It might be Britney, boy bands and bad boys ruling the charts these days, but modern rock is still capable of drawing a crowd, as a triple-header of genre heavyweights Goo Goo Dolls, Sugar Ray and Fastball proved at Merriweather Post Pavilion last night. The crowd was dominated by people likely to be more concerned with locker combinations and orthodontic decisions than grad school as fall rolls around, but it demonstrated that modern-rock programmers still hold considerable sway.
Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath made it a point to thank WHFS (and dis 98 Degrees) during his band's energetic but uneven eight-song set. Many female attendees clearly showed up to gawk at the photogenic McGrath, and his frosted locks and surfer's build drew far more squeals than the California quintet's mix of punk, hip-hop and a touch of trendy Latin.
The highlights were radio-friendly selections (Sugar Ray is definitely a singles band) like "Falls Apart," "Every Morning," "Someday" and the tired but still irresistible "Fly," which the band wisely attacked early in the set.
The band got popular fast, but McGrath looked like a seasoned crowd handler. He was undoubtedly the focal point, though DJ Homicide's samples and beats drove the music. After witnessing his performance, genuinely humbling demeanor and limited singing skills, the question is not what direction will Sugar Ray's album go in, but when will McGrath head into acting.
There was certainly no Hollywood in the Goo Goo Dolls' headlining performance. After stripping the stage of Sugar Ray's props (including a bar and bartender) the Buffalo trio ripped into a scruffy set that lasted late into the evening. Built on a model that combines classic rock riffs with the messy pop punk of trailblazers like the Replacements, the Dolls and guitarist-frontman Johnny Rzeznik have achieved something approaching mass appeal over their 13-year career. The generous set and piles of catchy guitar riffs they offered suggested they are taking a more professional attitude than ever, but still haven't completely abandoned their snotty roots.
Clearly unconcerned about staging a "proper" outdoor show, Rzeznik and bassist Robby Takac turned instead to loud electric instruments to get the message across. Though they employed a backup guitarist and keyboard player and mostly stuck to their own songs (sins the Replacements never committed), songs like "Broadway's Dark Tonight" had edges that poked through.
Rzeznik's husky voice is one reason for the band's radio success, and his disheveled appearance and stumbling guitar runs drew a few squeals of their own. Takac contributed a few vocals in his impossibly gravelly way, making smooth material like "Name" and a rousing sing-along of "Iris" seem a little more mainstream then they really are. A brief untitled acoustic weeper promised that Rzeznik has no plans to alter the formula that has made their latest recording, "Dizzy Up the Girl," a chart mainstay. "Rock is comin' back" he vowed at one point, and nothing the Dolls did indicated they ever thought it left.
The amiable Texas quartet Fastball began the evening, displaying stuff that isn't likely to fool many hitters. The band pitched a straightforward guitar pop (late-period R.E.M. meets K-Tel's '70s compilations) that didn't seem to stir the crowd.
Fortunately, they understand brevity, so dull moments passed quickly. Songs like "The Way" are somewhat dull, too, but pleasantly so, and their themes of harmless slackerdom proved more engaging than their recorded counterparts.
Ultimately, it was an evening a lot like the radio format to which the bands owe a thankless debt: predictable, but enjoyable every now and then. And best of all, the concert didn't have commercials.