SAN FRANCISCO -- When it came showtime, Hooverphonic appeared centerstage in a burst of backlit bulbs and smoke-machine glory to the sweet, pre-recorded orchestration of their album opener "Battersea" (RealAudio excerpt).
The crowd stopped moving and stared as the band's new singer, Geike, slunk around the mic stand uttering ethereal vocals and shimmying along to the music. Clearly, it wasn't the same old trip-hop-rocking Hooverphonic. But that seemed to be exactly the point.
Hooverphonic arrived at their Bimbo's 365 Club show Friday, dragging a year of success, annoyance and instability behind them.
During that time, the Belgian quartet had to live with the constant airplay of "2Wicky," a one-off hit single from its debut album, A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular. Hooverphonic were written off by wags as a copycat band of pseudo trip-hoppers. And, to top it all off, they lost their lead vocalist to a bad case of homesickness.
But Hooverphonic bounced back. And Friday, they bounced into Bimbo's with a new vocalist, Geike; a new album, Blue Wonder Power Milk; and a slick, new live show.
The music itself, particularly songs such as "Falling in Love" and "Eden," created an atmospheric, mysterious mood that was accentuated by banks of artificial fog that issued from behind the stage.
The spell was broken only twice during the set. At one point, Alex Callier, the band's main songwriter, indulged in a minute or two of crowd chat, asking how people liked his atrociously loud vintage suit -- attire that would have been better borne backlit.
The only other break came during a technical failure on the opening strains of "Club Montepulciano," the first single off of the new album. The band's roadies scrambled quietly around in the fog and fixed the problem, and the band completed the song, one of the catchiest on the album.
Despite a few slight disappointments, Hooverphonic showed on this night that they have many facets to their sound. With their acoustic element, complex string arrangements and layered live sound, they proved to be something of a thinking person's electronica.
The evening would not have been complete without a rousing rendition of the band's 1997 hit "2Wicky" (RealAudio excerpt). Geike managed to hold her own against the album version, which featured the band's former singer, Liesje Sadonius.
When Hooverphonic returned for an encore, Callier appeared with just an acoustic guitar and voiced a wise sentiment regarding these electronic-crazy times. He claimed that it was the songs that were really important; even if the computers break down, Callier said, the songs should still stand on their own. And he set out to prove it by singing without any electronic umbilical cord.
Geike stood by as Callier stepped up and began an acoustic version of "Dictionary" (RealAudio excerpt).
Francis Mannarino, a fan who has followed the band since its debut, liked what she saw. "This new release is more straight ahead," Mannarino said, "with not as many gimmicks; much more orchestral and atmospheric."
But, just as everything was rolling, Hooverphonic stumbled a bit.
Geike announced that the second encore would be "a surprise." The surprise turned out to be a faster version of "2Wicky." But this dance-mix version couldn't top the original and the only surprise seemed to be that the band would have bothered doing this version in the first place.
This didn't, however, deter Mannarino from offering her praise for the album, not to mention for the new Hooverphonic style and sound.
"The band has really gone off in a different direction with the new record," she said. "The first album was much more sample-heavy, in the trip-hop electronica vein."