Review: Even Unplugged, Hovvdy Somehow Manages to Sound Just As Electric at Lincoln Hall
I’ve been to several seated concerts in my time, but nothing like Hovvdy last week at Lincoln Hall. Actually, now that I think about it, Hovvdy’s show was pretty much the exact same as any other seated concert with one key difference: the element of surprise! To my knowledge, Lincoln Hall didn’t tell anyone that the show was going to be a quiet, sparse, sit-down event so you can imagine how the bewilderment of showing up and seeing the luxury of the padded seat for two soon-to-be sets of incredibly soft and cozy indie folk was everything to me. I always say my favorite kind of concerts in Chicago are always the sparse acoustic ones where it’s just one or two musicians sitting on a couple of wobbly chairs backed by some appropriate mood lighting with a wholesomely respectable audience as the professionally tied bow on top. Those types of shows always bring out the best in artists and have them pulling deep to be as vulnerable and authentic as their true selves can bear.
I know this might be heresy to say, but as much of a Hovvdy fan as I was going into this concert, seeing them for the first time in such an intimate and powerful setting, I was almost more excited to see Chicago’s own Free Range. I discovered them late in the year after the full lineup for this show was announced, checked them out on Spotify, and was simply astonished I had never heard of them before. They put out an album earlier in the year called Practice and I kid you not, it very well might be my favorite album of the year and I’m not joking. Simply put, the kind of music that Free Range writes and plays is the kind that speaks to me the most. The feelings evoked from listening to Practice and their newer Loft Sessions EP released just last month call back to the same types of feelings I got from albums such as Stranger In The Alps by Phoebe Bridgers and Radiator by Sadurn, my favorite album of 2022. There’s just something about some sparse, dark, indie folk that’s almost borderline emo that just gets me. There’s really nothing left to say. Maybe I’m biased because I love finding new Chicago artists to prattle on about but I’m telling you, Free Range is the next big thing!
Now, as far as their performance went, it was nothing short of phenomenal as you’d expect me to say. I wish I could tell you I finally saw a terrible performance to climactically cap off 2023 but no, we’re unfortunately closing out this year with a massive acoustic bang. Much like Hovvdy’s two-person acoustic set, Free Range, the lo-fi Chicago indie folk project of Sofia Jensen also took the two-person route with Sofia leading the charge alongside their incredible lead guitarist, whose name is eluding me at the moment, adding beautiful fluorescent flourishes of slide guitar to their quaint acoustic chord progressions. The first half of their eight-song set was dedicated to songs from their debut record that came out earlier this year called Practice. They opened with “Want To Know”, their most statistically popular song followed by my personal favorite of not only their new album but possibly the whole year, “Growing Away”; it’s a bubbly fun romp of indie folk goodness that leaves you inexplicably empty inside with only enough energy to replay the song back to zero over and over. After another debut album winner in “All My Thoughts”, Sofia transitioned into some newer material starting with a song called “The Moon” released on their Loft Sessions EP last month. It’s truly one of their best songs and perfectly made way for some newer unreleased songs that had me anxiously awaiting the new year in hopes of an official release. Free Range closed out their set with “Way Out,” one of the more brooding songs in their back catalog taken from their recent EP that I highly recommend checking out in addition to literally everything else they’ve ever released. Everyone, go see Free Range live, listen to their music, and buy their merch! Do it!
For only two people performing a stripped-down acoustic set, Charlie and Will, the two main songsters of Hovvdy, really know how to elevate a room. Even before the first note of the 2020 single “Runner” was played, Charlie and Will were talking it up with the crowd like they were 10 songs deep on a 30-song setlist. Will noted that their setlist for the night was going to contain a lot of rarely heard songs from their back catalog, brand new cuts never before played, a couple of new ones taken from an EP to be released some time next year, and of course, all of our old favorites; all in all, everything was set up to make the first seated Hovvdy affair in existence as special as could be.
Played very early on in their setlist from last Tuesday night, “Sudbury” was a clear winner right out of the gate. Taken from their beautiful 2019 record Heavy Lifter, “Sudbury” tells an autobiographical tale of childhood backed by stunning and heavenly guitar work that somehow takes you back to a life you never lived. Moving on to the first of two unreleased new songs played last Tuesday night, “Portrait” gave the spotlight to Will only for Charlie to steal it right back for “Lifted,” the first major singalong of the night taken from their 2019 album Heavy Lifter. Will is unjustly jealous of Charlie’s more anthemic, catchy style of songwriting but I can’t lie, Charlie truly knows how to bring out the singer in all of us. Next, they brought out an underrated gem from their 2021 all-timer of an album True Love entitled “Lake June,” which had only been performed one other time live before last Tuesday night. Admittedly, it was no favorite of mine until I saw it performed but that’s what live music does to you most of the time; it unlocks thoughts, ideas, and passions you never thought you had and leaves you all the better for it. “Forever” was the other new song played and my, oh my, was it a winner and without a doubt the best new Hovvdy song I’ve heard since I heard “Blindsided” for the first time. From what I remember about the track, it’s about a forever love and is as cute, sweet, and tender as you might expect; the backing instrumental certainly does nothing to diminish that fact.
Getting closer to the end of the night, the two brought out “Junior Day League,” one of the more under-recognized standouts from True Love that was then closely followed by “Bubba,” a song released just this month! They ended their pre-encore set with “True Love,” the title track from their latest album that came out a couple of years back and topped more than a few 2021 end-of-the-year lists, including mine. Even though it’s technically not their most streamed song, it’s gotta be one of their most iconic and easily lit up the faces of every seated person in that venue.
Will and Charlie did not leave the stage as is customary ahead of an encore but rather awkwardly stayed put trying to make sure each and every audience member got their money’s worth of their faces; I, for one, could have used a little more admittedly. “Jean”, the older (but just by a month!) sibling to “Bubba” started things off and made for quite the endearing addition to their already intimate setlist. It’s my preferred single of the two released so far in 2023 and I was happy to hear it live but even more happy that it introduced not only my favorite Hovvdy song but one of my most treasured songs period, “Blindsided.” I’ve been a “Blindsided” truther ever since I first heard the song in 2021 and I don’t see that ever changing. I was completely shocked they chose that to close out their set instead of a more tried-and-true Hovvdy classic like “Cathedral," but I’m certainly not one for complaining so that’s the last you’ll hear out of me on that subject.
Hovvdy and Free Range couldn’t have given me a better swan song for my biggest concert year yet. If I had to give a semi-short wrapped list, I’d say this show, Slaughter Beach, Dog at Thalia Hall, Bonny Doon at Empty Bottle, Flyte at Schubas, The National at Auditorium Theatre, Yo La Tengo at Metro, Knocked Loose at Cobra Lounge, Destroy Boys at Metro, Alex Cameron at Empty Bottle, and PUP at Concord Music Hall were my 10 favorite Chicago shows of the whole year in no particular order. Here’s to a happy, healthy, and greatly deafening 2024 with hopefully new Hovvdy and Free Range tunes for those who’ve been good, and even more for those who’ve been bad.
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Lorenzo Zenitsky is a Chicago-based software engineer, amateur bedroom metal musician, and a semi-frequent drinker of coffee but only if it's iced. If he's not admiring his terrible Simpsons tattoos in a gently cracked mirror, he's usually at a local show vibing to great tunes and abhorrently priced beer. $15?! Get outta here...