AZ Central – Concert Review: Train took a victory lap in hit-filled Phoenix show but Goo Goo Dolls brought better songs

Ashley Naftule, Special for the Republic

To paraphrase an old PSA: “It’s 7 p.m. Do you know where your mothers are?”

If you live in the state of Arizona, there’s a good chance your mom was at Ak-Chin Pavilion Wednesday night to see Train and the Goo Goo Dolls. The huge crowd waiting to get in the venue was primarily composed of women ages 30 and up, most of whom seemed very eager to get inside, down some fishbowl cocktails and go ham when “Meet Virginia” dropped.

It was a turnout that made both Live Nation and the Valley’s babysitters very happy.

The prospect of seeing an outdoor show on a particularly brutal June day, with daytime temperatures pushing well-past 110, didn’t keep fans of late 90’s-early Oughts adult contemporary jams from coming out in full force. And truth be told, while getting into and leaving Ak-Chin can be an absolute nightmare, it really is the best outdoor venue for a summer show. The shade structure that wrapped around the auditorium and the fans whirring overhead at full blast kept us all cool for a night of lukewarm bops.

I made my way to my seat as opener Allen Stone warmed up the audience with some blue-eyed soul. Nothing too interesting or off-putting – just an agreeable set of vamps and riffs that could just as easily inspire tuning out or turning up. The perfect opening act for what should have been called The Monsters of White Wine Rock Tour. The most memorable moment of Stone’s throwback R&B set was when he gave a shout-out to the pizza girl selling food in the aisles. When all else fails, you can always elicit a reaction from people by shouting “Pizza _____!”.

Who were the headliners?

Waiting for the headliners to come on, I wondered who would go on first. The Goo Goo Dolls seemed like the bigger act: Had any Train song penetrated the popular consciousness to the degree that “Iris” did? More importantly: The Dolls seemed more worthy of the prestige of a closing spot. They actually have a handful of great tunes to their name. Train, on the other hand, have far more hits and 100% ZERO good songs. The Goo Goo Dolls are like an In-N-Out style restaurant that can do a few things really well; Train are a conveyor belt sushi joint where all the fish is guaranteed to give you mercury poisoning.

Granted, I’m biased: I was in high school when “Iris” blew up. It was an inescapable song — romantic and grand and just a little bit overbearing. But Johnny Rzeznik’s voice has just enough grit and grain in it to anchor the song and keep it from going the Full Diane Warren. On songs like “Name” and “Black Balloon,” he croons and rasps like he’s some Bizarro Paul Westerberg from an alternate dimension where he traded in writing Replacements anthems for composing prom make-out music. I never went to prom or made out to a Goo Goo Dolls song, but their music seems like it’d be the perfect soundtrack for snogging someone beneath a spinning disco ball in a dark room surrounded by other awkward kids trying not to step on each other’s feet.

Perhaps if “Hey Soul Sister” was the jam in my high school days, I would have given Train the same nostalgia-driven benefit of the doubt I give the Goo Goo Dolls. But I was fortunate to grow up in a world that hadn’t been cursed yet with the horror that is “Hey Soul Sister,” so I don’t have to.

As with most things, my theory on who would go first was wrong: The Goo Goo Dolls opened for Train. They started their set with “Stay With You,” Rzeznik crooning at the mic while bassist Robby Takac ran across the stage doing bare-foot kicks like a hyper kid at karate class who’s off his Ritalin. It’s a dynamic that informed their whole set: Rzeznik the composed, cool older brother figure to Takac’s spazzy, punky sibling. Honestly, it was kind of a gas to see how amped Takac was. He furiously headbanged to tunes like “Name” as though they were playing Bad Brains. Every MOR band should have one band member who treats every set like it’s a hardcore show; Imagine how much more fun Matchbox 20 shows would be if you knew there was a chance that the drummer might start a mosh pit in the middle of “3AM.”

The vocals were a bit spotty throughout the show. Rzeznik’s voice seemed to be in fine form, but he often turned his face away from the mic and lines would get cut off mid-song. But the audience didn’t seem to care, and why would they? The band was generous with the hits, raining down black balloons on the crowd for (you guessed it) “Black Balloon,” strumming energetically through “Slide,” and closing things down with a surprisingly raucous rendition of “Broadway.”

While the songs were good, the show itself was a mixed bag. The crowd’s energy died every time the Dolls played something that wasn’t off of “Dizzy Up the Girl” or “A Boy Named Good.” Takac tried to rouse the crowd during the two numbers he sang, but you could tell that the audience was waiting for the next hit. Projections ran behind the band to give their performance some dynamic visuals, but it often seemed like the images were at odds with the music (like a neon green disco ball for the tender, wrenching “Name”?!). And while Rzeznik and Takac were charming figures, they seemed ill at ease onstage — like after all this time, they still haven’t quite accepted their status as hitmakers.

The bells and whistles

None of that uneasiness was on display for Train’s set. Frontman Patrick Monahan strolled onstage with a wide grin, clearly in his element. Dressed in flowing whites, he looked more like a life coach than a rock star. Watching him and the rest of his band work, I saw why they were the closing act: While Train will never write a song as good as “Name,” they play all their songs as though they were THAT good. It’s like Kim Gordon said: “People pay money to watch others believe in themselves.”

They also used all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a Big Show: pyro, confetti blasts, crowd-pleasing covers (“Empire State of Mind”), even a special guest performance (bringing on Rzeznik to sing Jackson Browne’s “Running On Empty” with Monahan). Train even found a clever way to do the “Which side is the loudest” crowd work game by having Monahan hold up a film camera and pan it across each section of the crowd so people could watch themselves screaming and howling with delight on the jumbo screens flanking the stage.

This is why Train were the closers: They knew how to play the game. They understand the mechanics of arena shows to a T. It was such a well done show that I almost forgot how bad their music is. Almost.

Some bands reveal hidden depths and nuances to their sound live. Train isn’t one of those bands. Listening to songs like  “Calling All Angels” and “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” live, I was struck by how hollow they sounded. Train makes music that sounds like it’s simultaneously pitched at every possible demographic: Inspirational enough to be Christian rock, rootsy enough to be country, just enough guitar to rock, and even faint hints of rap in Monahan’s delivery to satisfy people who think “Rapper’s Delight” knocks a little too hard. It’s music engineered to be liked by everyone, loved by no one.

Leaving the Pavilion with the throngs of buzzed, happy audience members (some of whom I could overhear were fretting that they spent their babysitter money at the bar), I kept thinking about a brief moment that happened towards the end of the Dolls’ set. Right after the bridge on “Name,” as the music quiets down to a brief moment of silence before the final verse, Rzeznik stopped playing and stood in that quiet patch. The audience clapped and hooted. Rzeznik raised his hand slightly, like a gentle shush, and smiled. “I’m going to milk this moment,” he said. And he and the band stood there, breathing in this moment of adulation like they needed it.

There were no moments like that in Train’s set, no vulnerabilities to bare, no naked hunger on display. It was a victory lap. That’s why my heart will always belong to the Goo Goo Dolls of the world: I have a soft spot for the losers of the world.

Listen to a few of their songs and you’ll hear that they do, too.

https://www.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/music/2019/06/13/train-goo-goo-dolls-concert-review/1445678001/

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