The funny thing about the songs you catch yourself (with great embarrassment) humming along to in line at Walgreens is that some are much, much better when blasted into your ear holes during a live performance.
It is powerfully uncool for a 28-year-old cynic clinging to the last vestiges of whatever edge he may have once had to admit he enjoyed a Train concert, but what can I say? It’s been a crazy year, and I had fun watching the true god-kings of radio rock perform Tuesday night at Save Mart Center.
The San Francisco band has remained remarkably relevant in the pop rock world over the last few decades by singing catchy tunes about two things: Love and being from San Francisco.
But Train’s live show is more than a regurgitation of songs my mom put on every mix CD once she learned how to make mix CDs. To see them – and particularly frontman Patrick Monahan – on stage is to watch a master class in the rock/pop performance.
Every trick in the book was laid out.
The band played covers, sometimes interweaving everything from doo-wop to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” into quick asides during its own songs. Monahan also brought both opening acts – Natasha Bedingfield and O.A.R. – back on stage to sing with him.
Train “slowed it down.” Monahan, who spent most of the night buzzing around the stage sans instrument, sat down with an acoustic guitar and said something about guitar playing not being a strength of his but he wanted to do it anyway. And I, the cynic, thought “that’s too bad, if only you had access to two professional guitar players standing not 5 feet from you.” But then I felt like a jerk, because the rest of the band and their two fabulous backup singers did join him for an around-the-campfire acoustic set. And it was really nice.
The musicians used the ends of songs for shredding and thumping solos as if to say “hey, I may be up here playing top 40, but I can melt faces with the rest of them.”
Monahan complained about the heat and how terrible Los Angeles is to a crowd happy to sing, dance and participate. He acknowledged a 9-year-old boy with a large green sign telling everyone this was his first concert. He even added a 21st century twist by using one hand to catch the cellphones of those willing to toss their cherished devices his way, then taking a selfie with the audience behind him – all while singing a song about, keep up with me here, love.
I know these are things musicians have done for 50 years to get a rise out of people. There’s a cheap thrill from thinking, oh, I just saw those people singing by themselves on this very stage an hour ago and now they’re back or, oh, I heard this not-Train song in my car two days ago and now Train is doing it.
But I didn’t really care. It was fun. Really fun. And the nearly full Save Mart Center seemed to agree.
A side note: I have never seen an audience more amped up by the music played over the house speakers between acts. If you’re a concert promoter, just play “Jock Jams” while setting up. Trust me.
The well-known songs and stagecraft blended perfectly. The set, which stretched past 90 minutes after the encore, kept most of the audience on their feet and screaming throughout.
Train’s musicianship was first-rate. Monahan is the only original member, so I’d bet my hat the band is staffed with crack session guys, but that’s OK. His vocals were great, so we likely saw the best Train that has ever – Trained.
The vocals were key. Fresno sees a lot of broken down or breaking down artists singing songs that made them famous 20 or 30 years ago. The lead singers often sing quite a bit lower – and frankly quite a bit worse – than what we heard on the record.
Monahan has not hit that point, and that’s worth celebrating for Train fans.
Another quick note on Train’s longevity: The highlight of Tuesday’s show was a punchy version of “Meet Virginia,” the band’s breakout hit in 1999. I remember that song from “Now That’s What I Call Music! 4,” which I believe I got for my birthday just before starting seventh grade. Universal Music Group is about to release “NOW 63.” You know who else was on “NOW 4”? The Backstreet Boys, Eiffel 65, Hanson, Smash Mouth and similar ilk. Are they still making hit songs and performing them in arenas without a lost step?
Will I always remember the day Train came to town? Probably not. But it was an enjoyable night out. I will have a few good memories the next time I hear a Train song, which, if the last 15 years have been any clue, will happen quite a bit.
And maybe I and the other Train cynics who did not enter Tuesday night with enthusiasm will be a little less smug the next time we hear “Hey Soul Sister” in a doctor’s office waiting room.