Friday, July 23, 2010

Train concert review

Pat Monahan photo, from San Francisco Fillmore show in October 2009, courtesy of My concert review originally appeared in the OC Register, which can be viewed here:

A quick trivia question: What do Madonna and Mr. Mister have in common? Besides notching No. 1 singles in 1985-86, both are name-checked in Train’s recent hit, “Hey, Soul Sister.” The biggest digital song of the year so far, it has sold nearly 4 million downloads since last August, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Reading singer Pat Monahan’s lyrics on the group’s latest album, Save Me, San Francisco, is like a game of Spot the Musical Reference. Current single “If It’s Love” (whose self-parodying video was directed by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz) mentions Winger, while Sonny & Cher emerge in “I Got You” — itself an interpolation of the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.”

For San Francisco, the onetime Bay Area band’s fifth and best effort, the musicians often utilized an organic approach along the lines of their 1998 self-titled debut. Primarily produced by Martin Terefe (known for work with Jason Mraz and James Morrison), Monahan penned a couple tunes with hot hit-makers S*A*M and Sluggo as well as Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic.

Cynical observers (Train has never been a critic’s darling) might view such collaborations as a calculated stab at success, since 2006’s “For Me, It’s You” fell short of gold status. Yet these tracks come across as effortless — and the same held true in a live setting. More than half those songs comprised Train’s sold-out show Sunday night during the end of the first weekend of the 2010 Pacific Amphitheatre Concert Series. Select lawn overflow tickets were also available, swelling the attendance level to nearly 9,800 — the largest since the venue reopened in 2003, according to an OC Fair spokesperson.

At one point in the spirited 90-minute, 16-song set, a gracious Monahan said it was one of the biggest gigs they’d ever headlined. Seeing people up on the hill area, which had been closed off every fair season, was indeed odd. Even stranger? Half a dozen Jeep SUVs were parked all around the dirt behind them, ostensibly to be test-driven by fair-goers in an obstacle course.

Train served as a house band of sorts for Orange County this past week. Local baseball fans know their adult-contemporary chart-topping 2003 song “Calling All Angels” serves as the theme to the Anaheim team’s history montage during home games. But this time the trio performed it at the Home Run Derby and for tailgaters prior to last Tuesday’s All Star Game.

In Costa Mesa, Train had a modest stage setup and just a few speakers; unusually, drummer Scott Underwood was situated toward the front. The mid-tempo “Parachute” launched the proceedings on a soaring, romantic note. On “Get to Me,” Monahan immediately prompted some call-and-response action. A lithe and affable frontman who indulged some gymnast-worthy moves, he continually worked both sides of the stage and interacted with the audience at every turn.

After spotting people hoisting unusual stuffed game prizes from the fair, an observant Monahan brought up several females, corralled to help him sing and slow dance onstage. (The security staff sure were kept busy this night.) Fans’ photo requests were also obliged. The personal connections were a nice touch, although they also tended to deaden the set’s pacing and led to some sloppy singing. A gentle, acoustic-based “Marry Me” was marred by Monahan’s trip through the crowd, his microphone often cutting out due to overzealous enthusiasts.

Train’s first hit, “Meet Virginia,” came off a bit sluggish, but “She’s on Fire” proved the band has a sense of humor. Tour keyboardist Jerry Becker led with some funky Fender Rhodes work, and halfway through a roadie handed Monahan a cowboy hat. The singer explained the video to “Hey, Soul Sister” was just added to the CMT channel, so they switched gears into country mode, speeding and twanging everything up until returning to the original tempo.

“Mississippi,” a rarely played song off second album Drops of Jupiter (2001), was a languid groover featuring weepy guitar from Jimmy Stafford. The feisty “I Got You” was a real crowd-pleaser. Fans helped with the Doobies’ refrain as Monahan sang through a megaphone and Stafford added tasty slide guitar.

Among the other highlights: the inspirational “Angels”; the swampy, gospel-tinged title track from the latest album; the charming “Sister,” which began a capella, had Stafford giddily strumming a ukulele and found Monahan side by side with (presumably his) two toddlers; and the majestic encore-closer “Drops of Jupiter.” The band was sonically proficient, yet Monahan had the audience in the palm of his hands from the start and used that to his advantage.

Previous concerts this year saw the band toss in a classic-rock remake or two (Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Van Halen). I would like to have heard their take on “Going to California” since Monahan once fronted a Led Zep cover band. But the fair’s curfew for concerts — in addition to his lengthy fan encounters — likely scuttled that opportunity.

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