Under The Sun Tour, Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, NH- 8/1
Although popular music from the 1990s is often associated with angst and alienation, the Under The Sun tour which recently came to the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom celebrated a less-publicized side of the ‘90s rock scene – the fun, carefree side. Featuring Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, Vertical Horizons and Fastball, the evening focused on catchy four-minute pop songs with just enough guitar distortion to qualify as music from the alternative decade.
Gin Blossoms at first glance were unlikely candidates to participate in this feel-good package, as their songs tend to focus on lost love and disillusionment, but their underlying pop sensibility and high-energy delivery made these stalwarts of early ‘90s radio a perfect fit. Uptempo versions of jangly favorites like “Follow You Down,” “Found Out About You,” “Allison Road” and “Hey Jealousy” got the crowd dancing and singing along. Smash Mouth bassist Paul De Lisle played bass for the Gin Blossoms as well while wearing a Vertical Horizon T-shirt, setting a tone of interband cooperation that would continue through the night.
Sugar Ray came on next and frontman Mark McGrath, who is also the primary driving force behind Under the Sun, worked the crowd from the moment he bounded on stage. An average vocalist but expert showman, McGrath peppered Sugar Ray’s set with stories and exhortations for the crowd to let loose and drink up, and constantly talked up his bandmates, other bands and even the club’s security staff. The opening song “Summertime’s Comin” set the tone for a breezy set of ska- and funk-inflected pop that of course included major chart hits from the late ‘90s like “Every Morning,” “Someday” (which briefly segued into the Rascals easygoing classic “Groovin”) and “Fly.”
Sugar Ray also saluted the 1980s with a raucous cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” and lead guitarist Rodney Sheppard uncorked an ear-popping guitar solo in the middle of “Under the Sun.” Gin Blossoms lead vocalist Robin Wilson made a surprise appearance during the end of “Fly,” banging a tambourine and providing backup vocals and general cheerleading.
Smash Mouth filled the final slot of the evening (they are co-headlining the tour with Sugar Ray) and played a short but intense set of psychedelic garage rock. They set the tone immediately by ripping into their hit cover of the ? and The Mysterians nugget “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” and kept it going with Hammond B3-infused (courtesy of keyboardist Michael Klooster) heavy pop numbers like “Walkin’ on the Sun” and “All Star,” as well as a cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” that owed more to the 1978 Van Halen remake than the original.
Lead vocalist Steve Harwell’s gravelly voice and large physical presence gave the music an extra edge and drummer Randy Cooke wowed the audience with an impressive drum solo during “Diggin’ Your Scene.” During the set (and evening) closing rendition of “All Star,” Wilson, McGrath and Gin Blossoms guitarist Jesse Valenzeula all came on stage to help out.
Earlier in the night, special guests Fastball and Vertical Horizon both played sets of ear-pleasing, bouncy pop, but the three bands that followed really provided the bulk of the evening’s entertainment. Wilson, McGrath and Harwell all frequently drank and toasted the crowd from large black plastic cups, adding to a vibe that could best be summed up as 1990s frat party. Other reminders of the decade included the plaid button down shirts and tattoos sported by many of the musicians and audience members alike. Musicians in the ‘90s broke new ground by singing about a lot of difficult and emotional topics, but the performers of Under the Sun delivered a reminder that musicians in the ‘90s were also capable of having a damn good time.