On a brisk Friday night at SPAC featuring nearly four hours of music, including The Fray and Matt Nathanson, it was the vocal ability of Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train, that stole the show.
From the moment the stage went black, smoke filled the stage, and train whistles filled the venues, symbolic of the band about to take the stage, the audience was hooked. Monahan captivated the crowd in a packed pavilion with his endless range and unique ability to participate with an audience. While singing their 2012 mariachi-style hit “50 Ways to Say Goodbye,” he borrowed phones from front-row audience members to take selfies with them. Later on, Monahan, walked out to the fence in front of the lawn, paying his respect to his patrons in the grass.
Monahan’s upper range was on full display during a back-and-forth banter with the audience singing the words “so high” during the outro of one of his songs. His shrill, but full, falsettos were exceptional–a level of singing rarely seen on recordings, and virtually never seen live. When Train played Aerosmith’s “Dream On” during their encore, Monahan’s singing was chill-inducing. The audience was left to decide for themselves how his voice compared to Steven Tyler’s. My personal verdict was that Tyler was the champion, but it was by a smaller margin than I would have thought.
The Bay Area band pays homage to San Francisco in several of their songs, but not the only part of the country that Monahan respects. He made it clear at one point that he agreed with the recent USA Today assessment that SPAC was the best outdoor venue in the United States, prompting a roar from the thousands of people attending the show.
Jimmy Stafford, the Train guitarist, and the band’s only other active original member other than Monahan, demonstrated his chops on the strings with intense solos on “Meet Virginia” and “Dream On.” For someone who plays in a pop rock band like Train, Stafford can shred it on a guitar neck like someone from a classic 70’s rock group. Stafford wowed the crowd with some of his melodic runs and his rhythmic strum patterns.
Much of Train’s performance was very much like a Kidz Bop album, with everyone singing along. Being perhaps the second most popular active band on pop radio, trailing Maroon 5, everyone in attendance knew all the words to all the songs. The pinnacle of the sing-along nature of the concert was during “Drops of Jupiter,” the 2001 Grammy winner for rock song of the year. Monahan sang the band’s classic hit as the final encore song, prompting thousands to sing in chorus the cool parts of the song, the “plain old Jane” and “soy latte” lines of the song.
The Fray immediately preceded Train, and was headlined by dual lead vocalists Isaac Slade and Joe King, two original members that helped to form the band in 2002 after attending Christian school in Denver, Colorado together.
The best performances by The Fray were with Slade on the piano, enchanting the crowd as he tickled the ivories. He may not be Elton John or Billy Joel, but he can hold his own in front of a piano, adding some pizazz to the basic chord progressions. The band’s ballad and most famous song “How to Save a Life” came towards the middle of the performance and Slade dedicated the song to the victims of the Charleston, South Carolina shooting.
King’s vocal prowess was on its best display during The Fray’s cover of “Take on Me” the A-Ha hit from the 80’s. A noteworthy test of any singer’s vocal ability, the high falsettos of the chorus section made famous by Morten Harket were done justice by King on Friday night, as the band nailed an unlikely cover song, coming out of their shell as a mellow pop rock band.
The show’s introductory act was Matt Nathanson, the 42-year old Massachusetts folk singer best known for his 2007 hit “Come on Get Higher”. Nathanson’s mellow acoustic sound was the perfect background noise to folks entering the venue for the bigger acts coming later on, but the music was impressive in its own right to those you listened.
Nathanson had a boyish enthusiasm on the stage, always smiling, with hand gestures to correspond to the song he was singing. His sense of humor was on point Friday night, as he encouraged the audience to buy some of the SPAC beers because “the more you drink, the more I sound like Led Zeppelin”.
During Train’s set, Nathanson was invited back to the stage to sing with Monahan a cover of Joe Cocker’s rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” honoring the late rock star, in which Nathanson took on some of the more challenging vocal runs in the song, emulating Cocker with a gritty and soulful voice.