Mike Kessel

An Evening with Hawthorne Heights’ Emo Orchestra

Music Scene Media
Nov 7, 2023
6 min read

The inaugural nationwide tour of Emo Orchestra, featuring Hawthorne Heights, came to Omaha, NE on November 5th, leaving the crowd enamored with nostalgia.

When you think of an evening at the orchestra, you may imagine getting dressed up and going to a fancy theater to listen to a full orchestra playing Mozart or Bach. Well, imagine that, but catered to millennials! This fusion brought together the feel of modern music with a contemporary touch for a truly unique experience. 

The setting was a little different than what I’m used to at The Admiral. Where I’m used to seeing a sea of kids moshing and crowd surfers, was fully seated. The stage was mood lit with candles. The mic stands and edge of the stage decorated with lanterns and candles.. A large Emo orchestra banner hung at the back of the stage behind a half circle of stringed instruments.

I was excited to capture a band from my youth that has left such a legacy in the emo genre but this wasn’t a normal Hawthorne Heights performance.  They were backed by an orchestra that added technicality and emotional depth to each song in the set list. In addition to playing their own songs, Hawthorne Heights (and the orchestra) performed a wide array of emo hits that had me reminiscing on my first years in the music scene.

The evening began with just the conductor and orchestra setting the mood by playing a soft melody. A few minutes in Hawthorne heights walked onto stage. They picked up their instruments as the orchestral piece turned into Hawthorne Heights’ debut single, from their first studio album, “Nikki FM”.

Once the first song was finished, JT Woodruff, Hawthorne Heights’ vocalist, took a moment to express “What the hell were even doing up here”. He reminisced about the early 2000’s, bad hair, and the music scene that brought them to where they were at. Before starting the rest of the set he went on to encourage fans to participate in the set even though it was a seated show, stating “We want you to be loud. We want you to be singing. You made them popular so these songs are as much yours as anybody's.”

This format continued throughout the performance. The band maintained a tight bond with the audience all night. Each song had a story beforehand. JT would speak for about 5 minutes while the orchestra played gentle background music. He would allude to each song as “this song” but never tell the crowd what it is until it began. Seconds before each song began, the story would stop, the orchestra softened, lights dimmed, and on the screens, the title would appear as a surprise to the audience, met by cheers as they realized how the story tied together with the next curated song.

This reminded me a ton of booking singer-songwriter showcases when I used to be a venue manager. We would bring in artist’s that were huge 20-30 years ago and they would have “an evening with..” This would be an intimate setting where the audience got to participate and communicate with the artists to reminisce of the past. 

In popular culture, the "nostalgia cycle" is typically for the two decades that begin 20–30 years ago. This is where the term “retro” comes from. When I was growing up, we would think of the 70’s style as retro. I couldn’t help but think about how, by that definition, Retro is now the early 2000’s. Talk about feeling old!

Throughout the night, JT told an almost chronological story about Hawthorne Heights’ journey from a small-time band playing in a comic book shop with the likes of Fall Out Boy through signing a major record deal and having their first national tour. At one point early in the set he mentioned the first show they ever played in Omaha was at a bowling alley. A bunch of the members of the audience cheered recalling the shows they visited, at the now closed venue, during their youth.

Eventually they announced a brief Intermission. Never did I think I would see an intermission at an emo /post-hardcore show. After about 15 minutes of the crowd getting drinks and socializing everyone found their seats again. 

Silence filled the room, until the screens light up again with the words:

The Black Parade

My Chemical Romance

But that band was nowhere to be seen. The Orchestra started the second half of the set alone. Unlike the rest of the night, the screen displayed all the lyrics to this song. The crowd started timid with a few people singing along and ended with a full room of nostalgic millennials belting the song at full volume with the orchestra behind them like a group karaoke. This was their turn to be the singers for the evening.

Afterwards, Hawthorne Heights returned to stage and continued to play hits from acts such as Story of the Year, Paramore, AFI, and more. All of which were great but the stories really made the evening special. They did a phenomenal job of giving insight into what it is like being a young touring band and the difficulties that lie with choosing to make the leap to success. 

My favorite story in the second set was about the band getting a phone call to play a showcase in Chicago. He admitted the band didn’t even know what a showcase meant at the time but they decide to make the drive anyways. They were just excited to perform out of town. To them, at the time, any out of town show felt like being on tour for a day. So, they drove 5 hours to play 3 songs in front of a group label executives.

Hawthorne Heights played the first song. The Executives said nothing. They played their second song. Again, the executives didn’t say a single word. They played their 3rd song and said, “That’s all we’ve got” to which the executives responded  “we will be in touch.”

JT recalled the entire band sitting in silence on the way home because they thought they bombed what was their biggest opportunity. 9am the following morning he received an email with a record contract which they signed and, as JT said, “The rest was this!”.

The standout moment of the night was the performance being capped off with the Hawthorne Heights’ hit “Ohio is for Lovers”. You could tell the crowd was waiting for this all night. While they enjoyed numerous songs ranging from Death Cab for Cutie to Taking Back Sunday, it was clear the audience was itching for more tracks from the band itself. As soon as the first words of the track “Hey, there...” rang from the stage, everyone in attendance rose from their seats and joined in to cap off the evening

Emo Orchestra delivered a captivating performance and story, proving that the power of live orchestral music is not a thing of the past. The orchestra's cohesion with the band created an elevated level of connection to each piece performed while the stories left viewer feeling personally invested. I believe everyone in that room left feeling like they knew the band on a more personal level. In my eyes, art is all about taking experiences from the past and combining them with your current experience to showcase your own perspective for the world and this performance did just that. 

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