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Hippo Campus: Back in Iowa City and Better Than Ever

by Claire Harmeyer
Photos by Kaitlyn Kuker

Hippo Campus puts on one hell of a show. Long, head-banging-worthy instrumentals, a lead singer with a killer set of pipes, and a palpable connection with the crowd make this band born for live performances. Iowa City was lucky to host them for a second time in the past two years on Monday night.

The frenzied crowd electrified by Hippo Campus’s performance.  Photo by Kaitlyn Kuker.

The frenzied crowd electrified by Hippo Campus’s performance. Photo by Kaitlyn Kuker.

The indie rock band took Gabe’s stage in April of 2017. This April, the Minnesota natives sold out a bigger venue – Blue Moose Tap House. The downstairs space was packed to the brim with fans anxiously awaiting Hippo Campus’s arrival. Graphic tees and chunky glasses were not in short supply in the crowd primarily of college students. The intimate room was lit in a blue glow, buzzing with anticipation.

The opening act, singer-songwriter Samia, crushed a 30-minute set full of haunting harmonies, intense eye contact with the crowd, and constant swinging of her curly ponytail. “This one’s about my dead grandma,” Samia deadpanned before drifting into the angelic melody of her song “Milk.” This brash talk was juxtaposed with beautiful vocals, making for a dynamic performance that was the perfect warm-up for Hippo Campus.

Shortly past 8 p.m., the crowd was getting antsy, eager for the main act to perform. Blue and red spotlights illuminated fog wafting along the stage, creating an eerie vibe. Soon enough, the room fell into darkness and trippy notes rang through the air, causing a roar to erupt from the crowd. Fuzzy silhouettes sauntered onstage and the cheers grew even louder – Hippo Campus had arrived.

The groovy electronic intro of the title track from their most recent album, “Bambi,” sounded through the space, and the hour-and-a-half-long dance party began. The band was dressed simply in plain tees and jeans, save lead singer Jake Luppen, who was clad in a striped button down and navy cardigan, looking far too preppy for the band’s edgy music. But by the third song, Luppen had ditched the cardigan, his shirt seemed to dip by a few buttons, and his mop-top was growing damp with sweat. He now looked like the rocker he really is.

“It’s good to be back in Iowa,” Luppen said with a grin. “Go Hawkeyes! This next song is about sports.” This introduction to their 2017 hit “Baseball” had everyone jumping up and down and yelling obnoxiously. Luppen knows how to play up the crowd’s demographics. He obliged when a chant of “water!” broke out, splashing the crowd with a water bottle and sticking out his tongue, ever the showman.

Hippo Campus’s lead singer, Jake Luppen, serenading the audience. Photo by Kaitlyn Kuker

Hippo Campus’s lead singer, Jake Luppen, serenading the audience. Photo by Kaitlyn Kuker

Hippo Campus has a way of making you feel like you’re simply hanging out in a garage, kicking back with a beer and listening to their jam session. Their lyrics are incredibly clever and potent, yet their breezy rock instrumentals make every song feel warm and familiar. They just make you feel good.

Crowd favorites included “Way it Goes” the catchy single from their first full-length album, “Landmark,” and their 2015 single “Suicide Saturday,” which had fans clapping along, stomping their feet, and belting the chorus at the top of their lungs.

Tender moments were sprinkled about halfway through the set. During “Poems,” Luppen’s voice took on a softer tone and the band played an extended outro with only their shadows visible amidst the fog onstage. They kept up the intimacy with “Monsoon,” where Luppen showed off his gorgeous falsetto while closing his eyes, allowing the emotion to pour out of his voice in a different rendition of the ballad.

The surprising star of the show was trumpet player, DeCarlo Jackson. Sporting a topknot of dreadlocks and an enormous smile (when he wasn’t playing), his energy was infectious. Jackson’s impressive, dance-inducing trumpet solos were scattered throughout songs that don’t include them in recorded versions, like “Why Even Try”. Jackson had the crowd going absolutely nuts.

As the final notes of their beloved song “Buttercup” trilled through the venue, Luppen clasped his hands together as if in prayer, raising them in the air and saying solemnly, “You guys have been fucking incredible. Thank you.”

No – thank you, Hippo Campus. One does nothing but hope that the band graces another Iowa City stage in another two years. Until then, lighten up, buttercup, get a hobby.