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Will Hoge: Letting It Loose Review

Another day on the road
Got a thousand miles to go
Do another show
In some town that we don't know

It's no secret I feel the most under appreciated artist in the music world today is Will Hoge. I must admit, when I went to catch his gig recently at the Double Door in Chicago, I wasn't sure if I really had anything left to say about him. I've written a few thousand words on Hoge in the last eighteen months and in truth, aside from continuing to praise his unheralded new album ("The Man Who Killed Love", which I still feel is the best album of 2006), I wasn't sure if I could really muster up the energy to compose another generous helping of praise. However, Will Hoge made my job easy; I walked away from the Double Door with a giddy smile because these road warriors unleashed a nearly two-hour show with a force no one will soon forget. This was the longest show I have ever seen Will perform. While some people may find this surprising, one must remember this band performs six shows a week and a minimum of 250 shows a year. Despite these exhausting obstacles, they showed up to enlighten the Chicago faithful with their repertoire of expansive rock 'n roll basics.

The Double Door is a small club tucked on the corner of a long city block and the backstage area is…well there isn't one. When an artist usually leaves the stage they head out the back door to their bus. This was the way the Stones did it when they performed a one-off club show in 1997. Ironically, I had just seen the Rolling Stones ten days before this show and even though these two artists are playing to much different crowds, they both have commanding live shows which immortalize and crystallize them within our memories. One of the things I love about the Stones, which most people don't realize, is that no two shows are ever identical, even if set lists are identical. The advantage of having a core group of musicians who have rocked the world for the better part of a half century is they know each others every movement and have the ability to feed off one another. Guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood ensure no two performances of "Satisfaction" and "Jumping Jack Flash" are ever alike as they duel with one another continually turning on a dime switching tempos and textures. The last time I saw Will Hoge and his band of troubadour's was in Milwaukee eight months earlier and needless to say I awed with their breathtaking abandon on the small stage. A new live album ("Again Somewhere Tomorrow") is on the horizon and those who think it will cover the same ground as the masterful "During the Before and After" are mistaken. The current incarnation of this band is tighter (if that is even possible) and more revved up machine who are attacking this material with reckless abandon. I was bowled over by how seductive these songs could be with minor arrangement changes while still holding their endearing narrative drive.

Will leaped onto the stage directly from the rainy sidewalk as the band soared into "The Man Who Killed Love", the title track from his most recent release. Will's harp playing was magnificent as it set the tone for a bluesy evening where all bets were off. What I love most about Hoge and his band is that they're not trying to be different or stand out in the crowd of other wannabe's but merely view every show with a tour de force attitude. They leave those who witness their magic wanting more. It is one thing to give killer performances night after night, town after town, but it's another to reinvent your show every few months. I've followed some of the biggest stadium acts in the world and many of them fall into a habit of keeping the same basic structure for decades. The Will Hoge band is arguably one of the most seasoned on the touring circuit. They take these songs to new heights every night with epic performances as they reach into your soul and leave you wanting more. There may be more virtuosic performers out there, but great musicians don't make great bands. Will Hoge has an illustrious band whose performances come off as effortless. Leading the group is bassist Dean Tomasek, whose suave rhythmatic playing makes the songs lean while simultaneously complimenting Hoge's love torn vocal melodies with a backbeat so strong it's haunting. Dean is to Will what John Entwistle was to the Who, an indispensable ingredient who can single handedly captivate the audience.

These songs have taken on a new life with fresh and innovative arrangements which should be showcased with a smoky sweet exuberance on the new live album. The band continues to reinvent all of its material, featured most beautifully on the melancholy flavored "Hey Tonight". Here is a song I don't even feel is among Will's best, but seeing it live makes me realize it was always a great song buried under unnecessary production. Will even brought out the rarely performed "Sunshine Burn", a song from his first band (Spoonful) written almost a decade back. Most bands give up on songs that are not immediate hits, but Hoge and his band continue to attack this material until it's put into the proper context. One may not be happy with how a song turns out on an album, however, if you stop performing it, you have been defeated. Will Hoge has no desire to lie down and be defeated which makes these performances all the more enthralling to watch.

Eight months after its release, the material off of "The Man Who Killed Love" continues to evolve. Will's vocal on "Woman Be Strong" knocked me to the ground with an emotion spewed forth that was awe-inspiring. This is from a guy who sings his heart out at over two-hundred and fifty shows a year. No one's voice should sound this good after this much strain. All of this brings me to what an indelible album this truly is. Great rock n' roll records feel like cinematic masterpieces which present a wide canvas of stories, feelings and emotions which make ordinary lives feel like they are extraordinary. Great art inspires and makes you realize there is heroism in facing your demons. "Pocket Full of Change" finds an artist at a crossroads willing to face his detractors head on with a peek-a-boo vibrancy. The horn arrangements and simplicity make the album one that will be cherished decades from now. There are more hip albums released this year and others who receive more airplay, but time will show that "The Man Who Killed Love" is hands down 2006's album of the year. One can only hope this album will find an audience eventually because even more important than this one album is the discovery of an artist who may accompany them on their continued life journey. What differentiates Will from numerous other singer songwriters is his soulful romantic voice. At his core, Will Hoge is a rock troubadour who is a romantic, something few artists have been able to truly pull off since Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen debuted over three decades ago.

If I have ever seen one fault with Hoge and his band, it's been with the length of the shows. I'm a Springsteen fan to the core, so I don't want to leave a show until I feel that an artist can't even stand once they leave the stage. However, it's also unfair of me to think and feel this. It's one thing to demand it of Springsteen, U2, Aerosmith and Bon Jovi…who never play more than two shows in a row, travel via a jet to the gigs, stay in first class hotels and have tickets priced above $100 and it's another to demand it of a band who plays club after club, six nights a week, showers in rest stops and then takes an hour after every show to talk with fans and load their gear before heading back out on the road to the next city. Hoge's Chicago show was just shy of two-hours and I just heard reports that his recent Milwaukee show was just shy of three-hours with an unheralded twelve song encore. This is what differentiates Will Hoge from the other gazillion artists in the myspace generation. He doesn't seek fame or fortune, but pours his soul into performances and records because it's all he knows how to do. This is an artist on the brink of greatness. Heck, he is great, it's just a matter of time until others find out…and if you're smart you'll seek him out soon before it's too late.

Upon an initial look at the set list, if I had not been at this show, I would have viewed it as a letdown. Many of the songs performed I don't view as Will's top tier material. Songs like "King of Grey" and "Hey Tonight" I view as "B" material, even though Will's "B" material is "A" material for most other artists. The performance of these songs tonight proves why Hoge and his band of rogue road warriors may be the best live band on the road today. They elevated these songs to heights I never imagined possible. This is what differentiates Will from the other artists of the myspace generation. The live performance is where you can allow your material to grow and nurture and more importantly, this is where you can prove your critics wrong. If you stop playing certain songs, the battle is over and you might as well be flying a white flag. Not Will Hoge, he continues to defy the standard music industry rules pushing himself further as a musician. While most other acts are concerned with how many albums they have sold, how many videos they can make and how many late night shows they can get on, Hoge is focusing on what will truly give him longevity; musicianship.

As the evening continued "Ms. Williams", "She Don't Care", "Hearts Are Gonna Roll", "All Night Long" and "Pocket Full of Change", "Not That Cool" and "Sweet Magdeline" were unlike any other versions I had ever seen or heard live before. It wasn't just a few minor differences in the way these songs were played, but for the most part new arrangements that made me feel like I was hearing these songs for the first time all over again. Great arena bands take their biggest hits and expand them tour to tour so they don't grow stale. Will Hoge's material is anything but stale and continues to remain fresh and invigorating by his continual desire to make every show revitalizing. In short, I can't wait to hear the new live album.

There are hundreds, dare I say, thousands of talented musicians in this world. But there is only one Will Hoge. There's something poetic about his albums and concerts and never do I walk away from one without feeling I witnessed something distinctive and extraordinary. No other artist out there today is as dedicated to his craft as Will Hoge. He and his band are not looking for any kind of iconoclastic praise, but mere do what they do to make a connection with their audience. The music industry has so few acts like Will today. Here is an artist who music comforts me. What I admire and love is this is not a guy seeking celebrity or iconoclastic praise, but one who wants to have a career, no matter how small, a decade from now. One can only wish that there were more Will Hoge's in this world. There is such a profound impact while listening to this music, I often find myself lost in his stories and often discover something about myself in the process. In life we don't always have the answers to every struggle we encounter. However, if you look hard enough and are blessed to encounter an artist like Will Hoge, then they make the fight to live life easier to deal with. Can you say the same about the Pussycat Dolls? I didn't think so. These are merely five musicians, but on their best nights, like the one at the Double Door, they break boundaries giving an ambitious performance. Nights like these that remain in your memory days, weeks, months and years later.

I Got a pocket full of change
But everythings the same
A man can go insane
Trying to make it in this game
I got a pocket full of change
-Pocket Full of Change

Anthony Kuzminski can be found at The Screen Door

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