By Mogan Brown
In case seeing your breath in front of your face during the first day of Riot Fest didn’t inform you, Summer is deader than the Congress Theater, and we are deep into the heart of fall. That magical time of year where we get to wear scarves with a hoodie, beards begin to be practical again, and enjoying the abundance of pumpkin-flavored options becomes about as respectable as riding a DIVY bike to Pitchfork.
People really like to make fun of pumpkin spice. Perhaps it’s the enthusiasm for it projected by young women whose lives are so devoid of interest that their idea of typical danger would be their DVR cutting off the latest episode of “The Bachelor;” that it’s such an easy target for the cynical, that it encompass all things bland into three quick pumps, despite the fact that it’s seasonally limited availability and unique flavoring allows those who enjoy it the ability to reminisce about bygone Autumns while simultaneously embracing the present one in an unabashedly joyous manor.
But like Plato once said, “Irony is a dead scene.” No, wait. That was The Dillinger Escape Plan. Anyway, what’s so cool about being so cool? In a world where an entire generation has used the word “hipster” as a negative connotation and grown up in the shadow of the George Bush Presidency, rolling your eyes at enthusiasm has become played out as a CBGB’s t-shirt bought at Target. Acting like you’re better than something has become a merit badge awarded to second level Weebalos.
Guy Fieri. Nickelback. The Olive Garden. The Insane Clown Posse. Things have become so prerequisite as examples of poor quality by those who consider themselves tastemakers that hating them has become downright passe.
The elitism of “It’s so bad, it’s awesome” has become so ingrained in the culture that I’m pretty sure I heard my own mother shout, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” when she couldn’t figure out how to get Hulu to load on her Nintendo Wii.
Does having an air of superiority in knowing that your opinions are superior to the masses really hold a candle to enjoying the simple things with a smile on your face and a 25 oz domestic, flavored beer in your hand?
I can tell you firsthand, friend, that they don’t…because my fondest memory of this past summer is when I drove over an hour and paid $30 to see Sugar Ray play and I had a fucking blast.
I guess I should take a moment to backpedal and explain to you, the reader, how cool I am and what a punk rock snob I consider myself to be. Re: Radiohead—I like “The Bends”/they got boring around “Hail To The Thief.” “The Shape of Punk to Come” really did completely change music, but any band after them who tried mixing electronica with hardcore just churned out garbage because they lacked the honest jazz appreciation and ability. “Facet Squared/Public Witness Program” is the greatest one-two opening punch of any album. Salt and pepper only, maybe a little garlic/the flavor of the meat should be the focus. “The Low End Theory” is my all-time favorite album of the genre, although “Enter the 36 Chambers” comes a close second, and “Dr Octogonecologist” is incredible for the general overall use of weirdness.
See? I’m really cool and I know what I’m talking about. I like what I like and how I like it and leave little room for anything else. But that doesn’t mean everything else has to suck on principle, and despite the fact that it may not appeal to me, doesn’t mean I should dismiss its appeal to others as being inferior or fucking stupid.
So yeah, last summer a friend of mine mentioned that Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray were on tour together and would be playing out in the suburbs the following evening. As a heftier guy who came of age on the West Coast in the late 90’s, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Black Flys/Dickies/frosted tips set and when both those bands came out in the summer of 97.
I saw them as torch bearers of the legacy left behind by Operation Ivy and later Sublime…who (when mentioned in the same sentence as the former and thought of only from a musical standpoint devoid of the image of a barefoot ginger in cargo shorts and hemp accessories asking if you’ve “Seen Molly” as you stare at the band’s tye-dyed and dirt-stained logo across his torso), are kinda awesome.
Clown “All Star” all you want. Its corniness as the anthem for soccer moms and the bowling-based fashion set is completely valid, but the simple positivity and Tommy Bahama reggae chords can really pump a fella up on a rainy day. Let anyone with a gun to their temple who can’t recite the chorus by heart without a grin on their face cast the first stone.
Anyway, come to find out that due to scheduling, Smash Mouth would not be appearing but Sugar Ray, who were headlining the bill along with Blues Traveler and Former-Kid-Rock-DJ-Turned-Nu-Metal-Balladeer Uncle Kracker would still be rockin’ strong, my partner in crime and fellow music industry professional Justin Yates confided in me that he had been a less than closeted Sugar Ray fan in his younger years, had in fact celebrated their entire catalog, and couldn’t think of a better way to cap a beautiful 4th of July weekend than to travel to the great city of Aurora to see his heroes of yore in the flesh.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the concert. Honestly, being immersed amongst possibly thousands of people who not only voluntarily but enthusiastically laid down their hard-earned dollars to see some of the hottest acts from the era of JNCO’s and Lewinski in 2014.
I imagined something along the lines of The Catalina Wine Mixer crossed with the Gathering of the Juggalos and being trapped in a sea of chardonnay-soaked, horny Real Housewives while their husbands triple fisted Coors Light that was being spilled all over their Affliction wardrobe, while chanting that song that plays when the Blackhawks score in a circle jerk fashion.
The was also the fact that Justin and I, dressed all in black, myself wearing a t-shirt featuring the logo of the band Fucked Up, would probably stick out like sore thumbs in this environment. Part of me even pictured Mark McGrath himself spotting us from stage and calling us out for infiltrating HIS party to smuggle in our cynical smirks and sarcastic applause, pointing at us and shouting, “You want to go, BRO!?!?” like he does in the TMZ video where some guy calls him “Sugar Gay.” But part of me downright hoped this would actually happen.
What we found couldn’t have been anything different. The picturesque amphitheater located on the banks of the Fox river appeared to be built more with the intention of symphony recitals than VH-1 flashback revivals, and most patrons preferred to sit in their own home brought folding chairs in lieu of charging down front to pile on top of each other in hopes that Mark McGrath would sign their boob.
Things were so relaxed it felt eerie and nearly unsettling. Beer lines were short and prices were reasonable ($7 for a 25oz Bud Light Lime or 20oz Two Brothers Outlaw). Being used to security frisking every nook and cranny of my being and demanding to see that the small case in my pocket that contains ear plugs and not DMT, walking past a staff who appeared to be local high schoolers volunteering as a fundraiser for their trip to Washington DC and whose biggest concern was that we’d enjoy our evening made me suspicious that we would find ourselves drugged, only to wake up in the feeding pit of the community Rancor, who’s contentment would help decide the following year’s fiscal planning.
The evening’s schedule was posted at the front gate, informing us that while we’d just missed Uncle Kracker, Sugar Ray would be on shortly, followed by Blues Traveler who’d close out the show and have things wrapped up by 9:45. Then I experienced something I’ve never seen in all my years of attending concerts: Sugar Ray went on 20 minutes early.
The current incarnation of the band features McGrath on vocals, that goofy dude with the jew-fro on guitar and two guns for hire on bass and drums respectively. Apparently bassist Murph and DJ Homicide had split to sell real estate in Orange County a few summers back.
McGrath’s on-stage persona was equal parts genuinely cool dude and welcoming host, skills he no doubt honed while telling moms about the latest celebrity gossip on Extra, but also utilizing the God’s honest charisma that got him there in the first place. He told the crowd how great it was to be in Aurora, how happy we was to see US, and while it was complete pandering to these country bumpkins who sure as shit don’t see their share of real life rock stars all that often (at least that’s how I imagined a drunken McGrath puts it to his agent), he made the crowd feel like the pleasure was all his and how what a treat it was to be able to share familiar hits from the American Pie soundtracks and 1-800-COLLECT commercials with them.
The band has so many hit songs they were able to fill the set with them, playing nothing I didn’t recognize including a cover of “Blister in the Sun” that he introduced in a mock exchange with the guitar player about how the crowd wouldn’t know it, resulting in cheers of, “Wooo! Play it!” from the crowd, myself included.
The set wrapped up just as the sun was setting with McGrath talking about the clouds looming in the distance and the impending rainstorm that had been forecast that couldn’t stop the band from rocking our collective faces, although not mentioning how he himself was struck by lightning during the band’s performance at the Chicago stop of the 1997 Vans Warped Tour did seem suspect. Perhaps he assumed that no one in the crowd was expecting Millencolin or Sick Of It All to play next and it could go without mentioning.
To the surprise of no one, they ended with that “I Just Wanna Fly” song. Yes, it made me smile. The 75oz of Bud Light Lime in my tummy probably aided in the expression, but I was generally having a good time. Sure, those songs are cheesy and seemed to be manufactured for those whose idea of a night on the town is to take the whole fam for bottomless ribs at Applebees or who get excited at the prospect of a new Kevin James film, but sometimes shoveling tender, sauced pork bits into your face while watching a fat guy in a tuxedo get punched in the nuts by a gorilla is genuinely a good time.
A couple of hours before I left for the concert, I asked myself why I was going through with this. Was I motivated by the prospect of being able to tell my peers how awesome I was for doing something so dumb or was it because, God forbid, I liked the band’s music? To be honest, it was equal parts both, as well as the curiosity of what a concert like this would really be like.
As the band came back to the final verse at the end of “Fly,” the rap drum sample bellowing back in just before McGrath springs back to life, singing “ALL AROUND THE WORLD” (in the music video, it’s the part where the film is reversed so he jumps out of a swimming pool) the entire crowd was there with him, singing along and waving their hands in the air, celebrating summer and life itself.
And nay, those in attendance had a complaint or were too cool to join in the fun for fun’s sake. It was almost like a children’s concert. No one’s too cool to sing “Wheels on the Bus,” and everyone loves to yell “All Through The Town” at the end because it’s fun. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters: not how cool or lame something is but whether or not we had fun.
Cheap and readily available alcohol doesn’t hurt either.