The way the crowd was singing along, you would never guess that Hippo Campus had just released its first full-length album less than a month ago. Hippo Campus, the young band from St. Paul, Minn., played to a sold-out Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro on Saturday, and the members did not hesitate to instantly hook themselves into the positive feedback loop of energy between the crowd and the stage.
Starting early in the set with “Way It Goes,” the band cruised through crowd-pleaser after crowd-pleaser. With two rich and varied EPs, as well as their recent album “Landmark,” to draw from, the band was not lacking for hits to play. Even the more subdued songs from “Landmark” sparkled with lead singer Jake Luppen’s bright vocals and effortless falsetto flips. “Monsoon” had the crowd tenderly singing along, and three-part harmonies—especially prevalent throughout the new music—were well-rehearsed and tight. For a band that one wouldn’t first associate with vocal harmonies, Hippo Campus did a spectacular job in their live performance of bringing the vocals to the foreground in their music.
Luppen carried the energy throughout the concert, frequently stepping back to let his bandmates take the spotlight for solos and instrumental breaks. Little moments of intimate musical connection between guitarist Nathan Stocker and bassist Zach Sutton were thrilling to watch, even as Luppen stood at the front of the stage to sing. Often, Luppen would step back to face drummer Whistler Allen, often joined by Stocker and Sutton in what came across as moments of nearly private human connection through music. It wasn’t hard to imagine that this setup, huddled around a drum set, the band members playing for themselves, was how this young band got their start.
Frequently, to begin or end a song, the members would build on each other for what could have been a jam session just as easily a well-planned instrumental break. Even the newest songs sounded as polished as they would be at the end of a tour, showcasing the careful thought and planning that went into writing songs that could be executed as well live as in the studio.
Notably, the poppy “Western Kids” turned Cat’s Cradle into a massive, dancing, sing-along, leaving Luppen grinning at his bandmates. “South,” on the other hand, showcased a sort of intense live energy that might be missed among the jangly guitars and tender vocals in some of the band’s recorded music. With these songs, it became very evident that this is a band that thrives on a live crowd, a live energy, and a live dynamic. It isn’t that their live version is better than their recorded versions. It’s just that they sounded like a different band on stage in Carrboro than they do on their albums. They were more powerful, confident, and unapologetic.
Towards the end of the night, Stocker took the microphone and seemed at a loss for words as he addressed the crowd.
“You’re all beautiful people,” he said before pausing and looking out over the crowd. “I don’t know what else to say. Thank you very much.”
In the hands of a more practiced group, that may have come off as blunt or even dismissive. But with Hippo Campus, it was too genuine to be dismissive. The four members of the band, younger than some undergraduates at Duke, seem to be baffled by their startling success. Sure, in a few more years, the band may play a more polished live set. They may wear creaky leather jackets and casually shrug off fans outside of Lollapalooza or Coachella. They may add layers of synthesizers or experimental harmony vocals. They may get jaded.
But, for now, they’re just four young guys that are thrilled to play for sold-out crowds that are beyond excited to sing and dance along.
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