Philly indie rockers mark new direction for Sierra Nevada’s concert hall
The only people older than this 49-year-old reviewer in the audience at the Sierra Nevada Big Room last Thursday (Aug. 9) were the friends who met me there for the night’s show. That’s how it seemed at least, as I scanned the crowd of young fresh faces, many of whom sang along with Frances Quinlan—lead singer of headliners Hop Along—as she belted out melodic and noisy indie-rock tunes to the 100 or so in attendance.
This was a new experience for me at the Big Room, as the storied venue has long been one of the few local places where I could rock out and not feel like “the old guy.” The demographic change is, of course, the result of an update to the format at the Big Room, with Manager Mahina Gannet having expanded the lineup greatly since taking over this past spring.
The long-established traditional American music styles popular with the Big Room’s regulars are still prominently featured on the calendar as part of a new “Heritage Series” (Ameripolitan legend Ray Watson and his band Asleep at the Wheel are next up, this Saturday, Aug. 18), but now, under the banner of “SNB Presents,” comes the addition of a roster of concerts featuring a wide variety of rock, world and indie-rock artists that skew much younger.
And the two-band bill on Thursday, featuring energetic performances by a pair of indie-rock crews from Philly, was a great introduction to what—to this reviewer, at least—is an exciting development for the local scene.
Openers Thin Lips came to town on the heels of the release of their second full-length, Chosen Family, and despite being less familiar to audience members than the headliners, the band’s dynamic punk-informed pop songs brought many of them out of their seats and to the dance floor. Set-ending “A Song for Those Who Miss You All the Time” was especially energetic, with drummer Mikey Tashjian and bassist Kyle Pulley’s playful rhythm supporting the anthemic vocals, catchy melodies and spikey riffs of singer/lead guitarist Chrissy Tashjian.
The voice of Hop Along’s Quinlan is something special. At first blush, its rasp is concerning, like maybe damage is being done. But her gravelly holler is just one tool in a huge box of vocal dynamics that push and pull as the emotional circumstances dictate. The greatest thrill, though, is when Quinlan sweeps wide from sweet-and-intimate to painfully raw, and the songs that cut through the most powerfully on this night—banger “Texas Funeral” (Painted Shut, 2015) and encore- closing “Tibetan Pop Stars” (Get Disowned, 2012)—were those where both music and voice pushed hard with dramatic shifts in volume.
However, focusing on Quinlan’s voice alone is selling the band short. The miracle of Hop Along is that each player matches Quinlan in both chops and emotional commitment. The tasty rhythm section of drummer Mark Quinlan and bassist Tyler Long came through huge in the slightly bass-heavy Big Room, and lead guitarist Joe Reinhart punctuated every vocal dynamic with his own inventive playing.
It all came together perhaps most completely on “Prior Things,” the closing track on their new Saddle Creek album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, which also closed out the band’s set. It’s a tour de force of dynamically creative pop songwriting that was especially impressive live with its dizzying array of stops, starts, complementing guitar riffs, rhythmic accents and lines of interweaving vocal melodies playing off a looping string part that kept spinning as the band exited the stage before returning for a three-song encore.
Though some traditionalists might bemoan changes to the tried-and-true format that built the Big Room, adding new and innovative sounds to that hallowed stage would seem more in line with the mission Sierra Nevada applies to its brewing endeavors: respecting tradition while also having “an unbridled passion for innovation.” A dynamic venue that showcases quality music of many flavors is exactly what this community is craving.