Live Rock: Summerland at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

On a perfect Friday night the Summerland roster of bands rolled across the stage at the Greek Theater for the second show of their summer long tour. It’s no coincidence that the program included five names that we would associate with the early-mid nineties rock scene.   The interesting idea of putting five iconic ‘90’s bands on tour together twenty years later is the idea of two ‘90’s frontmen, Art Alexakis of Everclear, and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray.   In addition to their respective top-billed groups the package also featured the hit-making Gin Blossoms from Tempe, AZ as well as Orange County’s own Lit and Marcy Playground.

Friday’s show was a smoothly run affair with each set trimmed concisely to times ranging from about a half hour to just shy of an hour.   Thanks to the fact that all amps and drum risers were on wheels, there weren’t more than ten minutes between any of the acts.   Moreover, there was an infectious camaraderie spilling over the lip of the stage.  Throughout the night Alexakis and McGrath would come out to greet, thank and exalt the crowd, as well as to root the other bands on.   They had much to be thankful for, too, as they were playing what they view as one of the most desirable venues in LA… and they sold the place out.

Mark McGrath and Art Alexakis

The show began about an hour before sundown with Marcy Playground.   They played a crisp brand of three-man power pop that was upbeat and without guitar solos.   It sometimes takes just one song to get a band noticed and then savored.   For Marcy Playground that song has got to be “Sex and Candy,” a clever, laid back daydream about a girl who is at least “double cherry pie” and “disco lemonade” but who also casts a “devious stare.”   It’s always good to hear that song on the radio or, even better, live as the sun sets.

Second up were Lit, perhaps the most “heavy metal” of the bands for the evening, doing a stylized and very energetic half hour set.   Lit have an edgy yet playful look that resembles a cross between Guns ‘n Roses and perhaps Social Distortion, a delivery that you would expect from a pop friendly alternative metal band that grew up loving punk rock, too.  From underneath their own gigantic logo banner Lit put out a big, ballsy sound featuring a tight, heavy bottom end, a busy percussive top end from the cymbals, and some nice dynamics from Jeremy Popoff’s crunching midrange rhythm guitar.    There were rocker leaps and poses taken, trips to the ego risers at the front of the stage, and the band delivered a fun string of songs that had people throughout the crowd chanting every word to hits like “My Own Worst Enemy.” The songs were crisply arranged, with fat layers of guitars, and A.J. Popoff’s vocals were synced with the drums for a very catchy, easy to join delivery.   It’s not easy to kick ass in half an hour on a big stage but Lit made nice work of the task.

Third up were the Gin Blossoms from Tempe, AZ.    Dressed more casually and moving slower and smoother than the other bands they delivered the goods, big-time.  Although they only played about 40 minutes, the set drove home the fact that they sure had a big bundle of hits.   In fact, their set was the catchiest batch of songs of the night.  The GB’s success in the early 90’s came at a time when radio still hadn’t yet become the compartmentalized situation it is now.  People in all walks of life simply had to turn on a radio and several different stations would deliver the songs that were blowing up behind heavy airplay.  The GB’s were in the driver’s seat in the early 90’s.  In songs like “Found Out About You,” “Hey Jealousy,” “Alison Road” and “Follow You Down” the group always featured distinct layers of jangling guitars, a lot of thump in the lower end and signature harmony vocals that grew organically out of the guitar registers.  On Friday, the band seemed to have lost nothing over time as their sound was still instantly recognizable.  The audience at the Greek theater lapped the Gin Blossoms set up, singing along with every song.   The Gin Blossoms even snuck in a well-suited, tasty cover of “A Million Miles Away” by the Plimsouls.   As Mark McGrath would joke in a few short minutes, he’s a little bothered by the Gin Blossoms because they are so good and he and Sugar Ray have to follow them each night.

And next to appear, in fact, were Sugar Ray from Orange County, fronted by McGrath, in a white jacket with a black lapel and the band, looking rather ska, all wearing suits and skinny black ties.  Theirs was the longest set of the night at just over an hour.  Though it was polished and engaging it was a little uneven musically.  They played some hard driving music at times, but it didn’t work nearly as well as their hits.   McGrath is a winsome personality and a real pro at getting a crowd on his side.  Friday’s audience, particularly the ladies in the place, just ate the hits up, singing every word.

The taproot musical chemistry in this group is between McGrath and guitarist Rodney Sheppard. Starting in high school, they have been a musical pair for 26 years and their success lies in the signature sound they developed for songs like “Fly,”  “Every Morning,” “Someday” and “When It’s Over.”   These songs seem to easily evoke summer fun at a beach resort.  Using very bouncy, percussive acoustic guitars and a super catchy, upbeat, sing-along hooks the songs satisfy as a soundtrack to the times of peoples’ lives.  In the tradition of a great pop song, they draw you right in and take your mind to a good place.

Art Alexakis’ band Everclear played a surprisingly short 40-minute set to close the show.   They were a slick looking outfit of skinny dudes dressed in black with long arms and legs, playing low slung black Les Pauls, and their one chord slam endings were state of the art.    Not exactly punk-rock.  Alexakis’ voice is downright soulful and his words are too… but you just wanted more melody and harmonic landscape to hang the ideas onto.   Everclear came out with an entire riser of keyboards, including a full-sized Hammond B-3 organ.   This instrument is the ambrosia of many a rock band’s sound.   The possibilities for sweetening up a strong catalogue of tunes were very intriguing.  But on Friday the B-3 might as well not have been standing there teasing us because it was largely unheard.   Alexakis implored the crowd repeatedly to make some noise, which seemed unnecessary.   The set never really caught the fire you hoped it would.   Nonetheless, Everclear’s biggest hit, “Santa Monica,” got the crowd singing along ecstatically.

All in all, a show like this makes it clear that while a lot of the guys who were performing grew up idolizing and revering punk rockers and even heavy metal players, they took these influences and made from them something new and, well, more marketable than punk.   Although the tattoos and piercings remain, the sound is different, more compressed and without many layers to it.   Even so, in the end it still rings true enough to fill the Greek theater on a lovely summer night for a rock and roll revue.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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