Hailing from St Paul, Minnesota, Hippo Campus aren't too far from home when they're in Madison. When they begin the opening chords of "Way It Goes," the crowd howls the first line: "Wisconsin pines collaborating with the day glow vibes..." It's their third sold out show at The Sylvee, having just been here in February 2022. The five-piece group never skips Wisconsin in their tours, alternating between Madison and Milwaukee dates.
Jake Luppen, Nathan Stocker, Whistler Allen, Zach Sutton and DeCarlo Jackson met at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, mostly studying jazz. The frontman, Jake, studied opera. It's a strange beginning for a band that plays mostly indie pop and rock, but if you listen closely, you can hear bits of their musical training shining through, from Jake's huge vocal range to the addition of DeCarlo's horn solos throughout their setlist. That jazz backbone is less apparent on their latest EP, Wasteland, which touts a bit more country twang.
A fan toward the front row brought a custom cowboy hat, hand-painted with the horse illustrations on Wasteland. During a break, she waves it in the air. Jake asks them to toss the hat up to the stage, and he proceeds to wear it for the remainder of the performance. They don't do a tremendous amount of crowd work, mostly playing songs back-to-back, but they feel comfortable with this crowd, knowing that many of the audience members have been in this room with them before. The crowd is loud and rowdy, and everyone up front knows every single word--even the deep cuts and newest tracks.
I figure it's difficult for Hippo Campus to put together a setlist given their volume of tours and discography. Since their first 2015 project, they've released an EP or album every year since, save for the break they took in 2020. But it's also apparent that they write many of their songs in a way that translates well to a live space. It's a track like "Ashtray" that fits perfectly into a high-energy setlist with a sing-along chorus that's simply just a fun song for the band to play as well.
The members frequently exchange smiles with each other, never become numb to the feeling of a sold-out Sylvee. Even as veteran performers, the thing that stands out the most on stage is their presence with each other, talking back and forth about how they still don't know how to do filler banter, playing guitar and bass sections face-to-face and celebrating each others' solos.
They finish up with "Buttercup" from their first album. The room screams and jumps and rejoices. Hippo Campus might be from a state over, but tonight it feels like we're rooting for the home team.