You could almost hear impatience in the child’s voice. The kind that kids heap on their poor parents. The kind where the offspring tap their fingers and scowl, awaiting another in a string of thankless tasks bestowed upon them simply by virtue of their birth.
Except that this was a rock show, and the 20-something front man called to his mother in the crowd to get up on stage and sing back up. Times they have a-changed.
PWR BTTM crashed in to the Ebell Highland Park Monday night riding a wave of the-future-is-now energy in a dazzling blur of glitter, glam, and jam. More on Mrs. Hopkins a bit later, but first, her son’s band.
Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce are PWR BTTM, a Brooklyn duo that is exponentially more than the sum of their parts. Under the vaulted ceiling of the Ebell – one of the many charms that gave the setting a throwback feel, directly in conflict with what was about to go down on stage – the sold out crowd came ready to do glam rock battle.
Many in the youthful audience were outfit in dresses, their glittered faces physically echoing Hopkins’ own mug. Each looked primed to join the band, if ever graced with the honor. With gender roles and outdated social convention checked at the door, it generated a refreshing energy still absent at most shows in this city. The clearest evidence of this were the signs posted to designate all restrooms as gender-neutral, apparently a requirement outlined by the band.
When Ben Hopkins emerged to do a quick sound check on his guitar, the general admission crowd prematurely let out an Ed Sullivan-like collective shriek. After shushing the crowd with an index finger raised to his lips, Hopkins tuned a bit, then revved up the tempo, then played up the neck with his right hand before ending with an animated chord strike – true rock ‘n roll flair! The show hadn’t even started, but then it did.
PWR BTTM’s live performance is an absolute fucking cornucopia buffet of super crunchy electric guitar, exaggerated dance moves, melodic shredding at the top of crescendos, and painfully earnest, often funny lyrics that bleed in to a non-stop conversational banter between songs.
In the early going, the title track from 2015’s Ugly Cherries, contained a line that casually toyed with pronouns: “My girl gets scared, can’t take him anywhere.” Meanwhile, the track’s spiraling and angular lead guitar cut through an otherwise muddied sound in the venue.
On newest single, “Big Beautiful Day,” Bruce’s cascading drums were mathematical in their precision, while Hopkins’ casual post-song spoken lament – “I left my effective make up in San Francisco” – sounded like a PWR BTTM album-ready refrain.
In amongst the yet-to-be-released songs due in May on Pageant, PWR BTTM sprinkled in seasoned anthems. The gang of eastsiders responded heartily in unison on tracks like “Nu 1,” “I Wanna Boi,” and “Trade.”
Pageant number “New Trick” described meeting friends’ parents at a graduation party while wearing a dress. Like many of their less bombastic lyrics, “If you stop staring, you’ll be able to see” took a turn that stopped me dead in my tracks.
“C U Around” had a similar effect, especially when it culminated with an ethereal jam and a silent crowd, arms raised and waving left to right. There was gravitas in the moment, evoking the graceful turns of those massive windmills out near Palm Springs.
And then entered Ben’s mom.
Responding to her son’s “Mommm?”, Mrs. Hopkins let out a motherly and high-pitched, “I’m here!” as she hurried to the stage. This was no schtick, be sure of that. Dressed to the nines in a regal shiny gold top, Ben’s mom was about to bring down the house on Pageant lead track, “Silly.”
Her son’s guitar solo played like an unhinged “White Cliffs of Dover” that was soon to join sonic forces with his mother’s own operatic howls. This cross-generational collaboration was quite possibly the most unusual dynamic I have ever seen at a rock show…yet it totally worked. Did I mention that Mama Hopkins is set to appear on five Pageant tracks?
During the encore, Hopkins (Ben) slowly fingerpicked “House in Virginia,” as if said house was actually a secluded cabin somewhere up in Wisconsin. Lilting harmonies quickly ignited, were extinguished, and then set afire again. By the song’s end, Ben Hopkins cradled his guitar like a dance partner as he drifted around the stage like a jewel-encrusted marionette. His movement became an instrument in and of itself, as the guitar responded with audible reverberations.
Before the music ever began some 90 minutes earlier, Mrs. Hopkins’ son imparted a sobering and spot on gem. It was a mini-life talk, and maybe it was a little preachy, but was Ben Hopkins wrong?:
“Music can’t save your life. But it can provide a really great soundtrack to fix your own goddamn life.”
PWR BTTM at Ebell Highland Park Setlist
Big Beautiful Day
Answer My Text
I Wanna Boi
C U Around
House in Virginia
Lead photo by Andrew Piccone