Onstage, Hem referred to their show with the Boston Pops as a 'dream collaboration.' How incredibly appropriate.
The sound of an orchestra tuning their instruments brings back many memories for me. Every day of high school (and many days of elementary & junior high) began with music, so the pleasure of that cacophony is deeply ingrained into my head. I remember vividly standing with the other bassists... here at Symphony Hall, there were six bassists, all with extender keys on their instruments. I was fortunate enough to have had a seat at a table in the fifth row, center orchestra, so I could clearly see nearly everything that transpired onstage.
Keith Lockhart, the lively conductor of the Pops, emerged at a few minutes past eight to a warm round of applause. Without a word, he launched the orchestra into a medley of songs from West Side Story, replete with hand snaps and brash brass. It was evident that all the players were enjoying themselves, but I was especially entertained by the percussionists. There were three of them darting about in the back of the orchestra playing everything from chimes to congas, and they were obviously having a blast. (side note: i've often wondered how percussionists learn their art... "okay class, welcome to advanced triangle. this is for people who have completed their triangle 101 class, anyone else who has not yet mastered the instrument please leave."... or so i imagine)
The next piece was a world premiere from a young composer, Nico Muhly, who has studied at Juilliard and has had great successes all over the country. He was present to introduce his piece, which was... interesting. The inspiration for the piece came from his days of watching older, hand-drawn cartoons depicting far-off places, and he said something that stuck with me: "It must be a lonely business to draw somewhere you've never been." The piece (entitled "Wish You Were Here" and completely unrelated to Pink Floyd) had an undercurrent of melancholy scales, ebbing and flowing between the violas and cellos. Juxtaposed with that pattern was an exciting, jarring mix of brass and percussion sounds. The piece seemed to build several times, and the audience expected resolutions, but they never came. Perhaps that was part of the tension that Muhly intended us to hear, and if so then it worked exceedingly well. While it certainly didn't rank among the symphonies of Beethoven, Muhly's work received a standing ovation (and considering that he is 25 years old and wrote the piece in under two months, it's one hell of an accomplishment).
The next piece was one of the most anticlimactic musical moments I've ever experienced. Paul Oakenfold, one of the most famous DJs in the world, joined the Pops onstage for another world premiere - Felix Brenner's "TravelAcoustica", which Brenner touted as a work that combined musical influences from Asia and Indonesia (Brenner is another young composer). Oakenfold was there to provide even more beats and shadings to the piece. Even as a non-fan of techno, I have heard of Oakenfold, and with a unique premise like that, how could it go wrong? It was gonna be so cool! ...heh.
Bathed in blue light, Oakenfold started a whirring pedal tone over which the orchestra played a sinister groove that would've felt at home during a fight scene in the Matrix movies. So far so good. However, this lasted for about a minute. The remaining fifteen minutes were not nearly as interesting. The orchestra started in on another theme, and although Oakenfold seemed to be bouncing around a lot, I couldn't hear any discernible "DJ stuff." After a few minutes of the new theme, the orchestra suddenly stopped, and the piece completely devolved into a tired dance beat courtesy of Oakenfold (curiously, he appeared to bounce less when his beats were spinning). The orchestra appeared bored, and some of the older members actually appeared embarrassed. As the beats faded and the final part of the piece came to a head, the orchestra played yet another theme that was highly reminiscent of the training music from Mike Tyson's Punch-Out. When all was said and done, the piece recieved a decent amount of polite applause (no ovation). I felt a little cheated - one of the top DJs in the world collaborated with one of the best orchestras in the world, and the result fell flat.
To the relief of many Hem fans, intermission came and the crew started setting up the stage for the 'real show.' Looking back on the crowd, I could definitely tell who the Hem fans were, who the Pops fans were, and who was there for Paul Oakenfold. During intermission, I started to flesh out some of my notes. As I was writing, a lady at a nearby table asked if some of her relatives could move to my table and fill the empty seats. When they arrived, they asked if I knew about Hem. I explained that they're one of my favorite groups, that they've renewed my faith in American songwriting, and that I listen to their music all the time. This was definitely the best approach I could've taken - it turned out that the people who joined me were the wife, son, mother, and aunt of Dan Messe, the pianist and main songwriter for Hem. I felt very honored to have been sitting there with them during Hem's performance; in between songs they would share little tidbits about the band and how the songs came to be. To be honest, I kinda hoped that they'd invite me backstage after the show, but hey... I'm not complaining.
After intermission, Hem took the stage, all suits and shirts (Steve in jeans) and Sally radiant in a long green dress. They needed very little introduction - all that Lockhart said was "Ladies and gentlemen, Hem." - and the crowd went wild. But we soon shut our mouths as Sally - unaccompanied - sang her lullaby that landed her the singing gig with Hem in the first place, "Lord, Blow the Moon Out Please." Without hesitation, the band-plus-orchestra performed the instrumental "Eveningland", which sets up the atmosphere for the album of the same name, and then segued into one of their more recent tracks, "He Came to Meet Me." The orchestra provided the perfect lush background for Dan's delicate piano and when Dawn harmonized with Sally, I knew that this was how the songs were intended to sound
. Everything was pitch perfect. The guitars - three, counting lap steel - were just loud enough to be heard, but they didn't overpower. The drums were placed behind a plexiglass enclosure so they wouldn't swallow the orchestra's rich sound. By the end of the song, the band had really warmed up and any jitters they might have had were gone.
As soon as Hem started on their third song, I caught a glimpse of Dan's wife crying softly. There might be a sad story behind "The Fire Thief," or it just might be such gorgeous music that it brings tears to the eyes - either way, it was the first Hem song that I'd ever heard, and it remains my favorite. Sally barely more than a whisper, Dawn even quieter, every instrument playing at the lowest possible volume, building gradually toward the beautiful choruses. On the last one, Sally - in a pitch-perfect echo of the album - gave the "take comfort now" line an upward, soaring melody... killed me. Right through the heart. Fell in love when I heard the record, and all over again at Symphony Hall.
Dan welcomed the audience to the show, jokingly stating that this was the "most typical of Hem gigs." The last time that I attended one of the Pops' collaborations with an artist, it was their show with Ben Folds, who introduced his 'backing band' as the 'Ben Folds Eighty-Seven.' Definitely a great show (and a fight broke out in the balcony during the orchestral first half!), but he only played about seven songs with the Pops. Therefore, I expected about the same from the Hem collaboration. Little did I know that I was in for over an hour's worth of bliss, as the band was about to begin their fourth of fourteen
The orchestra shone through on "Pacific Street", which (I learned from my tablemates) was written after Sally and Dan had met in a bar where they were drowning their sorrows after failed relationships. "Carry Me Home", which follows "Pacific St" on the album, seemed to follow naturally here as well - it began slowly, spaciously. The sound of a mandolin in front of dozens of other strings was sensational. They might as well have turned off the microphones for "Sailor" - it started as a barely audible whisper, letting the orchestra slowly build like a dark wave that fit the song perfectly.
The Pops threw an interesting arrangement into "Reservoir", a tribute to the countryside surrounding Pittsburgh: they were silent for the first verse, and then with booming tympani abruptly entered the picture. It was a little bombastic for my taste and I didn't think it suited the song too well, but perhaps it just evoked a different feeling than that which has come to mind the many times I've listened to the album version. "Easy One" and "Almost Home" were splendid, and when Gary brought out the harmonica I had my fingers crossed... and I was right. Even Dan's inane comment that "Even though Hem is from NY and we're in Boston, the two cities have one thing in common: they're not California" couldn't take away from my delight at hearing "Not California" with a full orchestra. (seriously, worst segue ever... probably as bad as the Indigo Girls' live album - "y'know, I was just thinking about Galileo...") Sally owned
the microphone toward the end of the song. Seriously, the woman can sing with passion.
"Hollow" was another crowd-pleaser, but the most poignant moment of the show came when Dan quietly said "for Dad." His mother, sitting next to me, knew that this was going to be a tough moment - Dan wrote "My Father's Waltz" for his father when he was sick with cancer two years ago. The band recorded the song in time for him to hear it just before he passed away. It's only two minutes long, but it is powerful and beautiful and sad. Sally managed to sing it without wavering; the rest of the crowd wasn't able to hold on as well as she did. I couldn't bear to look at Dan's mom.
"Stupid Mouth Shut" was a necessary rocker that picked the mood back up, and the guitarists were obviously having a blast. Dawn was radiant on this one, managing to remain poised and smiling even while (i think) she flubbed a lyric in the first verse. (I have a huge crush on her, in case you're wondering) They closed their fantastic set with "Half Acre", the tune recently featured in some great commercials for Liberty Mutual.
The standing ovation was deafening.
When the band returned to the stage for their encore, they asked if they could do one without the orchestra (a friend of theirs had written arrangements for all the previous songs, but the encore was spontaneous). Hem performed "When I Was Drinking", the second song from their first album. It sounded spare without the orchestra, but as every instrument and voice shone through I was reminded of just how talented every member of the group really is. The songwriting is impeccable, and they have just the right mix of instrumentation. Nothing is too fancy, nothing is overblown - they can be achingly quiet one song and rock the next. During the encore, Keith Lockhart stood by Dan's piano, finally getting a chance to enjoy Hem for himself. He seemed mesmerized, as were we all.
**Special thanks are due to Christina, webmaster (webmistress?) of allabouthem
, the best fan site out there. She took all the pics that you saw above.**