MUSIC REVIEW: Bad Bad Hats, The Ophelias – McMenamins Mission Theater

Bad Bad Hats, a rising indie-pop rock trio from Minneapolis, put on an energetic and joyful show at McMenamins Mission Theater in NW Portland on Wednesday, May 25th. The opening band, the Ophelias, brought their playfully dark baroque-rock from Cincinnati and were the perfect musical foil to the sunny Bad Bad Hats.

Bad Bad Hats released their third album, Walkman, in September 2021, on Don Giovanni Records. Back in 2017, they played the Crystal Ballroom when they opened for the Front Bottoms. This time, the Mission Theater was filled with adoring fans all their own.

Kerry Alexander, of Bad Bad Hats

Kerry Alexander, of Bad Bad Hats

Bad Bad Hats is unapologetically fun music. Kerry Alexander, lead singer and guitarist, has a knack for writing catchy, concise love songs. Her melodic voice conveys contentment, with a pang of wistfulness. Anchored by bassist Chris Hoge and drummer, Connor Davison, both on occasional back-up vocals, the Hats are a tight, polished rock trio that leave no room for rough edges.

“We’re playing all the hits tonight,” Kerry announces on stage, to giddy applause. Their most popular songs have fun and goofy DIY music videos, which are a gateway for new fans. Kerry is just as hilarious on the stage. She cracks up the audience as she reveals the inspiration for her songs: teen magazine quizzes, imaginary ‘80s prom movies, gas station snacks—these quirky details are sprinkled into her lyrics and stage banter.

Kerry’s vocals sound eternally youthful—like a cartoon character who never ages. But her breezy style can’t conceal smart, crafted songwriting. Kerry paints each tune with the glow of first crushes and being crushed. Though she admits only part of this is inspired from real life. More often than not, she leans into her preference for classic pop love songs.

If you dig a bit, though, you’ll find a surprising namecheck in the Bad Bad Hats oeuvre, a song titled “Liz Phair” off their EP, Wide Right. You can hear Phair’s influence in the song’s bouncy guitar riff, but lyrically and vocally, Kerry couldn’t be more different.

One of your songs is called “Liz Phair.” It’s interesting because your songs are, I guess you could say a lot “cleaner” that hers can be. Do you have secret, unreleased songs that have all the swear words in them that you keep off the albums?

Bad Bad Hats: Kerry Alexander, vocals and guitar; Chris Hoge, bass; Connor Davison, drums.

Bad Bad Hats: Kerry Alexander, vocals and guitar; Chris Hoge, bass; Connor Davison, drums.

“That’s actually a great observation,” says Kerry. It’s funny because we jokingly pride ourselves on being a family friendly band, even though that’s not an actual thing we attempt to be. It just happens that most of the songs are pretty innocent, I guess. We do love when a whole family comes to the show. But no, I just don’t gravitate towards them…They just don’t seem to fit in a sort of nice pop song. But never say never! I might just unleash any day now,” she laughs.

“I always think of Liz Phair as sort of a lesson in finding your own voice,” Kerry explains. “When I was young, the first song I heard by [her] was, ‘Why Can’t I?’ on her ‘pop’ album, like when she shifted to pop. I thought it was the best song ever, I still think it’s one of my favorite songs. But my stupid boyfriend at the time, we were both 14, he was like, ‘That’s not the real Liz Phair, that’s not real music!’ I was kinda like, ‘What? I dunno, I really like it…’ That was sort of a learning moment for me, of not having shame for enjoying the kind of music that just brings you your own joy and inspiration. So, I’ve always loved [her]. That was just a small homage to the great Liz Phair.”

One exception to Kerry’s happy-go-lucky rule is the song, “Priority” off of Walkman. This outlier has a slower, dreamier groove; slightly Pink Floyd. On stage, Kerry explained the song is about the death of her father. She delivers the arresting first line, “When I went down to the kitchen, you were already dead.” Yet somehow, the song retains an optimistic sentiment, reminding us to express our feelings to loved ones while we can. After the contemplative interlude, the band bounces right back into more bubbly rock and roll. It seemed like the entire audience was lined up at their merch table after the show.

We seem to be in a musical era when major record labels are reluctant to promote artists that don’t have an army of synchronized bikini dancers behind them. In the ‘90s, Bad Bad Hats would have fit right in with bands like the Sundays or the Cardigans. “Midway,” from their first album, Psychic Reader, is a satisfying, sugary rock song with the cupid’s arrow-sharp hook: “God, I could have kissed you.” Bad Bad Hats could have knocked Sixpence None the Richer off the top ten charts 25 years ago. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a Bad Bad Bad Hats song makes its way into your next favorite rom-com movie. Their batch of home-grown, heartfelt pop deserves to be widespread.

The Ophelias: Spencer Peppet, vocals and guitar; Hannah MacNeal, violin; Jo Shaffer, bass; Mic Adams, drums.

The Ophelias: Spencer Peppet, vocals and guitar; Hannah MacNeal, violin; Jo Shaffer, bass; Mic Adams, drums.

The Ophelias, the supporting band from Cincinnati, opened the show on a darker note. Vocalist and guitarist Spencer Peppet came out with ribbons in her hair and a short, peasant-girl dress with hefty black boots—a visible expression of youthful earnestness plus the weight of heavy emotions she is unafraid to tap into. The violinist in velvet, Hannah MacNeal, studied at the Cincinnati College Conservatory. She’s touring in place of Andrea Gutmann Fuentes– the original violinist for the Ophelias, who plays on the albums.

“We’re gonna get real sad, real fast,” Spencer says with a laugh on stage, making light of her unapologetic expression of melancholy, but in a way that still feels good. The music conveys the sensation of revealing a secret you couldn’t keep inside anymore, only to find that your confidant shares that truth and feels the same.

Spencer mostly sings in a whisper-like vocal. But when her heavily distorted guitar and Mic Adams’s powerful drums reach a fever pitch with the violin soaring, there are brief moments when Spencer belts it out, her voice lifted above the band and matching its intensity. It’s clear she still draws from her six years of operatic training. Classical voice was almost her musical trajectory.

Spencer Peppet, of The Ophelias

Spencer Peppet, of The Ophelias

The onstage interplay between violinist Hannah MacNeal and bassist Jo Shaffer (who also has a classical guitar background) is intricate and inventive. For lack of a label for their blend of gothy, violin-infused rock and sensitive folk music, the Ophelias invented their own unique term.

You had described your sound as “moth music.” Can you explain what that means?

“That was in high school, when we put out our first record,” Spencer says. “There were other contenders – mermaid rock, nature punk. But I think moth music has definitely stuck a little bit…The luna moth feels very accurate…they’re these ghostly little wingèd things, flying around.”

Spencer’s lyrics subtly allude to mysticism, and even flirt with witchcraft. Songs like “Sacrificial Lamb” and “Becoming a Nun” from their latest album, Crocus, on Joyful Noise Recordings, are mysterious, yet still accessible. Bold lyrics such as, “I am what the Bible agrees is the worst kind of woman,” and “I am what would have been burnt alive,” bring to mind images of medieval witch trials. Spencer’s soft-spoken delivery belies the gravity of her words.

Your songs seem very mystical. Even the name Ophelias conveys this otherworldly feeling. Is that something that inspires you?

“Definitely,” Spencer says. “We’ve been talking a lot about liminal spaces and being from the Midwest, [when] you’re driving home from a show…it’s raining, the windshield is getting all blown out, it’s very blue, and you’re suddenly like, ‘Oh my god, where am I? What am I doing?’” Spencer laughs. “The Ophelias definitely try to ride the line between the everyday, the mundane and the otherworldly and how those two cross over, how you can see yourself in all of those things.”

The Ophelias closed their opening spot with the song, “Moon Like Sour Candy” from their first album, Almost, and expressed their excitement for the main act. Spencer described Bad Bad Hats as “cowboys”—an amusing counterpart to their mermaid rock.

There’s nothing like the experience of a live show, and the joy of discovering new music (as your list of favorites continues to grow). The mid-sized Mission Theater hits the sweet spot between an intimate show at the White Eagle and the heart-pounding excitement of a packed Crystal Ballroom concert. Bob and sway with the crowd on the dance floor, or chill out with a beer in the balcony seats. If you haven’t been to a Mission show in a while, now’s the time. You never know what you’ll discover.

Written by Elysia Scholl

Photos by Kat Nyberg

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