If you don’t love The Hives, I would wager it’s because you’ve yet to see them live. They’re a band that thrives in the on-stage setting thanks to the nature of their energetic garage punk and their penchant for theatrical behaviour.
Currently on another tour with P!nk (their second this year – they also spent a month with her in March for North American dates, including an appearance at the Air Canada Centre,) the Swedish quintet spent their day-off in a sandwich of sold-out Toronto arena shows with the first of their headlining fall performances. And good thing, too. Trading in ice rinks for more intimate club venues came as a relief to Hives’ fans unwilling and disinterested in shelling out money for the pop stylings of P!nk. While the Phoenix Concert Theatre wasn’t sold out for their sideshow, it certainly showed strong support for a band that has built their reputation on live performances.
That’s the thing about The Hives. They truly are entertaining. Even for casual fans, they provide a compelling night’s worth of entertainment with enough of a familiar back catalogue to keep everyone entertained. Strolling on stage, decked out in matching mariachi outfits (a change from their last appearance at Toronto’s Sound Academy in 2012, then rocking tuxedos and top hats,) The Hives quickly kicked things off with the assaulting call to arms of “Come On!” – the lead off track from 2012’s Lex Hives.
It was an album that vocalist Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist is still very much promoting, asking the crowd to recite the name of the album and to perhaps buy a copy of it on their way out the door. Beyond the self-promotion, it took all of three songs for Almqvist to hop into the open arms of the excited crowd.
As a front man, he’s demanding and – rightfully – the centre of attention. He jumps around, he begs the crowd for more, and he delivers every ounce of his performance with more energy than should legally exist in a single person.
That’s not to say the four other members of The Hives are looking for a back seat ride. Guitarist Nicholaus Arson goaded the crowd into action as he ran around on stage, guitar raised in the air as he made faces at the audience below. The band’s second guitarist, Vigilante Carlstrom, moved around less than his counterpart but still commanded a strong presence on his side of the stage.
Missing, however, was Dr. Matt Destruction – a point Howlin’ Pelle pointed out later in the set, introducing stand in bassist Dr. Johann Destructasor (or something in that general direction) with: “You wanted the best, you got the second best!”
Rounding out the back was drummer Chris Dangerous, who lived up to his name by flinging his drumsticks high up in the air at every possible opportunity and gazing out at the crowd. Occasionally he was joined on the drum kit by his front man – Howlin’ Pelle perching on the bass drum for a better vantage point of the fans gathered below.
Almqvist’s stage banter was also on point on Sunday night, the 35 year-old engaged and very much present in his chit-chat. “Have you seen these Mexican pants I’m wearing?” he asked the crowd early on. “I keep having to adjust them because they keep falling down. Yet they are made from the measurements of my own body. How does that work?” Mid-way through the set, one of the band’s ninja roadies (literally, they’re dressed as ninjas) stepped in to help fix his pants – just in time too, as the band launched into the crowd favourite “Walk Idiot Walk” from 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives. It was this track that brought the crowd surfers out in droves – and thankfully no pants were lost over the course of the night.
Almqvist was also egotistical, in a way only a rock star commanding the centre spotlight can be. When he wasn’t playing through Hives hits like the aforementioned “Walk Idiot Walk” and “Hate to Say I Told You So”, he was talking up the band. “This is kinda like a rock concert but better. It is rock music, but better…” he explained. “I’ll tell you what it is. That’s The Hives, full steam.”
Prior to the quick tempo of “1,000 Answers”, also off of Lex Hives, Almqvist answered burning questions from the front row. The questions ranged from funny (“Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?” wondered one guy. After brief consideration, he got his answer: “I think I’d take the duck. Fuck it, I’ll take both,”) to the legitimately curious (“How are the crowds with the P!nk tour?” asked one person. Pele responded with the explanation that the audience starts with disgust but, by the end of it, find ecstasy due to The Hives’ antics.)
Other set highlights came with “My Time Is Coming”, another from Lex Hives. The song began with Howlin’ Pele’s deep voice and the band’s booming guitar riffs, before returning to the typical up-tempo offerings of The Hives – complete with a finishing drum roll. “These Spectacles Reveal the Nostalgics”, again from Lex Hives, ended with Almqvist declaring: “Shit! That’s a great song. But why so many fucking words?” He transitioned into another humorous bit of banter, explaining to the crowd that: “Time flies when you’re having fun. We’ve been playing for about three and a half hours now, like Bruce Springsteen. Three and a half hours… But it maybe only feels like one hour.” Truthfully, by that point, it really only had been about an hour – but it was a fair warning that the night was coming to its inevitable close.
He introduced the next song as one with “fewer words”, the band launching into their breakout single “Hate To Say I Told You So” from their second album, 2000’s Veni Vidi Vicious. Pele perched on an amp part way through the song to blow and receive kisses from the crowd, the band’s stand-in bass player providing a steady riff as The Hives ended the main portion of their set on an energetic note.
Big cheers from the crowd prompted an encore – beginning with the first track off of 2007’s The Black and White Album. “Tick Tick Boom” showed The Hives doing something they seem to have a lot of fun with – tempo shifts and musical delays. Frequently throughout the night, they would slow things down for just a brief moment, jolting the audience into action and keeping things interesting in the process. On “Tick Tick Boom”, they took it to extremes by pausing for a good half-minute of distorted feedback as the crowd cheered for them to come out of a literal freeze.
Howlin’ Pele then pulled out another one of his favourite tricks – forming a human corridor down the centre of the audience. He asked for fans to move back to allow him to walk down towards the soundboard where he picked up a random (or perhaps strategically placed) cup of beer, which he chugged back. He then asked everyone to kneel, ran back towards the stage, and commanded everyone to jump – just as the band ended the extended version of “Tick Tick Boom”.
Following “Insane” – the bonus track on Lex Hives that sees them approaching a western-meets-surf rock sound – Almqvist again talked up the band’s merits and introduced their last song of the night, “Patrolling Days.”
“It’s not over until the skinny guy stops singing,” he told the audience who quickly started booing when they realized they had but one more moment with The Hives. Howlin’ Pelle ran with the punches, staring at the crowd and responding with: “Do I look like I give a shit? Boo some more.” He continued the song’s introduction with some good news: it was the longest song in the set and the longest song The Hives had ever written. While on record, “Patrolling Days” only clocks in at just over four minutes, it was enough to placate the crowd – and thankfully the final live song was indeed much longer than the album version.
The band wrapped up the hour and 35 minute set with a group bow and a big wave to their crowd, extending high fives to those close to the front. It’s hard to imagine anyone left the Phoenix that night feeling slighted or like they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. When The Hives show up – they show up, and as fans left the venue I overheard one guy say: “That was exactly what I hoped for and expected.”
Yes, even with the highest of expectations, The Hives deliver. Let’s just hope that P!nk’s fans are able to recognize how good they’ve got it.