NEW YORK — On the one hand there's Drew Barrymore. On the other there's Tina Yothers.
Both were child stars, both were in the position of having to stave off "has-been" status by the time they were teenagers. Barrymore, of course, has gone on to be an A-list celebrity, while Yothers is simply remembered for playing the kid sister on the '80s sitcom "Family Ties." That, and for being one of the unlucky celebrities to have made a "guest appearance" on "South Park."
Hanson, who became instant mega pop stars upon the release of their 1997 debut LP, Middle of Nowhere, but who have been MIA for the past few years, now stand at the Barrymore/ Yothers crossroads. In May the Oklahoma brothers parted ways with Island Def Jam, as the label didn't share the trio's enthusiasm for their new musical direction, which, if Wednesday night's show at the China Club was any indication, leans toward Crosby, Stills & Nash-style folk rock.
So three years after This Time Around, Hanson have put out an acoustic album, Underneath Acoustic, via their Web site, and are showcasing the material on a club tour. The way that Isaac, 22, Taylor, 20, and Zac, 17, are received at this point will likely determine whether they'll go on to have an extended stay in the limelight or just fade away.
The brothers' most devoted fans seem to have hung on, and some younger ones have come aboard. The crowd at the China Club was primarily composed of 14- and 15-year-old girls, which the venue clearly expected as it declined to serve anything other than Cokes and pre-bottled Shirley Temples. While the young ladies in attendance weren't clawing at their breasts and swooning and crying, as would've been the case six years ago, they were certainly psyched and ready to love the guys and their new music.
It's easy to love the guys — Zac and Taylor could have second careers as models. As for the music, well, in the immortal words of Peter Brady, "When it's time to change, you've got to rearrange." And that's what the group has done since Taylor, the de facto lead singer on the group's first album, got his man voice.
Without Taylor's distinctive, young Michael Jackson-esque wail, Hanson began to lean on three-part harmonies and moved away from having a designated frontman. In this spirit, the brothers sat side-by-side on stools Wednesday night, deftly harmonizing on their gentle new cuts, which included "Deeper" and the title track off their new LP, "Underneath" ("Can't you see that I'm stuck here underneath?"), as well as on the 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classic "Teach Your Children." Most of the new material is slower-paced, some of it syrupy, such as "Crazy Beautiful," the song that Taylor crooned alone while playing piano that had him repeating over and over again how a certain someone was so, you guessed it, "crazy beautiful."
The fans cheered when the group said it was going to "play something a little more upbeat," and seemed happiest when the trio kicked it up a notch for bouncy old favorites like "Runaway Run" and their breakthrough smash, "MMMBop."
"You guys are amazing," Taylor said to the crowd with sweet sincerity before the group launched into the last song of the regular set, "This Time Around," whose line "And we won't go down!" was belted out with particular emphasis by the group.
After returning to play "If Only" ("This next one, thanks to you guys, had to be retired from MTV," Isaac noted beforehand), the brothers took a moment for a team huddle.
"I think you guys will get a kick out of this one," Isaac said with a smile as they returned to their positions. It took a few seconds to realize, what with the pretty harmonizing and acoustic strumming, that what Hanson were playing was Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty." Once the fans figured it out, they whooped and laughed and cheered.
When the house lights went up, many girls ducked into the ladies' room to brush their hair, reapply their eyeliner and gush to their friends about how awesome Hanson were. Some plotted how they could meet the brothers outside the club. Just like always.
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