The Hives, part blazing rock spectacle, part comedy routine, put on a secret show

The showmen in uniform ()
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It can be easy these days to forget just how physically exultant great rock and roll can be.

Watching the Hives Thursday night at Webster Hall Studio left me feeling great to an extent I haven’t experienced for some time, even with electronic music, to which I usually turn for that visceral, physical jolt.

A great deal of the thrill had to do with pure showmanship. The Hives walked on stage at 9:34 p.m. in top hats and tails, and proceeded to play the audience like a guitar. It's not just that the band presents the best rock show, year in, year out, that you’re likely to see; it's that you also get the best comedy show you're likely to see. It’s like present-day Louis C.K. conducting the Strokes of 2001, and the band's performances have been as solid, and as hilarious, for over a decade now, since they first hit it big with 2000's Veni Vidi Vicious.

Hives front man Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist is at the humor helm, doing his bit as the Mick Jagger-like leader of the world’s biggest (and best) rock and roll band, playing, as he put it Thursday, to “fifty thousand million” people. The joke was that, of course, not only does Webster Hall Studio only hold 500 people, but this was a “secret” show, in biz parlance, designed to drum up press and advance-sell the Hives’ new album, Lex Hives, out June 5. They could very easily sell out much larger halls or theaters. But they’re no stadium act—they just play one on stage.

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In essence, the Hives are what the Ramones might have become if their concept—the characters, the rush of pop made punk made pop, the trusty uniforms—had some room for growth. The Ramones wanted the world on their own terms and ended up settling for cult status. Only after Joey died in 2001 did an environment exist in which the Ramones could have, say, headlined Coachella (remember, they played third on Lollapalooza their retirement year).

The Hives came into the world with a different kind of foreknowledge. Pop music’s stratification into segmented playlists, something that was just hardening into place when the Ramones came up, meant that the Hives knew what kind of band they needed to be when they started out in the late '90s. They would start out “punk” or “alternative rock” or they would start out nowhere. They had to enter the mainstream from the sidelines, not presume their place in it only to end up bitterly disappointed.

Granted, the lively, alert, occasionally stinging sense of humor of a Hives show is very different in temperament than anything the Ramones were interested in—they weren’t exactly monologists up there, for starters.

Almqvist, on the other hand, mock-sneered: "Silence is not on the guest list."

When Almqvist stopped talking, we were to start yelling, or clapping, or whatever: just something. He demanded to see every single brow sweat. He berated a heckler: "Fuck you, Boo-man. I'll boo all over your face." He made fun of the fact that it was an insider's show: "Did you get a ticket from someone important or famous?" he razzed. (The crowd, nearly all music business folks, took the abuse like well-needed water.)

It took five songs—the occasion was titled "You Got It All Wrong"—for Almqvist to finally get rid of his top hat. "Take a picture, that's what you want to do,” he said through a huge smile, then posed shamelessly for 30 seconds.

“Now put the cameras away and dance!"

It helped immensely that the other members of the band are equally fun to watch. Sick of Almqvist? Concentrate on rhythm guitarist and backing singer Nicholaus Arson (Almqvist’s brother), who minced it up harmless-perv style. Or the oft-standing drummer, Chris Dangerous, who managed to play with the top hat on for about a song and a half—better than a lot of drummers, probably.

After the singer jumped into the crowd during "Wait a Minute," he announced, “Nicholaus Arson is so dedicated to rock and roll that he passed out during that song. Did you pass out?"

Such claims of rock divinity were so outlandish that they established a can-you-top-this? atmosphere for the songs to come along and smash. That’s the interplay that makes the show hum. For all the strangely turned hyperbole coming out of Almqvist between songs, the fealty he demands—in terms that owe equal amounts to old soul revues and the is-he-really-a-sociopath? school of stand-up—is really the biggest and best punchline of a Hives show.

"Clap and scream while I drink some water or I will kill you," he threatened. And why did people go ahead and scream their heads off? Because the music utterly cranks.

Though the consistency of the band's devotion to garage-rock recipes has been one of the keys to their consistent success, some of the new songs they played Thursday night seemed like departures—hints at jerkier new wave rather than the more streamlined punk-qua-punk they’ve usually mined, and slower tempos.

One lyric went, "Praise the lord, my time is coming," a lyric that’s hard to read as straight in this context—it plays on Almqvist’s messiah complex, but it could just be plain old rock maturity. If it’s not one role, it’s another. At the end of the show, as though the gig were on Broadway, the Hives took a full-cast bow, as they deserved to.