The sentimental indie rockers who make up Bad Bad Hats brought bittersweet jams to Cafe du Nord, a cozy venue beneath the Swedish American Hall. The set was put on by Bay Area mainstay Noise Pop.
The band formed in 2012 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while Kerry Alexander and Chris Hoge were in college together. They toured locally and were signed to local label Afternoon Records that year. Since then, they have released two LPs and an EP. The band’s sound is built around Alexander, who is fascinated with the workings of top-40 pop songs. She dissects them and reworks them into acoustic and electric indie numbers for Bad Bad Hats.
The small venue was packed with couples, families and bunches of teenagers squeezed between dim pendant lights and ornate paneled woodwork. The crowd was bursting with energy from the first notes, jumping and dancing as Alexander, Hoge, Connor Davison and Noah Boswell led them through bouncing, emotive rock numbers. Alexander belted heartfelt lyrics, backed by wailing riffs that multiplied the power of her words.
The basement setting of the show added to its coziness. Bad Bad Hats is a band that likes to pose as uptight but never actually takes itself too seriously. In between songs, Alexander recited personal anecdotes and stories about her songwriting process. Her slight awkwardness coupled with the complete sincerity of her songs was calmly charming. It brought a note of self-awareness to her songs without dredging up any cynicism.
“That song was for all the Josephs. And this next song is for all the… no-sephs.” This was how Alexander followed a performance of “Joseph,” off of the band’s 2015 debut, Psychic Reader. Her tone was anything but condescending, and her willingness to be outright silly in the middle of the set of riffy pop was refreshing.
The band played a slew of songs pulled from its EP and both of its LPs. The whole band brought sincerity to the instrumentals, playing unadorned, energetic riffs and powerful but traditional drum beats. Though the musical execution lacked flourishes, the straightforward playing style befitted the power pop ballads.
Alexander is the principal songwriter for the band. She approaches simple but important topics including unrequited love, short fights in long relationships and indulging in junk food and despair. But the particulars of her lyrics were lost behind her and her bandmates’ enthusiastic guitar strumming. Despite this, she brought a variety of tones, from melancholy to rebellious, to the band’s songs.
In particular, her vocals bent and contorted around her lyrics, her delivery echoing Stevie Nicks at moments. This tone added an emotive touch not present on the band’s studio recordings. It’s as if studio adjustments had sanded the distinctive corners off of Alexander’s wavering intonations. The live versions benefitted from their less polished vocals and added an enrapturing dimension to the band’s songs.
The performance was brought home by bass player Boswell, who despite standing almost still onstage, guided the band with intricate basslines that both grounded and augmented the songs. His parts never overpowered the straightforward jamming of the other members but provided depth and showed off Boswell’s technical prowess.
At the end of the night, the crowd was reluctant to let the band leave, cheering enthusiastically through its last songs. When the band members came back for their encore, they indulged the crowd with two rousing numbers to tie up the set.
Bad Bad Hats aims to popularize careful, sentimental pop with a powerful rock sound in 2018. The band’s show was a strong exhibition of both of these traits and, as a bonus, revealed the charming self-awareness of Alexander and her bandmates.