Monday, 05 December 2016 11:05

Year of the Hippo: GR jam band Ultraviolet Hippopotamus amps up New Year in Kzoo

Written by  Eric Mitts
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Ultraviolet Hippopotamus Ultraviolet Hippopotamus Phierce Photo

The New Year always presents a time for reflection and rebirth. Old habits can change, new goals can be made, and the future can rise up on the horizon wider and brighter than ever before.

Such is the case for longtime Grand Rapids jam band Ultraviolet Hippopotamus. 

From its beginning in spring 2004 in Big Rapids, the five-piece has made a name for itself with a tight mix of funky jams, explosive improvisations, unconventional covers and other “onstage musical alchemy.” 

The band’s grown from little-known local kids with a “silly” name to road dogs playing more than 250 shows a year all over the country, including gigs at major music festivals like North Coast in Chicago, South By Southwest in Austin and Summer Camp in Chillicothe, Ill.

The bandmates have also just grown up.

Ultraviolet Hippopotamus
wsg. Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers, The Mainstays
Kalamazoo State Theatre 404 S. Burdick St., Kalamazoo
Dec. 31, 7 p.m. doors, 8 p.m. show
$22.50 advance, $25 day of show
kazoostate.com, (269) 345-6500

Band website: uvhippomusic.com

Realizing that piling into a van and venturing into the unknown takes its toll, the band took a break during most of 2015. The members scaled back their touring to just a small handful of shows and took time to take care of their personal lives.

“We just took a break and settled things down and got things in order, and now that we are back, we want to make more mature, intelligent decisions,” UV Hippo drummer Joe Phillion told Revue

Following that break, this past year has been a reintroduction of sorts for UV Hippo. The band has emphasized producing quality shows instead of sheer quantity, with a short tour this past spring that included two-night stands in Florida, Denver, and Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo.

“We were just letting everyone know that we were back and we were still touring and still doing our thing,” Phillion said. “We were supposed to put out an album, and then in the middle of the summer, Russ (Olmsted, the band’s longtime guitarist) decided he wanted to leave the band, which was totally fine. We’re on good terms. He’s a great friend and always will be.”

UV Hippo bid farewell to Olmsted and officially welcomed new guitarist/vocalist Andy Kirby into the band during a stellar, two-set show at The Intersection this past July.

“When Russ decided to leave the band, it was like deciding to break up with six girlfriends,” Phillion said of the transition. “It’s a really hard decision, and you’ve got to really think it out, and sometimes the timing isn’t always the best, but you’ve got to say something. You’ve got to let your girlfriends know how you’re feeling. When he mentioned it to us, it was right before we left for spring tour, so it was a little interesting trying to feel up a tour, like, ‘Is this the last tour that we’re ever going to do? Is this it?’ 

“It was really tough for Russ and tough for us,” he added. “Andy was super wet behind the ears and a little scared. It’s not easy to just step into a prog-rock jam band and feel at ease. … But I have to give it to him, though, he’s doing a stand-up job.”

A lifelong friend of the band, Kirby — who also plays with Phillion in The Turnips — quickly connected both on and offstage with the group, which currently includes bassist/vocalist Brian Samuels, percussionist Casey Butts, and keyboardist/vocalist Dave Sanders.

Over the fall, they mainly stuck to the Midwest, rekindling the fires the band had started in cities like Indianapolis, Columbus and Chicago. 

It will all culminate with a triumphant celebration at the Kalamazoo State Theatre on New Year’s Eve. 

“It’s such an honor,” Phillion said of the gig. 

The band last played the historic venue on Halloween 2014, and has a history of playing high-energy New Year’s Eve sets going back to its early days playing at the old Founders Brewing location at the Brass Works Building in Grand Rapids.

“I can’t believe we actually got the gig,” Phillion said of the New Year’s Eve show. “It’s a big deal for us. It’s a big pair of shoes to fill. But we stacked the bill right, did some promoting, and got some tricks up our sleeves for the show. We’re ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic.”

After the New Year, UV Hippo plans to begin work on a long-delayed concept album about the digital world and music’s place in it. The album will be the band’s first release since the 2013 LP Translate. The group tentatively plans to go into the studio in February, with hopes of a mid- to late-summer release.

“We’re going to be hunkering down Michigan-style, making some new music and making a new record,” Phillion said. “Every rock star or band wants to become big; they want to become Phish or Grateful Dead or U2. You never stop striving to want to become something, and I think that’s one of our goals for next year.” 

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