Last Summer on Earth (concert review)

Last Summer on Earth Tour – Fraze Pavilion – Kettering, OH – July 8, 2012

The Nineties did not suck.

Yeah, sure – if you believe everything mainstream music magazines like Rolling Stone say, nothing good came after about 1982.  Well, don’t believe it.  I’ve seen package tours of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and now this one, and everyone of them was full of great songs.  But, what this tour had that none of the others before them did was – these dudes can play. All four of the acts – Cracker, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Blues Traveler, and Barenaked Ladies –  are great live bands. I had to catch myself – I remember when these bands were new, it seems like not that long ago.  Yet, Big Head Todd’s breakout came in ’93 with “Broken Hearted Savior,” Cracker’s “Low” was ’94, while “Run Around” was a smash in 1995 for Blues Traveler.  Even Barenaked Ladies‘ number one “One Week” is over a decade old.  Still, this music seems oddly fresh – perhaps not quite as over-played as the decades before.

First off, the Dayton, OH area is in the midst of a blistering heat wave, with temperatures stretching to the unbearable 100 degrees.  Yet, while driving the short distance to the venue, the clouds rolled in and kept things from truly baking.  And, it looked like rain the entire night, yet only a sprinkle or two fell.

Cracker hit the stage at promptly 7pm, opening with the anthemic “Euro-Trash Girl” – although, I’m not sure what marketing genius decided to relegate that song to a hidden track at the end of their Kerosene Hat CD back in 1994 – if it had been listed, it might’ve actually been a hit.  Of their lean, 5-song offering, three tracks came from that album, including the stoner-sing-a-long “Low,” which sounded great live.  Only “Gimme One More Chance,” from 2006‘s Greenland, was even from the last decade.  But, playing a mere 25 minutes hardly warrants unpacking all your gear!

Big Head Todd & the Monsters hit the stage about 15 minutes later, opening with the bluesy “Cashbox,” a track off All the Love You Need, an album they originally gave away for free back in 2007.  Leader Todd Park Mohr played a National guitar, while Jeremy Lawton picked slide on his lap.   Lawton switched to Hammond organ for a sizzling rendition of “Come on in My Kitchen,” one of the tracks from their 100 Years of Robert Johnson set from last year.  Then the band ran through two of their most familiar songs, “Bittersweet,” and “Broken-Hearted Savior” (which got the crowd to their feet).  The jangly, loping nature of these songs seemed quite at odds with the hard blues numbers that bookended them.  “Rock Steady,” from their last album of original material in 2010, was the finest of the night, featuring a cascading keyboard and a fiery solo from Mohr.  They ended with the Memphis Minnie tune “When the Levee Breaks,” which borrowed heavily from the Led Zeppelin rendition, and might be a taste of the next Big Head Blues Club album, which should be released later in the year.  Big Head Todd’s set totaled about 38 minutes, and was over far too quickly.

After another quick break, Blues Traveler hit the stage with a track from their 1990 debut, “But Anyway,” with leader John Popper diving right into his trademark, frenetic harmonica-playing.  There was a noticeable difference when these guys hit the stage – a cohesiveness that the others didn’t have that comes from being together over 25 years.  Blues Traveler was the only band that was actually touring with a new album, Suzie Cracks the Whip, and they played a excellent version of the lead single, “You Don’t Have to Love Me,” which took the song to another level, featuring a pounding piano at the end.  Guitarist Chan Kinchla invited the crowd to their feet for a ragged, but spirited version of their mega-smash “Run Around.”  They also played two new songs co-written with Ron Sexsmith, “Things Are Looking Up,” and “Love is Everything.”  The surprise during their set came when the group invited Barenaked Ladies’ frontman Ed
Robertson for a song they admitted to never playing before – a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” where Robertson handled all the vocals, and Popper wailed on harmonica.  I know this sounds like an odd choice, but the band totally nailed its funky groove.  They ended their slot with another of their hits, “Hook.”  Their set clocked in again, near 38 minutes – yet they seemed like they were just getting warmed up.

Barenaked Ladies took the stage, in front of a backdrop of chimpanzees on the video screen with “Another Postcard,” before marching right into one of their best-loved tracks, “The Old Apartment.” That song, in particular, missed the deeper resonance of original vocalist Steven Page, who was jettisoned in 2009.  But, almost everything else sounded fine with Robertson singing lead, and the rest of the band helping out.   Especially good was a rousing take on “It’s All Been Done.”  Drummer Tyler Stewart picked up bongos, while bassist Jim Creeggan and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Heam gathered with Robertson around a single microphone for a stunning rendition of “Blame It On Me” from their first album – the background harmonies were a thing of beauty.  They played a song off their brand new rarities compilation Stop Us If You’ve Heard This One Before called “I Don’t Get it Anymore” – it was pleasant, but not spectacular.  Things picked up with the crowd-pleaser “Pinch Me.”  One song that was catchy as hell was “Too Little Too Late,” making me wonder how that wasn’t another smash hit?

You may not know that Barenaked Ladies provide the theme song to the hugely-successful geek comedy Big Bang Theory – which they did a rousing live version of, followed by their chart-topper “One Week,” which worked the crowd into a frenzy.  The surprise of their set came with “If I Had $1,000,000,” when the band returned the favor, inviting Popper back on stage for some excellent harmonica accompaniment, while Heam sang the parts normally relegated to Page.  Known for their crowd-pleasing ability, the band broke into several spontaneous raps – especially funny was one about “broom ball.”  They also jokingly did a medley of the latest Top 40 songs – singing lines from Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling,” LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” and Gotye’s “Someone That I Used to Know,” before running through Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (although in a lower key, so Robertson could hit the notes).

The band encored with the goofy “Alcohol” before the 11pm curfew struck.  Even though Barenaked Ladies played for well over an hour, it went by extremely quick – adding to the theme of the night.  Truthfully, these are all bands that could’ve (and would’ve) played for a lot longer.  But, instead of one band, we got to see four – whetting our appetite to catch all of them individually on down the line.   And, I was amazed at just how many great songs all these bands had between them – the crowd sang along all night.  A great time.  –Tony Peters