Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms & Fastball at Arena Theater, 8/17/2013

Under The Sun Tour Feat. Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms & Fastball Arena Theater August 17, 2013

The '90s were an interesting time for music, especially in the realm of pop. It was an age of one-hit wonders, and as a band it seemed like it took a whole lot more than that one catchy song to keep you on the map. Saturday evening at Arena Theatre featured an onslaught of 90's bands that were good enough to take that next step and not fizzle off with the rest of the Aqua's and Baha Men.

In a show billed as the "Under the Sun" tour, Arena's spinning stage hosted Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms and Fastball -- a grouping of bands responsible for more hits than you'd probably realize. Over the course of three hours, these four bands had no problem bringing the '90s nostalgia to full tilt.

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Arena Theater is always an interesting place to see a show. If you've never been to this dated venue down 59 in Sharpstown, I'd highly recommend taking the trip. While it can be pricey, with tickets always a bit higher than their competitors, the in-the-round seating and spinning stage allow for a much more intimate show than a similarly sized venue like House of Blues or Bayou Music Center. Also, the whole no-rules/anything-goes vibe to the place is a huge plus that allows for a great concert experience.

Austin-bred alt-rockers Fastball were the first to perform, taking the stage while the venue was slowly starting to fill up. They only had a 20-minute set, so they wasted no time bringing the heat. Of course we all knew that "The Way" was to come -- actually, the nights emcee, Mark McGrath, informed us Fastball would play it upon their introduction --- but what was unexpected were the first few songs that most of the crowd were obviously not too familiar with.

They were just flat-out jams, and if this was where the bar was going to be set, then a night of great pop tunes was assuredly to be had. Fastball made their way through the short set, which included their other radio successes "Out of My Head" and "Fire Escape," before concluding with the aforementioned '90s mega-hit "The Way."

The crowd finally started to come alive, which might have had something to do with the expensive, yet stout drinks that were being poured at the high-school-football-stadium-style concession stands dotting the wall of the theater.

The bill originally was slated to also feature Vertical Horizon, but for some reason they were a no-show on this particular evening. While I wasn't too bummed they didn't play, it still would've been pretty cool to hear "Everything You Want" live. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it, though.

Gin Blossoms were next on the bill, and with a quicker than expected set change, they took the stage to a room now half-full. GB were the biggest surprise of the night, and with as many majorly popular songs as they had throughout the '90s, it's weird they don't pack similarly sized venues all by themselves.

But what truly made the band great was lead singer Robin Wilson's unbridled enthusiasm throughout the performance. He was bounding about the stage making everyone in the room feel as if they were a part of the show. His ability to work the crowd was unlike any other front man I've witnessed, and matched with the band's ability to bang out hit after hit, it made for the best performance of the day.

The Blossoms' set list read like a Saturday afternoon watching TRL: "Hey Jealousy," "Alison Road," "Follow You Down," "Found Out About You" and "Til I Hear It From You" were all included in the band's allotted 45 minutes. Walking into the show, I was excited to hear "Hey Jealousy," but somehow forgot about the greatness of the rest of their catalog.

At this point, I could've walked out a happy man, but knowing that Sugar Ray was next to hit the stage, I stuck around to see if they could match the previous two bands' solid sets. They actually had no problem with it. Sugar Ray, specifically Mark McGrath, has slyly stayed just under the radar since their megahits of the 90's and early 2000's. McGrath had been holding down a regular spot hosting the TV clip show Extra, but since Mario Lopez took over for him five years ago, has been re-focused on Sugar Ray.

McGrath is a born star, and actually seems like he might be a pretty cool guy if you just bump into him on the street. He was super-appreciative of his fans, and while he could have just phoned hits like "Every Morning" and "Someday," he didn't. Not only that, though, but he added a bit of extra energy and pizzazz to the songs and made them current. Even their huge hit "Fly" served as a fitting end to the set, and had the whole room bouncing around, seemingly trying to do what the title of the song says.

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The evening's "headliner," Smash Mouth, were by far the biggest rock stars of the night, or so they thought. The band, which now only features half of the original members including vocalist Steve Harwell and bassist Paul De Lisle, came out with an air of douchiness that none of the other bands had. Personally, I feel as if Sugar Ray would have served as a better bill topper, but that's my personal opinion.

Smash Mouth only had about eight songs on their set list, mostly being the covers they've popularized, specifically The Monkees "I'm a Believer" (which I saw performed much better by the originators a few weeks ago at the same venue) and a blistering version of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" which to me was their best tune of the night. The rest of the set was very hard to hear or pay attention to, because Harwell kept bringing half the crowd onstage with him during every tune, and seemed to lose focus on why he was there in the first place -- to play the hits.

Something about Harwell rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure if it was his lack of care about performing his own songs, or it was that smug little smile he had on his face throughout the show, but I couldn't stand his presence. Songs like "Walkin' On the Sun" and "All Star" seemed to be piss-poor attempts at what were once fun songs, and Harwell's holier-than-though personality made it even worse. I guess when you used to be a white rapper in a shitty rap/rock fusion group, before shitty rap/rock fusion groups were at the height of their popularity, then you're probably always going to suck at what you do.

It was a bummer that the closers were so terrible, because the three acts before Smash Mouth put their heart and soul in to their performances. Vertical Horizon was better than Smash Mouth and they didn't even perform. It's a bummer too, because I was really looking forward to hearing those tunes, specifically "Walkin' On the Sun," for the first time live. I guess in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter because at the end of the day, it's still just Smash Mouth.

It must be tough for an aging band like all four of these, especially if you are known for those one or two songs that were super-successful. Do you continue touring, playing the same ten songs night after night? Or do you try and write new material to appeal to the current musical masses?

While there were no new tunes on this particular evening (that I could tell), I feel as if these bands aren't that far removed from their heyday to make new, popular music. Wouldn't we all like a new Sugar Ray record? Well, maybe not.

Personal Bias: My Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray CDs were so scratched by the end of their existence that I had to throw them away because they wouldn't play anymore. Also, in my first band, Fresh Mustard, we played a total of four songs -- three covers and an original. We covered Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side" and Smash Mouth's "Walkin' On the Sun." Thinking of it, we should have mashed all of the covers together: Walking on the wild sun of your love. Girl Talk, where you at?

The Crowd: A bunch of 30-year-olds, plus or minus five years. Also, the whitest crowd ever.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Security, we have a problem! There's a man on fire on stage!" said Mark McGrath about one of his band mates as the security staff briefly freaked out.

Random Notebook Dump: Mark McGrath has a Black Flag tattoo on the back of his right arm. Didn't expect that.


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