By Leena Tailor
“Tonight’s the night the world begins again,” John Rzeznik sang as the Goo Goo Dolls launched into their 2006 cut “Better Days,” which 15 years later resonated more than ever in an amphitheater full of fans hungry for better days post-COVID.
It’s been 18 months since my last night out in pre-pandemic Los Angeles – a beautiful evening involving exciting bridesmaid prep with my since-married best friend, drinking bubbly at a rooftop bar and randomly meeting one of my favorite musicians of 20+ years, Rzeznik, by a gelato counter at the Century City Mall. The closest I’d previously come was on the eve of my 21st birthday when I eagerly headed to the airport to try (unsuccessfully) and catch the band arrive in my native New Zealand, with the same friend I found myself with while spotting Rzeznik at a mall 17 years and 20-odd Goo Goo Dolls concerts later.
For one year after that Los Angeles encounter – while riding out the pandemic back in New Zealand – whenever I thought back to that night, I would hear Rzeznik’s lyric, “It’s the last hot night in America,” in my head and wonder if the reason I finally got to meet one of my musical idols was because 12 March, 2020, was my last hot night in America.
I also wondered if there would come a post-pandemic day where I’d be back at a Goo Goo Dolls concert on a hot summer’s night in Los Angeles, hearing Rzeznik mark the “Better Days” by singing, “Tonight’s the night the world begins again.”
That moment triumphantly came in Costa Mesa, California. And while there may be a longer road than anyone ever imagined before COVID-19 is far enough in the rear-view mirror to call any event “post-pandemic,” last Wednesday’s show served as a reminder that even as the Delta strain ravages the world, there’s always, “a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.”
The show, at The Pacific Amphitheatre, marked the Buffalo, New York, band’s second live gig of 2021, having kicked off in Michigan on Thursday.
“It’s our first West Coast show … so different to Michigan,” Rzeznik’s bandmate Robby Takac said.
“The weed smells different here,” added Rzeznik, who also joined Billy Joel on-stage in New York for a special performance of “Iris” earlier in August.
Sister Hazel warmed up the Costa Mesa crowd with nineties favorites like “All for You” and their country track, “That Kind of Beautiful,” before the Goo Goo Dolls kicked off their set with “Dizzy” and “Slide” from 1998’s “Dizzy Up the Girl.”
“How have you been?” Rzeznik, 55, asked the audience, who were on their feet the second the lights went. “That’s a stupid question.”
“Well, this song is appropriate for this day and age,” Rzeznik added before launching into the lead track from 2019’s “Miracle Pill.”
It’s one of many songs which have taken on new meaning amid the pandemic – Rzeznik’s hopes for a miracle pill to cure doubts, fear and darkness echoing the hopes of a venue waiting for a magic pill to combat Covid-19 and the gloom it has brought with it.
But any signs of gloom subsided during the group’s high-octane 75-minute set. They captivated concert-goers with beautiful ballad “Black Balloon” as black balloons floated through the amphitheater, rocked out to “Big Machine” from 2002’s “Gutterflower” and had everyone chanting “So Alive” from 2016’s “Boxes” (and widely-known from a BMW commercial.)
“Feel good? Feel alive?” Rzeznik asked, whipping his long locks out of his face.
Like many, the musician avoided the barber shop once the pandemic hit.
“I thought when all this shit started, it’d be over in a couple of months, so I’ll just stay home and grow my hair out,” he explained. “And, when I have the mask on and I’m in the store I decided I really gotta get a haircut cause they’re always like, ‘Excuse me, Miss’ and I’m like, ‘I’m a fucken ugly girl.’ Or at least a very masculine one.”
Slowing things down with “Sympathy,” the rocker then teased the iconic opening chords of 1995 hit “Name,” while discussing the feedback he still gets about such chart-toppers.
“People find out my address and send me letters which is fuckin’ creepy, but I try to answer them,” Rzeznik said. “I’m waiting for the anthrax to show up, but so far, it’s been okay. Nothing too crazy, but someone wrote me a letter and they were talking about this song and a couple of other songs and he said, ‘You write the best depressing songs.’”
“He said they really enjoyed being depressed, listening to my music,” the father-of-one continued. “I [thought], ‘Maybe I should call someone [to] help this person.’ But I guess it’s nice to be there for people – even if it is just to depress them!”
Takac, 56, then took lead vocals on “Life’s a Message” before getting those who briefly sat down right back up during “Bringing On the Light.” The group launched into “Broadway,” with Rzeznik momentarily playing a harmonica before tossing it aside.
Of course, it was the Grammy-nominated smash “Iris” – which propelled the band into the mainstream after making the soundtrack of 1998 film City of Angels – that they saved for the closer, the crowd swaying lit cellphones in the air during the mass singalong.
“Gosh, I didn’t realize how many good songs they had,” said one fan leaving the theater.
“It’s our generation!” responded his pal.
They may be a soundtrack to the nineties, but the band have continued to pump out a steady stream of new music since the favorites which won many over back in the day. And the pandemic didn’t slow them down, with the group releasing “EP 21” in April, a holiday record, “It’s Christmas All Over,” last October, and their recent double compilation album “Rarities,” which features rare songs, live renditions and acoustic performances.
The latter two releases both feature “Better Days” – Rarities offers an acoustic rendition, while “It’s Christmas All Over” saw band member Jim McGorman’s 7-year-old daughter Sydney perform a powerful, stripped back version of the track. The raw innocence of a young child singing her plea for a better world was a moving twist on the song, which on Wednesday night refueled my own optimism that the world will soon see better days.
In the meantime, I’m grateful that meeting Rzeznik at a gelato café in March 2020 (an encounter which led to finally crossing him off my interview bucket list) wasn’t my “Last Hot Night” with him in America.