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Hop Along, September 23, Ottobar (Baltimore)

Hop Along, September 23, Ottobar (Baltimore)
October 01, 2021 08:21PM
Hop Along, September 23, Ottobar (Baltimore)

I haven’t seen any concerts since July, probably because the listings have not been very attractive and probably because the resurgence of the Delta variant has made large crowds indoors less palatable. Many of my friends have been going to outdoor gigs, but hauling my ass out to Wolf Trap doesn’t seem too attractive either.

But now many venues are requiring both full masks and proof of vaccination, so I decided it was about time to see some live music again. My friend Eduardo is a big fan of the Philadelphia-based indie band Hop Along, led by the songwriter Frances Quinlan. It’s a band I’m vaguely aware of but didn’t have deep history with, but he was dedicated enough to want to go see them in Baltimore, so I accompanied him in late September to the Ottobar.

Ottobar is a venue I have a history with: it’s where I saw Shearwater at a memorably shellshocked show in the first traumatic weeks after the 2016 election. Both the band and audience were overwhelmed by the pervasive (and in retrospect accurate) sense of preapocalyptic dread. Four and half years and a global pandemic later, the vibe this week was infinitely more positive — masks and required vaccine certificates notwithstanding.

After navigating the entrance and showing our vaccination cards and tickets, we arrived near the close of the opening band Tenci. What I saw of them in concert was hushed, blurry but urgent indie pop with an odd horn section. Jess Shoman’s warbly singing didn’t have the chance to elevate her few songs above the level of mild curiosity on my part.

The Ottobar crowd vibe was positive, certainly — but still a crowd, and we weren't willing to be in the throng of people in front of the stage. So Eduardo and I worked our way through the narrow balcony over the tiny club, where we found ourselves somehow sitting above and behind the band. It's a striking vantage point in a very small venue.

Eduardo is the big Hop Along fan, not me, but I was still impressed by the show. Frances Quinlan’s songs are spiky, urgent, and periodically empathetic. The band Hop Along is basically their project (Quinlan uses nonbinary pronouns) and Quinlan strums frenetic rhythm guitar and sings while backed by an electric guitarist, bassist, and percussion. Their breathless and anxious singing, which can convey a lot of depth in the wry lyrics on record, was unfortunately lost a bit in the Ottobar’s sound mix, partly because we were seated above the monitors.

The Hop Along catalogue reminded me at times of Tonya Donnelly’s solo work after she left Throwing Muses/Breeders/Belly, and at other times of the much-loved (by me, anyway) Britpop also-ran group Sleeper, led by Louise Wener. The songs have a lot of pop appeal, both catchy and chunkily energetic, while remaining defiantly independent in production and subject matter. It’s an odd sight to witness a crowd singing along enthusiastically at the front of the stage without the ability to see their mouths move, but Hop Along has a lot of dedicated fans in Baltimore who seemed to know every lyric. (Quinlan went to art school not far from the Ottobar, so they have roots there despite their Philly base.)

Refreshingly, and maybe in a sign of how the pandemic has changed things, the show was scrupulously prompt, with the opener on stage at 8:00 and Hop Along playing a concise show from 9:00 to 10:15, with a brief encore. When Quinlan promised a disco song in the encore, they weren’t kidding: the band did an energetic and rowdy cover of “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a late 1970s #1 jam from Thelma Houston, and pulled it off with panache.
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