Ask me the decade that formed my musical tastes, and it'll be a tie between the 80's and the 90's. In the 80's, when I was in my teens, I started listening earnestly to music on the radio, as most teens do. I started memorizing lyrics to songs that I liked, collecting albums, saw my first few concerts, and for the most part started on the path that led to me being a music writer. While I did get a bit experimental in the 80's, I was also a fan of the pre-packaged, synthesizer-leaden pop music of the era. Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, Thompson Twins, Thomas Dolby and the like were included in my 45rpm record singles collection. But I was also a bit more adventurous, listening to the Smiths, R.E.M., and They Might Be Giants after reading about them in Rolling Stone and SPIN.
A stint in the army, living in Europe for a couple of years, and then working for an alternative rock radio station for a few years in the late 80's and early 90's widened my musical tastes even more. The 90's was a pretty remarkable time to be in the music business. We watched as hair metal died (okay, so it didn't die, but it went into deep hibernation for about a decade and a half) and was replaced by alternative rock, the rise of hip hop, and R&B. Working part time as an on-air personality at the late great 96 Wave, as well as at a couple of local record stores, I got a further schooling in bands that mattered. Acts that I had only heard in passing, such as Pavement, The Melvins, Camper Van Beethoven, The Replacements, and The Pixies were in rotation at the station and played over the store's stereo systems.
Then there were the bands that stuck closer to the more traditional idea of what rock and pop is. Bands such as Fastball, Vertical Horizon, The Gin Blossoms, Sugar Ray, and Smash Mouth ruled the roost in the mid to late 90's and into the new millennium, simply because they were a bit more safe than some of the grungier acts that permeated the 90's music culture. Those five bands were the very ones performing last Friday night at the Coliseum. A decent-sized crowd of about 3,000 came out to take in the package tour, and with five bands to blow through in roughly four hours, fans were assured of hearing just the hits from each act.
Fastball was first up. That band's 1998 album, "All The Pain Money Can Buy," has always been one that I could listen to from beginning to end, and with singles such as "The Way" and "Fire Escape," and "Out of My Head," it was evident there was some real songwriting talent among the band members. During its kickoff set, Fastball played those tunes and a few others, and even though folks were still trickling in and finding their seats, the band played like the place was full. Fastball didn't belong at the bottom of the roster, but I suppose someone had to be first.
Vertical Horizon was up next, and to be honest I was only familiar with one of their songs, "Everything You Want." The band's performance was good though. Lead singer and guitarist Matt Scannell was a confident leader for the band, and he definitely had the rock star moves down. The Gin Blossoms' lead singer Robin Wilson came out to sing a song with Vertical Horizon, and throughout the evening different members of the various bands on the bill kept the cross-pollination going.
The third band up was The Gin Blossoms, a band I had never had the chance to see live in its 90's heyday. That band's debut, 1992's "New Miserable Experience," spawned a wealth of singles like "Hey Jealousy," "Mrs. Rita," "Until I Fall Away," "Found Out About You," and "Allison Road." As a matter of fact, that debut was so god that it would soon become apparent that the band shot their creative wad completely on that first album. Wilson and the rest of the band did a great job of getting the crowd out of their seats, with Wilson almost constantly urging the crowd to get their "Hands up!" At one point he even hopped down into the photo pit to get closer to the crowd, giving his tambourine to Natalie Swanson, who was sitting in the front row. Just like the two bands before it, The Gin Blossoms was lively and musically on point. The band seemed genuinely humbled by the positive crowd reaction. A couple of members of Smash Mouth came out to play on a song or two with the band.
Sugar Ray was next on the bill. I'd always had a love/hate relationship with that band. On the one hand, they put out what I consider to be some of the more brainless hit singles of the 90's. "Fly," "Every Morning," and "Someday" are just a few examples. With that said, every time I hear one of those insipid tunes it gets stuck in my head for a couple of days, so there's obviously some kind of perverse musical science going on there. Also in the band's favor is the fact that all of its members, especially lead singer Mark McGrath, seem to realize how lucky they are. McGrath, who also served as the evening's emcee, was all over the stage during Sugar Ray's set, cracking jokes, spitting out pop culture references with machine gun speed, and making sure even the folks way in the back of the Coliseum were having a god time. All the while, he had a look on his face that seemed to say, "Yeah, I can't believe we've made it this far either, but we'll ride this train until the wheels fall off." I found that kind of endearing, despite never having been a particularly big fan of the band. During the band's set I started to actually get a bit of respect for Sugar Ray. Then they had to go and cover The Violent Femmes' classic "Blister in the Sun," and that respect went right out the window. They could have picked any other song in the universe to cover, and it would have gone better than what transpired onstage Friday night. The Femmes should seriously think about issuing a cease and desist to make sure that crap never happens again. I didn't think the show could get any worse that that. Sadly, I was wrong, and this is where I come to that second thought of the night.
Smash Mouth closed out the night as the headliners of the Under the Sun Tour. I'm not sure what was used to gauge which band was supposed to headline. Perhaps they went by how many of a particular band's songs have appeared on the soundtracks to popular movies. In that capacity, at least Smash Mouth's headlining slot became a bit more easy to swallow. I've never quite understood Smash Mouth's enduring popularity, but since I had never seen them live I decided to give the band a chance to redeem itself. To be fair, the musicians in the band seemed to be quite talented on their respective instruments. The real problem with Smash Mouth lay with its lead singer, Steve Harwell. On Smash Mouth studio singes such as "Walking On the Sun," "All Star," and "Can't Get Enough of You, Baby," Harwell's trademark raspy voice is in full effect. Apparently there is A LOT of studio magic going on, because in a live setting, that same voice was off-key and annoying from the start. The guy sounded like a cat in heat with laryngitis. I tried to like the band's performance; lord knows I did, but even with a group of competent musicians behind him, Harwell turned in one of the worst performances I've seen in ages. From off-key renditions of its biggest hits, to annoyingly loud punk-rock wannabe tunes, to a horrible cover of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me," Smash Mouth's top spot on the bill was a real letdown. "I had to leave. My ears were hurting," a friend told me through Facebook the next day. I stayed until the end in the interest of journalism, but it was tough to do so. I'm sure Smash Mouth doesn't care much about what I think. Every time a "Shrek" DVD is sold those guys are laughing all the way to the bank.
Looking back, I can deal with the fact that the music of my youth has been tied up with a nice little bow and sent out on a package tour with a pat on the head. Twenty years from now, the youth of today will likely attend a nostalgia tour that features Robin Thicke, Katy Perry, fun, Justin Bieber, and Macklemore. If any of part of that as yet fictional package tour ever becomes reality, I'll feel a little bit better about having to suffer through Smash Mouth's set. A little, but not much...