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Hippo Campus shines at the Jefferson

Minnesotan indie-rock band returns to an expectant Charlottesville audience

<p>Hippo Campus frontman Jake Luppen, performing with the band at the Jefferson on Monday.</p>

Hippo Campus frontman Jake Luppen, performing with the band at the Jefferson on Monday.

There aren’t many American indie-rock bands with as much promise as Hippo Campus. In the four years since the release of their debut EP “Bashful Creatures,” the five-piece group from St. Paul, Minn. has gone from opening act to international headliner. Hippo Campus is currently touring their 2018 album “Bambi,” and the group faced high expectations from the Charlottesville crowd at the Jefferson Theater Monday night, a venue they last visited in 2017.

The Greeting Committee opened the set, and lead singer Addie Sartino lit up the night early for a crowd still trickling in. Although relatively new on the indie-pop scene, the band wowed with their charming, jangly display. Bolstered by the popularity of their track “Hands Down” and natural stage presence, The Greeting Committee performed impressively well for one of the opening shows of their first nationwide tour. 

Dressed in a periwinkle suit, Sartino conveyed a strong stage presence, trusting the crowd to literally carry her as she surfed across them, feeding audience members Xtra Cheddar Goldfish — which came from an audience member — as a thank-you. She capped off the set by trading that Goldfish for her half-eaten caramel apple, much to the delight of the young crowd.

When Hippo Campus emerged for their set, the audience was ready. The opener put on a noteworthy and raw display, but it was definitely still a warm-up. The headliner began with a bang by performing the title track of “Bambi.” It’s one that heavily features their new addition, trumpetist DeCarlo Jackson, who absolutely killed it on some epic solos. It wasn’t until the performance of “Baseball” that frontman Jake Luppen, donning a vintage Sheryl Crow T-shirt, came to life. Energizing the crowd and his band alike, he jumped around the stage with enough confidence and charisma to fill a much larger venue.

Hippo Campus’ sound has recently evolved, with notably more synthesizer and trumpets in their latest record. However, the group still largely featured a high-paced lead and bass guitar featured on “Boyish,” often accompanied by upbeat drums that kept the set driving forward without a lull in involvement.

The setlist for the night prominently featured songs from “Landmark” and “Bambi” which was certainly satisfying for the number of casual listeners who mostly know their top tracks. Songs like “Western Kids” were well received by the audience — who were clearly more familiar with their most popular tracks. After mixing in a lot of newer content in the middle, albeit featuring some impressive range from Luppen, the transition into some of the clear crowd favorites was welcome. It was also when the band felt the most comfortable — the vocals became nuanced to the point of an inside joke, DeCarlo found his groove on the trumpet and the crowd surged in expectation as the buildup to the finale approached.

The band did miss a massive opportunity during their live performance, however — they failed to create a connection with the crowd between songs. Hippo Campus didn’t even introduce themselves. This always makes a band more personable and only takes a few minutes to do. That said, although there wasn’t any chit-chat, the energy they conjured spoke for itself, and the audience didn’t seem to mind.

Luppen was electric on center stage and contagiously attached to his music, demonstrated by an impressively high number of air kicks during the song “Honestly.” With as much energy as he brought, there were moments where he was much more reserved. This may be due to the increased involvement of guitarist Nathan Stocker on songs like “No Poms,” which he sang entirely, or simply a growth in maturity following the band’s sophomore album. Hippo Campus isn’t playing a short set of hits before bands like Modest Mouse or Walk the Moon anymore, and Luppen and Stockton did well to strike a balance between precision and jubilation on Monday night — especially given this was just the third show of their 2019 tour.

Hippo Campus has come a long way since their first labeled release “Bashful Creatures” in 2015, which featured breakout songs like “Little Grace” and “Suicide Saturday.” The release of “Landmark” in 2017 was really when the band started to make big strides, hitting it huge with jams like “Way It Goes,”  which they even performed live on “Conan.” Hippo Campus released “Bambi” in 2018, still their latest full album release, but the group also put out two demo tapes in late 2019 that they sprinkled in just enough throughout the performance.

After the exuberation of “South,” one of their top performing songs with 23 million listens on Spotify, the lights quickly went low on the amped up Jefferson crowd. After some rousing encore chants and a predictable return, the band jammed hard to crowd-pleaser “Buttercup,” to which Luppen promptly forgot his own lyrics mid-verse. Laughing it up and taking a moment to look around, the frontman showed his age. Still a very young band, Hippo Campus has rapidly matured over a few short years of meteoric rise, but that doesn’t mean that flailing air kicks and forgotten lyrics are too far in the past.