By Paul Guggenheimer
John Rzeznik of the rock band Goo Goo Dolls performs during Rock in Rio festival at the Olympic Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sept. 29, 2019.
When one thinks of great bands from the 1990s, the Goo Goo Dolls may not be among the first ones that come to mind. But Thursday evening at Stage AE on the North Shore, the band with one of rock and roll’s strangest names emptied its large sack of hit songs from that decade and rolled out a couple of new ones that proved they’ve still got game.
The Goo Goo Dolls probably haven’t received enough credit for their songwriting, featuring exquisite lyrics and brilliantly arranged compositions. The group has never won a Grammy, though it has received four nominations.
Their best known song “Iris,” released in 1998, and included in the sound track of the classic movie “City of Angels,” spent nearly the entire year on the Billboard charts and was number one for 18 weeks. Billboard proclaimed it No. 1 on its list of Top 100 Pop Songs from 1992-2012.
The evening began with “Yeah, I Like You” after which lead singer John Rzeznik said “I like you Pittsburgh, it’s good to be back.” Rzeznik and fellow founding member Robby Takac spent a good part of the evening talking about the Steel City.
“I gotta tell you guys, I f_____ love Pittsburgh,” said Rzeznik. “We used to come here all the time when we were kids and play these s_____ clubs. It was so much fun just sucking down cases of Iron City. The first place we ever played here was the Electric Banana. I don’t think half of you are old enough to remember this (club). It’s just awesome to keep coming back.”
An enthusiastic near capacity crowd of about 5,000 jammed onto the outdoor lawn and didn’t have to wait long for one of their favorites. The second song of the night, 1998’s “Slide,” with its jangly sound and catchy acoustic guitar opening, had the crowd, ranging from Gen Xers to Millennials, dancing in the aisles.
A few songs later, the bittersweet “Black Balloon,” with its quirky opening metallic chimes and paradoxical melancholy mood inside an upbeat vibe washed over everyone. As Rzeznik belted out the vocals, black balloons were released and floated into the audience.
On the subject of Rzeznik’s voice, last March the 56-year-old had a vocal chord injury that required him to stay silent for two weeks. The daily singing lessons he’s been taking to strengthen his voice while on tour seem to be paying off. Rzeznik’s voice had enough power last night to make it hard to believe he was experiencing any sort of problem just six months ago.
Although the first day of fall brought chilly, blustery conditions to the outdoor venue, the cold didn’t bother the boys from Buffalo. Rzeznik even remarked that it was “a beautiful night, the first night it’s been nice” since the Goo Goo Dolls started their tour.
Rzeznik proved his strength as an introspective songwriter on “Sympathy,” a song in which he confronts personal demons.
“My hobby used to be self pity,” he told the audience. “That’s an awesome way to lose every friend you ever had. This song is about something that we all need but we should never have to ask for.”
While Rzeznik is the front man for the Goo Goo Dolls, the band owes much of its success to being a tight and talented five man combo. In addition to Rzeznik, it features Takac on bass and occasional lead vocals, Brad Femquist on guitar, mandolin and backing vocals, Jim McGorman on keyboards, guitar and backing vocals and Craig Macintyre on drums and percussion.
After the Goo Goo Dolls formed in 1986, the group established itself as punk band and developed a following. But by 1995 the band found itself going in a more mainstream direction with the release of its breakthrough single “Name” which as Rzeznik put it was their first song on the radio and first to make money.
“It was nice to finally have money until they came after me for my student loans,” he told the audience. “Thanks for remembering the song and helping me pay back my student loans.”
“Name” is certainly a hard song to forget, especially after the crisp, clear rendition Rzeznik floated on the autumn air Thursday night. The words stay with you with lines like “Don’t it make you sad to know that life is more than who we are.”
The evening, however, was about more than the hits. It included a couple of songs from a new Goo Goo Dolls album “Chaos in Bloom” released last month. The best was a song called “War” about a difficult relationship which featured a galloping beat and catchy lyrics like “I’m not the enemy But darling I do believe You’ll be the end of me.”
Throughout the evening, fans yelled out requests.
“Did someone just yell ‘Free Bird’?,” said Rzeznik feigning incredulity. “C’mon man, that’s so ‘90s.”
The fans would end up being satisfied with more Goo Goo Dolls hits like “Broadway” which featured a fine harmonica solo by Rzeznik who ended up having to break it off because he claimed he got his hair stuck in his harmonica.
Not long after that came “Iris” the lucious ballad everyone was waiting for. It had people swaying and singing from the start and included a cameo violin performance by Ryan Delahoussaye from opening act “Blue October.” What better way to celebrate “Iris” reaching a billion-streams on Spotify.
The Goo Goo Dolls appropriately ended the set there because there was no way they could top it. But they came back for an anticlimactic encore featuring “Tattered Edge/You Should Be Happy.”
Between the group’s brilliant songwriting and excellent musicianship and performance, Goo Goo Dolls fans got what they came for.
It may be time to rethink that “best bands of the 90s” list.
1. Yeah, I Like You
3. Big Machine
4. Here is Gone
5. Black Balloon
7. Miracle Pill
8. Over and Over
9. Lucky Star
10. Free of Me
11. Come to Me
14. So Alive
16. Going Crazy
17. Life’s a Message
18. Bringing On the Light
20. Better Days
22. Tattered Edge/You Should Be Happy