Thursday, July 25, 2013

Matchbox Twenty, Goo Goo Dolls, and Kate Earl in Concord for Summer 2013

Live music is an opportunity to wonder at mass behavior.  Some artists fade away after a single hit and others have careers for decades.  The handful of bands that have survived in American pop culture since the mid-90s captured the zeitgeist of the dot-com bubble's promise of endless prosperity.  Matchbox Twenty and the Goo Goo Dolls are among that small number.  I got to hear them live on July 23 at the Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord during their 2013 Summer Tour.

The Pavilion itself is impressive.  It's a Frank Gehry creation that looks like someone chopped an edge off a Borg Collective cube and propped it up in the hill country of Contra Costa County.  I don't quite get the business logic behind Sleep Train's sponsorship, unless people in the Bay Area really need new mattresses more than once a decade.  Bay Area denizens break down into tribes of intellectuals and laborers.  I normally hang out with intellectuals but I can deal with the masses when I'm out in public.  Longtime concert goers mark their tribal affiliations with T-shirts from previous tours.  Lots of these folks must love the big name tour circuit.

The opening act was Kate Earl, a very strong performer with radio-friendly tracks like "One Woman Army" and "All I Want."  Kate will easily be a star because she has talent and the crowd felt it when she connected with them.  I was particularly impressed when she hit several progressively higher notes to demonstrate her vocal range, and her voice was stable at each octave.  It also helps that her looks and emotive ability translate well to video.  Check out her video for "Melody."  She's a natural performer and boldly displays sensuality.

Even top acts aren't above using base comic relief.  After Kate Earl's set, some random performer in a bear costume got up on stage and gesticulated to the old Disney standard "Bare Necessities."  I guess that was to please the kids in the crowd, or perhaps to fulfill a union contract that stipulates some minimum amount of time the roadies must be on stage.  Even roadies have unions these days, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) helps ensure that the ticket prices you pay at live performance venues remain as high as possible to pad their fat pockets.

The Goo Goo Dolls had tons of energy in their set, plus tons of touring musicians who aren't part of their regular lineup.  The one thing I've never fully understood about touring performers is their desire to supplement their official lineup with extra musicians who didn't record the songs in a studio.  I have a pet theory that I would like a music industry insider to either confirm or debunk.  I think studio recordings are now so overly processed, engineered, and dubbed that the only way to achieve a comparably rich sound while live is to add more live musicians.  I don't care much either way.  The Goo Goo Dolls sounded great with their extra backups.

John Rzeznik was a crowd favorite.  I suspect he'll go down in music history as a game-changing singer and songwriter.  His lyrics are poetic and his vocals have so many alternating layers that the band's oldest hits never tire out.  Their newer songs often share similar rhythms with their older standards but it's not like you're listening to the same song twice.  The only thing the Goo Goo Dolls need to do to remain successful is to stop their bassist Robby Takac from singing lead.  His bass playing is fine, but the dude just can't sing.  His raspy voice contrasted with John's melody displays an obvious talent gap.  It is no coincidence that the band achieved its commercial success when John took the lead vocal role from Robby after their first two albums. It is also no coincidence that none of the album songs where Robby sings lead have ever been released as singles.  Even the audience noticed the difference in vocal quality; they were polite and sedate when Robby sang but enthusiastic when John regained control of the stage.  This observation won't sit well with hardcore GGD fans but someone has to tell the truth.  Just play, Robby, and let John sing.

Matchbox Twenty went last and played the longest set.  Here's another of my pet theories.  I suspect that music industry tradition reserves the last and longest set for the band that has sold the most retail music.  That used to be measured in CD sales but now MP3 downloads are probably the leading metric.  The RIAA keeps statistics on shipments of music packages.  The IFPI has worldwide data.  I don't subscribe to either service so I don't get full access to their data histories by artist.  The closest I can come in open sources is to compare the unofficial Matchbox Twenty discography with the comparable Goo Goo Dolls discography.  Argh, the GGD page doesn't have total sales figures per album.  Shucks.  Billboard is no help either; it has article histories but no sales data.

I'm getting off track here, but I just can't help thinking about business topics even at a rock concert.  Matchbox Twenty simply rocked.  Their old standards from the mid-'90s pleased the youngsters in the crowd.  The two hot chicks in front of me just couldn't stop shaking their shapely bee-hinds during "3AM" and "Real World."  I had to stand for most of Matchbox Twenty's set because so many yahoos were standing up in front of me, including one tubby guy who insisted on waving his arms in some bizarre Tai Chi poses.  That's rock 'n roll for ya, where even no-talent slobs think they can be stars.

The prominent use of video effects as part of both headliners' stage acts is a sea change from road shows of yesteryear.  My very first live rock concert was Tesla in Sacramento on New Year's Eve 1992.  The hued lights would blink in time with the rhythm section and the bright lights would cue the audience to go nuts at the musical "bridge" points in each song, much like an "Applause" sign in a TV recording studio.  The last big name rock concert I attended was when The Cranberries played San Francisco's Warfield in 2002 as their popularity was just about to wane.  It really does take me a decade to get around to a show.  Anyway, the Cranberries had plenty of flashy lighting but no big video monitors to tell the audience what they should be feeling.  The video cues in the Goo Goo Dolls' "Come to Me" included supertitles of the lyrics so we could all sing along to one of their new releases.  Matchbox Twenty launched their set with a video of some Vaudevillian actor introducing them, and introduced "3AM" with a video of a clock radio hitting that time.  Video added a dimension to these groups' artistry that I never expected to see live.  Watch a YouTube video of some old '80s hair metal band and you'll see that lighting and video cues used to be as subtle as sledgehammers; now they're as sharp as scalpels.

Many of the younger folks in attendance couldn't have been past elementary school age when these two bands were in their heyday during the dot-com bubble.  Most of them weren't even born when INXS released "Don't Change," but they rocked out to it anyway when Matchbox Twenty covered it during their encore.  Those teens and twentysomethings now have a memory of an old song made new again.

Pop music's pervasiveness allows us to time-stamp our lives.  I'm in Generation X, the first generation to transition its listening preferences from FM radio to CDs to MP3s and finally web streaming.  The time-stamps of each of the hits that night are as readily visible for me now as when they were first imprinted . . .

- Goo Goo Dolls' "Name" in 1995 . . . meeting my platoon for the first time at Yongsan Garrison, Republic of Korea.
- Matchbox Twenty's "Push" and "3AM" in 1997 . . . driving back country Texas roads around Fort Hood after major exercises, going past the boundaries of the maps the base gave me.
- Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" in 1998 . . . browsing the old German shops made new for tourists outside of Warner Barracks in Bamberg, and regretting that the remake City of Angels wasn't nearly as good as Wim Wenders' original Wings of Desire.
- Goo Goo Dolls' "Black Balloon" in 1999 . . . watching Air Force pilots throw plastic furniture from the Officers' Club patio at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, with a very attractive female Air Force lieutenant who might have done anything I'd asked her to do (if only I had thought to ask).
- Matchbox Twenty's "Real World" in 1999 . . . at my promotion to Captain on the fourth floor of the Zone night club in Songtan, Republic of Korea, surrounded by my fellow soldiers and Korean bar girls with Anglicized stage names.
- Goo Goo Dolls' "Here is Gone" in 2002 . . . commuting to MBA classes in San Francisco where most of my classmates held me in contempt for my military background, and wondering how badly my pending recall to active duty would hurt my civilian career (as it turned out, almost terminally).
- Matchbox Twenty's "Unwell" in 2003 . . . risking my rank and paycheck to fight every illegal order I received from corrupt and incompetent military superiors, all while wondering why I was still bothering with the Army.
- Goo Goo Dolls' "Before It's Too Late" in 2007 . . . rebuilding an Army unit and its training regimen from the inside out at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the same barracks where I was told as a cadet in 1994 that I did not deserve to be a soldier.
- Goo Goo Dolls' "Notbroken" in 2010 . . . returning from war in Iraq, not broken at all.
- Matchbox Twenty's "She's So Mean" in 2013 . . . when my Army rank, personal net worth, and business reputation are higher than I ever imagined they would be in my darkest days.

I marked a new time-stamp at this concert with Kate Earl's "All I Want."  All I wanted was to see awesome performers live.  Popular music will never really change.  Frank Sinatra was the first pop crooner to make young women swoon and Elvis Presley was the first to make their boyfriends jealous.  The Beatles made pop music go transnational, with or without Tavistock's help.  Heavy rhythms recall our tribal origins as hunter gatherers.  Those rhythms can still bind us as temporary tribes, under the stars in outdoor pavilions.