losing his place for a few bars) and the encore ending with a rock-solid rendition of “I’d Like Your Hair Long.”

The best part of the evening was remembering just how great those songs are, whether it was the thunderous drum salvo that launches “Iron Clad Lou” into gear, the churning bass line of “Winder,” the guitar coloring for the mid-tempo “Suicide Machine,” the quiet intro of “I Hate It Too,” or the Cadillac-selling riff of “Stars.” Talbott’s lyrics are still wonderful, especially on the You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and it’s easy to overlook a few musical missteps along the way with that set list. Unlike some of the other reunited bands that I’ve seen, Hum never went away for long enough to forget the muscle memory of how to perform those songs or to lose the passion for playing them, so they’re essentially the same band put into cryogenic freezing.

It’s still somewhat astonishing that I finally made it to one of these shows. While I’d be thrilled if Hum released new music or at least recorded a studio version of “Inklings” and put it out as a single, the odds of either of those things happening are nil, so I’m glad that I could add something to my lingering super-fandom. I’ll just have to remember to be in Illinois in 2011.