The Chance to Sing Along
When Brian Wilson, the legendary pop writer, producer, and Beach Boy, announced that he would perform his 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds, live for the first time ever in 2000, pop fans around the world flocked to his shows. There they witnessed a very awkward Wilson lead a crack band of musicians through some of the finest songs ever recorded—despite a voice that often cracked. Although it’s impossible to imagine that even a flawless performance could have lived up to that album’s sonic perfection, it was apparent that Wilson’s fans were excited by the simple opportunity to finally sing their favorite tunes live, regardless of pale performance. Pop music has always been more about recording than performance—as opposed to other genres such as rock or blues. The Beatles certainly knew this (one reason they ceased performing mid-career to concentrate on creating masterworks), and lesser stars, such as J-Lo, know this too (she’s performed maybe twice?). Having released three terrific albums of pop gems, Fountains of Wayne are the deserving modern heirs to the Beach Boys/Beatles “perfect pop song” legacy. Not surprisingly, their pristine on-album production sets a near-impossible standard for their live shows, which suffer by comparison—the same pitfall that plagued the mighty Wilson (the boys of FOW are similarly awkward too). But as their 17 July 2003 show at Chicago’s Metro revealed, much like Wilson’s fans, Fountains of Wayne’s fans are content with the chance to just sing along.
Perhaps you’re reading this because you’re already a Fountains of Wayne fan. Or maybe you’re intrigued about their live show because you can’t avoid hearing all the critical acclaim that’s been heaped on songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger since the release of FOW’s third album, Welcome Interstate Managers. Or maybe you ogled the wet, bikini-clad model Rachel Hunter in FOW’s campy, hysterical video for their new single, “Stacy’s Mom”, and you thought, “That’s reason enough to check them out live!” Well, if you’re not already a fan, here it is upfront (or at least immediately after you’ve been subjected to my “recording over performance” intro pop thesis): Save yourself the forty bucks you’d spend on two tickets, and buy all three FOW albums instead. Really. For all their merits, FOW’s unremarkable live show is only worthwhile if you’ve absorbed their three fine albums.
Fountains of Wayne packed an impressive 18 songs into a show that lasted just over an hour (approximately 73 minutes—which includes two encore sets, break time, and stage banter). Their song per set-time ratio was at least one remarkable thing about the show, which simply reflects the power of pop: Songs are fully revealed in less than four minutes each. From that perspective, FOW delivered fans their money’s worth. They performed nearly note-for-note renditions of tunes culled from all three of their releases, and from the first chords of their opener, “Bought for a Song”, the crowd sang along to every word.
The five-piece stage band (the four core members on drums, bass, lead guitar and lead vocals/rhythm guitar bolstered by an additional keyboardist) performed the hooks just as recorded only not as slickly. The parts were there, but the raw energy and showmanship necessary to translate glossy recorded music into transcendent live versions, was not. Anthems such as “Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight” and “Denise” were faithfully presented, but bandleader Chris Collingwood lacked charisma to make them explode (as power pop anthems should). A skinny man swimming in an oversize t-shirt (much like the adolescents he so keenly depicts in his songs), Collingwood didn’t make eye contact with the crowd while singing. He was obviously uncomfortable on-stage, uncomfortable fronting the band perhaps just uncomfortable outside the studio. Songwriting partner and bassist Adam Schlesinger was more relaxed (but not much). The rest of the technically excellent band performed with focus, but as a unit they couldn’t get over the awkward Collingwood to truly rock their fans (who contently bobbed their heads and sang nonetheless).
Collingwood switched between acoustic and electric rhythm guitars throughout the show to deliver the varied range of moods in the FOW catalogue. On record, their lighter songs are without a doubt, some of their best material. But live, acoustic ballads such as “Hackensack”, “Valley Winter Song”, and “Troubled Times” lacked the vocal lushness so easily delivered in the studio. And without a charismatic and passionate lead vocal, the emotional songs were not compelling, as they deserve to be. Not surprisingly, the amped-up volume of FOW’s electric material translated more easily into stage presence and energy that allowed the band to shine. “Bright Future in Sales”, the new riff-rocker about an alcoholic’s struggle to get his “shit together,” was simply blistering. (Unfortunately, a set of acoustic songs followed, which thwarted the show’s momentum.) Other electric guitar-driven songs, including “Mexican Wine”, “Leave the Biker”, and “Stacy’s Mom” (introduced by Collingwood as, “a new song about when you really, really like your friend’s mom”), provided similar high points of energy.
Despite memorable hooks and clever lyrics, Fountains of Wayne are not stars. Before the show, as hundreds of fans poured into the theater, I spotted Collingwood meandering outside the venue. No one noticed, or if they did, no one said a word. (If U2’s Bono were to wander outside before a show, the reaction would have been quite different.) FOW certainly have loyal fans, but they’re not “pop stars” in the shrieking/oh-my-God/have-my-baby! sense. The most common criticism they receive is that they’re “too clever” lyrically, and thus off-putting. They get unfairly slammed for being too smart (or smart-ass). Live, their humor came across as self-deprecating and at times goofy, and thus was quite welcoming. Responding to an admittedly bad Collingwood “guitar solo” in the intro to “Hat & Feet”, Schlesinger joked, “Eddie Van Halen, ladies and gentleman.” And during the happy “Radiation Vibe”, the band made silly segues into obviously unrehearsed songs that sometimes revealed their roots, and sometimes were just plain funny: Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son”, The Cars’ “Let’s Go”, Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good”, and finally ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”. The rough medley was an uncommon moment of fun interaction for the normally note-for-note band.
Collingwood and Schlesinger know their fans are more interested in their writing than their musical chops—which is why the show remained engaging despite its obvious weaknesses. Their performances may not have been riveting, but it’s tough not to enjoy excellent songs performed by the writers themselves. The night’s final encore, “Go, Hippie”, ended in a mess of guitar noise that continued even as the band left the stage one by one. The audience hesitated to leave, as if collectively doubting that the purposely-sloppy finish could mark the end. It was a fitting final question mark to a show that didn’t deliver an exclamation point. On the way out of the theater, a small gathering of fans began to sing one of the new FOW tunes, “Hey Julie”, disappointed that they didn’t hear it live. Only one verse into their enthusiastic rendition, the shuffling crowd of hundreds joined them in unison, every word accounted for by the masses. The halls of Chicago’s Metro echoed impressively. And when the song ended, the crowd erupted in applause—just as enthusiastically as if the band themselves had performed. The original singers in the crowd smiled with satisfaction. It was one final proof that despite a lackluster performance, the fans of Fountains of Wayne got what they came for, and what most fans of pop music are looking for: the chance to sing along.