4 out of 5 stars
By Chris Mullan
To appreciate the Goo Goo Dolls, one must have an appreciation for dichotomy. Signed to Metal Blade Records in 1985, the trio from Buffalo, New York, started life as a fast and loose punk rock band whose first three albums were abrasive, juvenile, and so heavily indebted to bands like The Replacements and a DIY ethos that it was at the same time both romantic and restrictive.
To think we are talking about the same band who gifted the world the ubiquitous 1990s power ballad ‘Iris’ is to think we are talking about two different bands. In a sense, we are.
This takes us back to November 1995. Goo Goo Dolls play their biggest show to date at New York City’s Academy Theatre. Just as the band were beginning to see the fruits of their labour after years of national touring and in support of their fifth album, ‘A Boy Named Goo’, something curious happened. Buried in the middle of an offering of punchy alternative rock songs was the yearning acoustic ballad ‘Name’. Apparently positioned as such to almost lead listeners to skip past it, the song became an unwitting breakthrough hit for the band, thus establishing their once unimaginable progression from underground critical darlings to syrupy, adult contemporary balladeers.
There is no question that after ‘Name’ hit, it all changed for the Goo Goo Dolls. Which is what makes this release of ‘Live at The Academy’ so vital in their catalogue. It captures the last time there was no discernible gulf between the band and its fans. Two months later, they would have the fifth best-selling single in America. The Academy Theatre was demolished merely a year after this performance; so too, some might argue, was the band we find here in 1995.
It would have been hard to turn down the chance to wax poetic about this seminal performance of a band on the precipice, regardless of the results. But in fact, ‘Live at The Academy’ has been a wholly enjoyable and fun listen. It is a mammoth release: 32 songs spread across either 3 LPs or 2 CDs that captures an important moment in time for the Goo Goo Dolls and their fans alike. Caught and preserved entirely by a mobile recording truck almost thirty years ago, I feel it is worth mentioning just how crisp and full the production remains here.
By all accounts, the band is raw and energetic, with all the idiosyncrasies of live performance left in, just how it should be. It allows the band’s charm to shine through, and of course, there is the supercharged setlist. Storming through upbeat numbers like ‘Long Way Down’, ‘Only One’, ‘Naked’ and ‘Flat Top’, the youthful exuberance of Johnny Rzeznik is infectious and touches upon the feeling that his idol Paul Westerberg occasioned in anyone who ever listened to a Replacements album– if they can do it, so can I, but for all the Westerberg and Replacements comparisons, things were just destined to be different for the Goo Goo Dolls. Johnny Rzeznik’s jawline was just a little too chiselled, hair just a little too coiffed and choruses just a lot more pop radio-friendly that, in some ways, 1998s monster ‘Iris’ is the obvious end result.
The first single released from this ‘Live at The Academy’ collection has suitably been ‘Name’. The soundcheck version, also found here, would have sufficed. It is quite simply the quintessential alternative rock song of the decade, and it is a complimentary nod to this charming live performance that such an earnest song sits alongside jagged covers of Prince’s ‘Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ and INXS’s ‘Don’t Change’. How wonderful.
In an era where record companies dredge up the vaults and package old live recordings, demos and B-Sides for profit and consumption en masse, this is a recording worthy of its release. It captures the innocence of a band and its fans whose fiery youth is no more, of an iconic venue that is no more and of a New York City that is no more.
Thank God for mobile recording trucks.