Summerfest. Day #3

This is going to be a long one folks.

Let's start with a phone interview I did last week with Train guitarist Jimmy Stafford. The band was set to play Summerfest, and I was writing up a preview ...

Now, digging through my archive of concert memories, Train will always have a special place.

It was October 1998, and opening for Ben Folds Five in a small Omaha, Neb., auditorium was Train -- then a little-known San Francisco-based band with a song called "Meet Virginia" grabbing decent radio play.

When the band finally took the stage that fall night in Omaha, Train frontman Patrick Monahan explained the band had lost some of its instruments and equipment. The group would have to improvise.

What followed was an unforgettable acoustic set with Monahan serenading the crowd and the band’s guitarists rocking back and forth on their guitar. Heck, drummer Scott Underwood, sans his regular drum set, beat on a grouping of cardboard boxes.

So I was eager to ask Stafford about that night. He couldn't remember why the band's gear didn't show up, but he did indeed remember that show -- and the tour. "Ben Folds is the kind of band where their fans are just all about them and they especially don’t like any bands with commercial success …That was a tough tour for us, trying to win over fans" ... I didn't tell him I was as big a Ben Folds fan as they come. But I also knew what he has said, sadly, is so true.

Yet even in its rawness, I remember Train’s sound that Omaha night being, well, pretty awesome. And I remember the crowd going wild when they played "Meet Virginia" to finish their set.

Still, in a pop-rock music culture laden with one-hit wonders and bands whose first couple albums shine as bright as the sun one year and fade into oblivion the next, most of us in the crowd that night probably would’ve shrugged at the notion that Train was embarking on something big.

And yet there I was in my college apartment a couple years later, watching them perform"Drops of Jupiter" on a brightly-lit Grammy stage to the roar of thousands of screaming fans. I'll never forget that Grammy performance and thinking, 'Gosh, they've come a long way.'

Since "Meet Virginia," Train has quietly rolled into a station at the top tier of today’s hottest pop-rock acts. Each of their four studio albums have gained platinum status while attracting critical acclaim, thanks to Monohan’s skillful songwriting and instrumentals that often feature lush orchestrations. Much of Train’s appeal is a sound that’s largely rock-influenced, but also blends adult contemporary, country and pop music.

"Radio’s been really good to us over the years," Stafford said to me. "People don’t always know the band name but they know the songs … It’s pretty amazing to have your dream come true."

Now on "For Me, It’s You," the latest Train album coming out earlier this year, newcomers bassist Johnny Colt and keyboardist Brandon Bush banded with Monahan, Stafford and Underwood to produce one of Train’s most organic albums to date. And Stafford says it might be Train’s best yet. But then, he admits he says that about every release.

"I’m proud of all of our records," he said. " … I loved the old records where you could just sit and listen. You’d listen to side one, and then you’d turn it over and listen to side two. Not a lot of bands are doing that these days and that’s why people are downloading. I think we’re the kind of band that it’s been a goal since the beginning to make good records, put out a whole record and make it a journey."

Finally I asked him what we could expect at the Summerfest performance. Of course, he said the band would likely pull out one or two Led Zeppelin covers -- something that’s become a staple of any Train show, as well as a lot of the classic Train tunes. If the crowd was behaving, Stafford said the band could play an acoustic segment as well. Finally, he said, Train is packing more production than usual with its current tour -- but then he pulled back, saying he wasn't sure how much the band would be able to use in a festival setting ...

* * *

Now fast forward to last night when Train rolled into Summerfest. And while the Go-Gos show last weekend and the upcoming Guster show tonight were my biggies, Train was on my radar, but not high on the list as far as expectations.


Let's just say my expectations were blown away. Train raised the bar. And I'm calling it the best show I've seen in my four years of doing Summerfest.

With Train due up at 10, Kates and I arrived at the fest grounds at about 5:30 p.m -- to the sounds of Steely Dan doing 'Reelin in the Years' for their sound check at the Marcus Amphitheater. Nice ... We got some Chipotle (yum!) and parked ourselves at the back of the Classic Rock Stage where U2 Zoo was already rocking out. ... There show was just as amazing as I'd remembered it being last year. They had attracted a HUGE crowd, and I could say their covers of "Beautiful Day," "Desire" and "With Or Without You" were amazing -- but hey. They're a U2 cover band playing at Summerfest -- they're supposed to be good.

With plenty of wide open spaces still available at the Miller Lite Stage (and not being interested in the crappy heavy metal band playing) Kates and I began wasting time, walking the grounds, watching people and laughing at the people's random text messages being displayed on the video board at the U.S. Cellular Stage where all the teenie boppers were waiting for Yellowcard. ... This whole text displaying text message thing must be a new popular thing, because they did it the other night on the video board at the Brewers game too. Among the message displayed: 'Beer is Lovely.' 'Hawaiian Shave Ice Rocks Let's get some.' And 'I'm bored let's make out.'

...We caught Andrew Lynch (I call him Milwaukee's version of Jason Mraz) at a side stage and then returned to the Miller Oasis as Mat Kearney and his band were doing their sound check ... Now, Kates and I didn't think we'd hear of Kearney, but his voice and sound -- a pleasing rock sound infused with piano and acoustic guitars (sounds like The Fray, or Keane -- it seems there's a lot of that going around Summerfest this year.) -- were all to familiar. Plus there was a good crowd of people around the stage who were mouthing his songs and knew his stuff. And it was really good stuff that you couldn't keep from dancing or singing along with ... He hooked the crowd even deeper by interchanging a lot of his lyrics with phrases about Milwaukee and Chicago.

Then Kearney came to the last song of his set ... I recognized it instantly. A sweet, catchy tune called 'Nothing Left To Lose.' Ah, yes. Mat Kearney. Mark him down on my list ... very good stuff.

So Train ...

Best way to describe the show in one word: Explosive.

...the guys walked on the stage and wasted no time raising the energy level way up with 'Am I Reaching You Now.' Monohan was racing from one side of the stage to the other and barely stopped all night, belting out the songs. And Stafford, who I'd remembered as wildly entertaining to watch in Omaha, was going crazy on his guitar like there was no tomorrow ...

From there, the band played a fast-paced 'Meet Virginia' with a wild Jimmy Stafford guitar solo. Then 'Get To Me' and 'She's on Fire' with a rocking keyboard from Brandon Bush ... and while 'She's on Fire' continued, and the energy level only got higher, Monohan called five girls onto the stage and introduced them as The Trainettes. As the band finished off the last half of the song, the girls huddle around the mic, belting out the 'She on F - i i i i i i i i i i -- re' chorus with the crowd. Awesome.

...In no time, they were pulling out the Led Zepp covers, starting with an instantly recognizable 'Ramble On.' The guys played another song from the new album, 'I'm Not Waiting In Line,' before the stage lights dimmed, leaving Johnny Colt on mandolin, Stafford on acoustic guitar and Monohan on vocals for a spot-on version of Led Zepp's 'Going to California.' ...

When the lights came back up and the other band members returned, Monohan encouraged the crowd to think for a minute about their guardian angels ... leaving no doubt for the next tune, one of my personal faves: 'Calling All Angels.' Hands were in the air and the crowd was roaring (below) ... From there, the band went seemlessly into 'When I Look To The Sky,' with a beautiful piano accompaniment by Bush before the rest of the band came in on the second verse.

There was constant crowd interaction throughout the show -- the aforementioned Trainettes. Monohan telling stories to the crowd. And on 'Save The Day' Monohan pulled another one -- jumping into the first row and softly serenading a young woman -- Monohan was literally singing in her ear and brushing back her hair as he sang. ... so it's no surprise that when, after Monohan jumped back on to the stage, the video screen showed the girl flopping down into her seat and fanning herself with her hands, as if she was about to faint at any moment -- kind of like those old videos you see of Michael Jackson concerts.

And about that production, too. I'd pretty much written it off when Stafford downplayed it last week ... but apparently the festival setting wasn't so daunting after all. Huge spotlights of varied heights lined the back of the stage and swirling stars and other light forms were constantly circling the stage area ...

Then, after the band did 'All-American Girl' which followed a raucous segment of dueling drums between Underwood on his drum set and Monohan on a set of bongos (for a few minutes there I thought I'd just been transported to a Blue Man Group show ...), Monohan asked the crowd 'How about some Drops of Jupiter?' To which the crowd, of course, exploded in cheers. ... singing the words, espcially the Na Na Nas with the band and the hundreds of Train fans -- you can't beat it.

So the first set was over. And then came the encore ...

The band led it off with 'Cab,' a take-it-or-leave-it radio hit from the new album ...

... And then, another instantly recognizable cover which by this time had the crowd and the atmosphere busting with energy. The song: Aerosmith's 'Dream On'

Wow. Wow. Wow. ... The music seemed louder. The lights seemed brighter. The crowd was absolutely turned on. ... Monahan screamed 'Dream On! Dream On!' and then suddenly a huge plume of red and yellow confetti exploded from the top of the stage area, before fluttering on to the crowd.

One word: Explosive.

... and exhausting.


-My Summerfest preparation: 'It's here baby!!'

-Summerfest Day #1

-Summerfest Day #2

No comments: