|S E T L I S T|
At one point during Tonic’s acoustic performance at the NorVa on March 28th, singer/guitarist Emerson Hart commented to the audience, perhaps unnecessarily, “This is kind of a different show. Are ya’ll alright with a different kind of a show?” The response, of course, was decidedly positive. Tonic first came together back in 1993, but it wasn’t until their debut album, Lemon Parade, came out in 1996 that they broke into the world of major-label success, courtesy of the hit single, “If You Could Only See”.
28 Mar 2003: The NorVa Norfolk, Virginia
It should be noted, though, that Lemon Parade was released during an era when semi-soundalikes like Vertical Horizon, Third Eye Blind, Matchbox Twenty, and all those sorts of folks were also climbing the charts. Sure, they kept in the public eye after that by contributing tracks to various soundtracks, but when Universal Records released the band’s sophomore effort, Sugar, three years later, the label probably figured the odds were only about 50/50 (tops) that it’d be even half as popular as its predecessor. Fortunately, someone at Universal had the common sense to put “You Wanted More” on the soundtrack to American Pie as well as on Sugar, and, bam, suddenly, the song was a hit and Tonic was riding high on the charts for their second consecutive album. Come 2002, the band managed to pull yet another rabbit out of their hat, releasing their third album, Head On Straight, pulling off another hit single with “Take Me As I Am”, and scoring a couple of Grammy nominations in the process: one for Best Rock Performance By A Duo or Group With Vocal (for the aforementioned “Take Me As I Am”), and one for Best Rock Album. They didn’t win, but that’s really beside the point; after all, surely you’ve heard the cliché about how the honor is just in being nominated.
So how are they celebrating those nominations? By going on an acoustic tour. And, lemme tell ya, it’s a pretty sweet show. The evening started off with a performance from a trio of hometown boys called Virginia Creeper; they’ve also opened for Carbon Leaf and Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, and their song, “Café”, is scoring a bit of regional airplay. After taking the stage, lead singer Luke Taylor noted that their first song, by sheer coincidence, shared its title with a Tonic song: “Take Me As I Am”. Since Virginia Creeper tend to favor a more organic sound anyway, performing in an acoustic setting came naturally to them, and they put on an extremely strong performance, with highlights including the two songs already referenced, as well as “Get Off Your Knees”. A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” also brought a strong crowd response. The band showed a tendency to fall into sounding a bit too much like Dave Matthews, something which colored the second half of their set more than the first, but, overall, both their material and performance was strong.
When Tonic took the stage, Hart, Jeff Russo, and Dan Lavery each sat on a stool: Russo left, Hart center, and Lavery right. With little in the way of a preface, they launched into “Open Up Your Eyes”. It was gorgeous. The sound was crisp and clear, the harmonies were exquisite, and the blending of guitar and bass was stellar. If you think this is somewhat hyperbolic, all I can tell you is that before I walked into the concert, I couldn’t have told you more than a handful of songs by Tonic. I walked out of there a solid fan of the band, wondering about the odds of their releasing a document of the tour, perhaps a live CD.
Apparently figuring they had an audience full of folks who weren’t just there to hear the hit singles and then leave, the group followed “Open Up Your Eyes” with two such singles back to back: “Take Me As I Am” and “You Wanted More”. After performing “Head on Straight”, the band unveiled the drum kit behind them, heretofore unperformed on. “Straight from Toys ‘R Us,” the audience was assured, “and brand new. We keep going through them.” The addition of percussion was a pleasant change, but it wasn’t overused; although Russo and Lavery each took their turn behind the kit during the evening, its use was sporadic.
The evening, as noted in this review’s opening paragraph, provided a different kind of show. It was casual and laid back. After “On Your Feet Again”, Hart announced to the crowd, less than proudly, that he’d just gotten a haircut. “I’m a little concerned,” he admitted, “that it looks like Lego hair. Like you could just pop it right off my head.” With that, one of his fellow bandmates gladly contributed an appropriate vocal effect to clarify exactly what that’d sound like. “Have you seen or heard about the backstage area of this place?” Hart then asked the audience. “There’s a bar, there’s foosball, there’s a hot tub…frankly, it’s too good for the likes of us.”
The set list mixed things up between the group’s three albums, but they also reached into their pile of soundtrack contributions at one point, performing the Fred Neil / Harry Nilsson classic, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, which Tonic recorded for Clay Pigeons. Before they began the song, they admitted it was a request for someone in the audience and hadn’t played it live in ages, warning, “We are now officially entering Utter Chaos Mode; this could be a train wreck.” As it turned out, their fears were completely unfounded.
After a lovely blending of the band’s song “Count on Me (Somebody)” with the Cure’s “Pictures of You”, Tonic decided to really get loose, opting for an extended round of Name That Tune. Lasting the better part of a half-hour, the group performed portions of songs by Led Zeppelin, Rush, Rick Springfield, and the Beatles, then performed “Sweet Home Alabama” in its entirety. The audience loved every minute of it, and Hart declared the game to be, “as they say in Memphis, funner than Hell.” “If You Could Only See”, the band’s signature song, followed, with “Casual Affair” finishing off the proper show. When the band returned for the encore, it was with three songs: “Soldier’s Daughter”, “Waltz With Me”, and “Sugar”.
As noted above, the best thing Tonic could possibly do for their fans is release a live album culled from some of these acoustic dates. It’s as good as the band’s ever sounded (this has been confirmed by several folks who’ve been fans for much longer than I have), and the acoustic setting really makes the melodies in the group’s songs stand out. If you’ve written off Tonic as “one of those bands that all sound the same”, don’t make your final decision until you’ve had a chance to catch them on this tour. It could well make all the difference.