By Jeremy Jones – For the Herald-Journal
The second night of Compass of Carolina’s Annual Chase Away the Blues benefit will be a little different this year. Will Hoge will return to The Handlebar with his unique brand of Tennessee rock ‘n’ roll.
“A couple of years ago, Will was nearly killed after a van plowed into him on his moped,” said John Jeter, co-owner of The Handlebar. “He has returned with mature, solid and inspiring rock ‘n’ roll that takes its cues from Springsteen and Bob Seger, heartland rock that’s as close to blues as rock can get. And if a resurrection story isn’t a blues story — and vice versa — I’m not sure what is.”
Hoge is tough and his music fights back. He paid his dues on the road in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, playing one bar after another throughout the South and beyond.
“We started out as a live band,” Hoge said. “We were just trying to go and make a living making music for people.”
Simple as that: Hoge was doing what he loved, paying his bills, and putting a smile on people’s faces.
“The performances are the most important thing about being on tour,” Hoge said. “The physical part gets harder and harder, especially as I set down more roots and home and my family grows — I have two kids and a wife now — a lot of things I used to love about touring are off limits now. The music is the most important thing. I get to stand up in front of folks, play songs and tell stories, and to do that with my three best friends is what it’s all about.”
As Hoge settles down in his home life, he seems to be connecting more than ever with fans.
“It’s a lot of give and take with the audience,” Hoge said.
That give and take often results in fans crowding clubs, singing along, and dancing through last call. After more than decade, Hoge hasn’t lost the sense that he is a lucky man.
“The thing we’re always amazed by is that people show up and drop their money to see us play,” Hoge said. “I want people to leave and feel like they got the best rock ‘n’ roll bargain that they’ve ever gotten. I want people to feel that there was some sort of connection. That they felt something that was unique to that night.”
Fresh off a gig at the Super Bowl Village in Indianapolis, Hoge and his band are eager to return to Greenville, where they’ve played many times before both as a headliner and as an opening act for musicians like Edwin McCain.
“Greenville is one of our favorite cities,” Hoge said. “The Handlebar has always been real good to us. It’s a fantastic sounding room for the band. It’s a fantastic sounding room for the audience. It’s the way a club should be. We’re always excited to get to go in there.”
And they’ll show up with a bag full of songs from their recent CD, “Seven,” which has been praised as containing their best studio work yet.
“The studio is totally the opposite of the road,” Hoge said. “The road is instant gratification. The studio is where we build the music. It’s a time to get familiar with it before you let people hear it. I’ve come to really enjoy both processes.”
Hoge has become much more at home in the studio over the years. Some of that comfort has to do with accumulated experience and some of it has to do with the way he looks at the process.
“Recording is just basically trying to catch a live performance and make it sound good,” Hoge said. “As I get more comfortable in the studio I start taking some liberties with what I can do, sonically. New instruments, new sounds… maybe a string section here or there. It’s definitely opened things up.”
Song writing, though, remains an enigma.
“Writing a song is different every time,” Hoge said. “That’s the Great Mystery, and one that I try not even spend much time figuring out. If I look behind the curtain, maybe the songs will quit coming.”
Nothing will stop the songs Saturday night. Music lovers can enjoy barbecue at 7 p.m., music at 8 p.m., and a whole lot of dancing and singing — all for $20 that goes to a good cause. That’s quite a rock ‘n’ roll show.
“Will’s latest album, ‘Seven,’ is his best,” Jeter said. “It’s intense. But his shows are tent-revival fun — and his voice carries a purity and a wallop that you don’t get anywhere except an arena, where you’ll pay $80-plus.”