“MMMBop” came out when I was 10 years old—you know, right at the start of those formative pre-teen years when musical tastes are molded into your brain and discovering a certain punk album can change the course of your high school experience for the worse. I remember hearing that infectious Hanson single constantly in 1997. Even with its radio ubiquity, I can’t recall my exact feelings about the song, however. I must have thought that the track was pleasant but maybe not meant for me. Instead, that its target audience was directed at the next generation of Backstreet Boys- and NSync-listening tween girls. Regardless, if I heard it today, I don’t think I would be put off or consider it a relic of the ’90s. I’d probably just sing along.
Still, I have only thought about Hanson twice since “MMMBop” ended its mainstream radio coup—aside from the spare “remember Hanson?” conversations, of course. In 2008 while on staff at The Marquette Tribune, one of the three brothers walked barefoot down Wisconsin Avenue to raise awareness for children throughout the world who lacked the most essential items, like shoes. And then in 2013, I thought about them again when the band returned to Milwaukee with their own beer, cheekily named Mmmhops. Both causes I could easily get behind.
Twenty years since the release of “MMMBop,” I decided to check out Hanson for the very first time at the group’s Summerfest gig at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage on Thursday, June 29. Was the band simply a nostalgic act at this point? Did they have enough material to carry a set? Would I actually like them? I went into the show cold, without catching up on any of their albums beforehand. I wanted to get my first full Hanson experience live at Summerfest. Here’s what I learned:
Following the Big Bang fireworks, which were rescheduled from the previous night due to rain, five members of the band walk on stage. Worry sets in about how to differentiate between the three Hanson brothers and the two touring musicians. That turns out not to be that difficult because the touring members are a black guitarist and a bassist with long frizzy hair. Is looking drastically different possibly a requirement to tour with the band?
“We celebrate playing 25 years of music tonight,” the Hanson brother with long blond hair (but not as long as the drummer) says—I find out later that this is Taylor. Hanson is officially half the age of Summerfest, which this year enjoys its 50th Anniversary. But within the initial ten minutes, I can tell time hasn’t left Hanson in the past. The first couple songs the band plays reach into blue-eyed soul and heartland rock that invoke big sing-a-long choruses. Hanson comes off less like a pop band than a current take on a classic rock band only with prettier faces and better voices.
It’s surprising that the energy of the crowd can stay so high for so long. If things were slowing down a bit, Hanson kept the show moving by playing some crowd-pleasers. First each brother got a turn singing a cover in a three-song medley, starting with The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” then seamlessly transitioning into “Gimme Some Lovin’” and finally The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running.” This segment was both spirited and unexpected—the praise of Steve Winwood especially caught me off guard. Later, they would rip through a rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” and perform an a capella, three-part harmony of the ‘50s doo woop song “Rockin’ Robin,” later made famous by Michael Jackson.
Near the end of the show, I looked around the audience and saw that I was lost within a sea of women in their mid-30s. I became mesmerized watching the giant screen to the side of the stage for crowd shots. Every once in a while the camera caught a guy hanging on to every word. I feel like I am becoming closer to understanding that feeling. So many people think of Hanson as this ‘90s boy band with one big hit song—and they did play “MMMBop,” and it was fun for nostalgia’s sake. But in reality, in 2017, Hanson’s live show is dynamic and compelling. If more people lost their preconceptions about them, they might end up actually enjoying their music. I know I did.
12 Photos from the Hanson Summerfest Show