Better Late Than Never: On Seeing Hum After a 10 Year Wait

[14 January 2009]

By Mehan Jayasuriya

Photos: Mehan Jayasuriya

In June of 1998, while on tour in Canada, Champaign, Illinois alt-rock quartet Hum was involved in a car accident that destroyed their van and brought their tour to a screeching halt. Though the band was forced to cancel most of the remaining dates on their tour, they managed to soldier on and play two of the 13 scheduled shows. Shortly after the accident, the band flew from their hometown to Boston for a headlining gig and then travelled via caravan to Milwaukee, where they would play one of the largest shows of their career, as an opening act on the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore tour. “The Milwaukee concert is such a huge show, and it’s so close to home that the band just decided to make do,” Hum publicist Gina Orr told JAMTV at the time of the accident.

Meanwhile, my brother and I—aged 13 and 15, respectively—were eagerly awaiting the bands’ Milwaukee date. Sure, we were Smashing Pumpkins fans, having seen that band on their Mellon Collie tour two years earlier. This time around, however, we were far more excited about the opening act, a little-known band from nearby Champaign that we had learned of through word-of-mouth. While the Pumpkins had largely abandoned guitar rock for moody electronic pop at this point, Hum still ably carried the flag of so-called alternative rock, marrying a driving rhythm section with layers of heavily textured guitars. Atop it all was frontman Matt Talbot’s trademark monotone, singing willfully inscrutable lyrics that, as with many shoegaze bands, served only to reinforce the relative unimportance of vocals to the band’s aesthetic. There’s a reason, after all, why people sometimes refer to Hum as a space rock act, alongside such luminaries as Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3.

The day of the show, my brother and I found ourselves at the home of a family friend, eagerly awaiting our drop-off at the Marcus Amphitheater by our father. As the clock ticked closer to the scheduled time of the show, the two of us started pestering our reluctant escort to drive us to the venue. Ever the procrastinator, our father shooed us away, assuring us that there would be plenty of time to get to the Marcus in time.

Upon arriving at the Amphitheater and taking our seats in the bleachers, I was heard to say something to the effect of, “Well, I sure hope we didn’t miss Hum”. Hearing me, someone in the row in front of us turned around and replied, “Sorry—you just missed them”.

We were crushed. And our regret at having not seen Hum would only grow with time. In 2000, after being dropped from their label and surviving yet another van accident, the band broke up, quickly ascending to cult status in Midwestern indie-rock circles. Soon afterward, my brother and I would discover shoegaze and as a result, would rediscover Hum. We would retell the story of how we had just missed seeing the band to anyone who would listen, mythologizing an event that, to the outside observer, would have seemed like an inconsequential childhood memory. We harbored a secret jealousy for anyone who we knew had seen the band play live, like Tom Lynch, my former co-worker at Chicago alt-newsweekly NewCity, who used to wear a tattered Hum tour shirt like a badge of honor.

In the intervening years, Hum has popped up a few times, playing a reunion show at Furnacefest in Birmingham, Alabama in 2003 (apparently the organizers of the fest called Hum’s bluff after the band asked for a ridiculous sum as a reunion prerequisite—under the assumption that no one would be willing to pay such a high price), as well as two other reunion shows in their hometown of Champaign. Unfortunately, neither my brother nor I could make it to any of these shows for various reasons, though we continued to hold out hope that we would someday get to see the band perform.

One day, in October of 2008, I received a call from a very excited little brother. Hum had announced a New Year’s Eve reunion show at the Double Door in Chicago. Defying common snowbird logic, I immediately booked a ticket from my adopted home of Washington D.C. to my former home of Chicago for New Year’s. Inexplicably, however, the two of us snoozed on buying tickets to the show (okay, maybe not inexplicably—after all, we are our father’s sons), not realizing how many other folks we were competing with. After the first show sold out, the band added a second, New Year’s Day show but foolishly, I held out on buying tickets for that show as well, mistakenly thinking that I could score press passes. After exhausting every possible avenue (including emailing Matt Talbot himself), I discovered that there’s no such thing as a press list when a band has neither a publicist nor a manager. Of course, by that point, both shows had sold out. Turning to that refuge of the damned concertgoer—Craigslist—I paid nearly four times the face value for two tickets to the New Year’s Day show.

But oh, was it ever worth it. Regardless of how the band would perform, seeing Hum live would serve as a symbolic moment of redemption for the two of us, as proof positive that some of the past’s mistakes can indeed be undone. However, as luck would have it, the band was dead on, fulfilling all of the unrealistic expectations that had managed to build over the course of a decade. Tim Lash’s well-worn Stratocaster chugged mightily on “Green to Me”; Bryan St. Pere pounded out a slow, punishing beat on “Afternoon With the Axoltols”; and on “Stars”, the band’s only real hit, Matt Talbot’s guitar alternately pummeled and squealed.

While the night was incredibly rewarding in a visceral sense, it also granted that unique pleasure associated with seeing long standing mysteries laid bare. Hum’s trademark sound, as it turns out, relies more on pure volume than it does effects. As a matter of fact, Allen Epley, former Shiner frontman and lead guitarist for opening act The Life and Times, had more effects pedals on his pedal board than Hum had onstage between two guitarists and a bass player.

That’s not to say, however, that Hum’s power lies only in their ability to project towering riffs with crushing volume. Despite being out of the game for a full decade, the band sounded nearly note-perfect live and reproduced the guitar tones found on their records with stunning accuracy. As was the case with most alt-rock bands, Hum exploited the loud/quiet and start/stop dynamics popularized by the Pixies to their fullest and on New Year’s Day, they started and stopped on a dime like a well-oiled machine. There was little between-song-banter (save for Talbot telling an audience member who had carted a full six-pack of beer into the front row, “I like the cut of your jib, young man”) but there was no need—it was clear that everyone in attendance already shared an unspoken bond.

By the time the band had reached the final song in their set proper—“I Hate it Too”, a longtime fan favorite, the excitement in the room had reached its boiling point. Past the point of self-consciousness, fans in the front rows belted out the chorus at the top of their lungs, their heads tilted back in rapturous joy, tears visible at the corners of their eyes. Kicking off the New Year by revisiting a childhood favorite might seem like an odd choice to some but at that moment, there’s no place I would have rather been than in Chicago, seeing Hum with my brother. And for the first time in our lives, it was quite clear that we weren’t the only ones who felt that way.

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