Fans fuel Toad the Wet Sprocket’s success

(Above: Toad the Wet Sprocket “Fly from Heaven.” The band lands at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo. on Thursday, Nov. 20.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The question never went away. Inevitably, someone would ask Glen Phillips when his old band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, was getting back together.

When that finally happened, the question changed: When are you making a new album? Sixteen years after their previous release, the answer arrived last summer with “New Constellations,” a Kickstarter-funded set of 15 new songs.

If that sounds like a long wait for a fan, think of it from Phillips point of view. Although happy to be back onstage with his friends, he was confined to singing material written during his early 20s.

“It was nice to be young, but I don’t want to live there forever,” said Phillips, now 43. “The new songs feel like us, but also feel relevant to what we do now. In addition, they have also brought our older material into new, broader context.”

1-toad2Toad the Wet Sprocket formed in the late ‘80s, and peaked in the early ‘90s. The quartet’s laid-back vibe provided an antidote to the angsty grunge dominating the radio at the time. In 1998, after two platinum albums, one gold record and a dozen Top 40 hits, the band called it a day.

“Enough years have passed and there is enough ease between us now that it was fun to come in and get to deal with Toad as a project,” Phillips said. “It used to be every song I wrote I brought to the band. If it didn’t work there, I had no other outlets.”

That depth was also helpful in selecting songs. “Finally Fading” originally appeared on Phillips’ 2005 album “Winter Pays for Summer.” “Bet On You” was built on “See You Again,” a song from fellow Toadster’s Todd Nichols and Dean Dinning’s Lapdog project.

“We did a lot of culling. Todd and Dean brought some songs in where I’d finish lyrics on them,” Phillips said. “When we reached the end it felt like there was a lot of up-tempo pop songs. We needed more slower, emotional material. That’s when I came up with ‘Enough.’”

With the amount of time between releases and amount of preparation that went into “New Constellations,” Phillips cautions this may be Toad’s final album before conceding even he doesn’t know the band’s future.

“What we may do in the future is do a single than a full ramp-up to an album,” Phillips said. “Making an album puts you on a long schedule. It is interesting to think about. We may look back and say ‘Why did we go through all of that?’

“Or maybe we will do another whole album. I don’t know.”

When Phillips and his bandmates last came to town, they were previewing “Constellations” material. Now, 15 months later, audiences have had time to learn the new songs and sing them back with the same passion as old favorites.

“We were never the cool kids,” Phillips said. “the people who stuck with us did because our music means a lot to them. That really benefited us (with the Kickstarter drive). We have been speaking to people’s hearts for a while and they decided to give back.”

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Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Cake

(Above: The reconfigured Smashing Pumpkins incinerate the old country with “As Rome Burns,” a yet-unreleased track.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Billy Corgan has learned to compromise. After frustrating and confounding fans with obscure songs and indulgent jams on the Smashing Pumpkins’ 20th anniversary tour just two years ago, he has struck a balance between the old (and beloved) and the new.

The unspoken agreement of Saturday’s show at Sandstone Amphitheater was one for you, one for me. Fans seemed thrilled to meet Corgan and his reconstituted Pumpkins halfway. Opening with the drum roll into “Cherub Rock,” the quartet alternated between favorites like “Zero” and “Drown” with newer numbers such as “Song for a Sun” and unreleased material like “As Rome Burns.”
“We’ve found the songs you know tend to get the biggest cheers,” Corgan told the audience before launching into “Tonight, Tonight” and he was right. “Today” provided the first big sing-along moment of the night, turned the chorus of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” over to the very vocal throng. Even “Stand Inside Your Love,” an underrated single from the original configuration’s final retail album, drew a big response.

The 80-minute setlist ignored “Gish” but drew from every other album in the band’s catalog and a couple soundtrack contributions. Most of the songs sounded pretty much like they were recorded. The only exceptions were new arrangements of “Adore”-era material. The new version of “Adore” rode Nicole Fiorentino’s bass, and discarded the drum programming for a full band sound. “Eye” was given a trippy intro full of shimmering guitars and big, echoing drums.

Smashpumpkins_fyi_ spf_09252010_135FNewer material dovetailed nicely with the familiar. “Tarantula,” from 2007’s forgotten “Zeitgeist,” emerged seamlessly from “Cherub Rock” just as “Drown” gave way to “As Rome Burns.” “Song for a Son” had a progressive feel and guitar lick similar to “Stairway to Heaven.” It was one of several of the night’s numbers to feature Corgan and Jeff Schroeder harmonizing on twin guitar solos.

Before breaking up at the dawn of the millennium, the Smashing Pumpkins were one of the most successful bands to come from the grunge era. Corgan and founding drummer Jimmy Chamberlain reconvened for “Zeitgeist,” recruiting supporting musicians for the subsequent tour, before Chamberlain left again last year.

Corgan may be the only founding member left in the band, but the new cast proved more than capable. Twenty-year-old Mike Byrne was a monster on the drums, having no trouble replicating the complex rolls and fills that are so much a part of the Pumpkin’s sound. The band was amazingly tight and precise, slithering across the changing dynamics and textures and following Corgan’s every move.

The stage set-up was basic, but impressive. The only effects were banks of lights set up above and behind the band, constantly strobing and changing. Two large metal fans were perched atop metal towers in the back at either side of the stage. The visual arrangement kept anyone from receiving the spotlight. The band was lit as a whole and the emphasis was placed on the music.

The band exited shortly before midnight against a wall of lights pointing into the audience. They were visible only as vague silhouettes, but had long established their identity.

Cake’s one-hour set preceding the Pumpkins couldn’t have been more different. Singer John McCrea chatted with the crowd between nearly every number, espousing his views on religion, American society and the gradual disappearance of three-four time. Along the way, the five-piece college rockers delivered audience favorites “Comfort Eagle” and “Frank Sinatra” and songs from their upcoming new album.

Although most of Cake’s songs ride a slow funk groove and McCrea’s tongue-in-cheek spoken/sung lyrics, two of evening’s best numbers veered from that formula. “Mexico” sounded like a lost Decemberists track, while new song “Bound Away” was a travelogue in the form of an Irish drinking song.

Smashing Pumpkins setlist: Cherub Rock, Tarantula, Adore, Song for a Son, Today, Drown, As Rome Burns, Freak, Tonight Tonight, Stand Inside Your Love, Eye, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, United States (including the Star-Spangled Banner and Moby Dick). Encore: Zero.

Cake setlist: Comfort Eagle, Rock and Roll Lifestyle, Sick of Me, War Pigs (Black Sabbath cover), Frank Sinatra, Wheels, Stickshfits and Safetybelts, Love You Madly, Guitar, Arco Arena, Mexico, Bound Away, Never There, The Distance.

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Review: Goo Goo Dolls

(Above: It was impossible to go anywhere in 1997 without hearing “Iris,” the Goo Goo Dolls’ biggest hit.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

During the mid- to late ‘90s, the Goo Goo Dolls racked up multiplatinum albums, Top 10 hits and Grammy nominations. That was a long time ago, but you wouldn’t know that walking into the Independence Events Center on Thursday night.

“We are small, but we are mighty,” lead singer John Rzeznik told the house, which was better than three-quarters full. As expected, the crowded demonstrated its approval by singing along to “Dizzy” the second of seven cuts from 1998’s “Dizzy Up the Girl” played that night.

By including 11 songs from their 2007 greatest hits album, the Dolls had a surefire set list. Most songs drew a cheer from the opening chords and were long-form exercises in audience participation. Even “Home,” one of five new songs the band bravely tested from their upcoming album, found several fans singing along.

The best numbers were the most obvious ones. “Black Balloon” found the area in front of the stage filled with, what else, black balloons. At times the reactions during “Name” and “Slide” threatened to overwhelm the very vocal-friendly mix.

Touring guitarist Brad Fernquist added some nice slide guitar to Rzeznik’s otherwise solo “Acoustic #3.” “All Eyes on Me” featured a great instrumental coda that provided one of the few times the band stretched out.

The biggest moment, of course, was “Iris.” Rzeznik prefaced it by telling the crowd “we gotta play this one” and everyone reacted to the introduction like they had just walked out of “City of Angels.” After a full performance of the song, the back kicked into it one more time to let the crowd have a solo run through the chorus. They probably could have done it once more and achieved the same result.

Hopping around barefoot on the massive stage, bass player Robby Takac took the mic for four numbers. His rawer songs showed off the influence the Replacements had on the Dolls’ sound. This was especially true on “Another Time Around,” the lone nod to their pre-fame days. Even though it was written more than 15 years later, “Now I Hear,” Takac’s contribution to the forthcoming “Something For the Rest of Us” album, sounded like it could have been cut at the same session.

After blowing their big bullets – “Name” and “Iris” – during the main set, the band returned with another new track and “Broadway,” another “Dizzy” single. The 90-minute set may have not offered many surprises, but everyone got exactly what they were looking for: a fun romp down memory lane.

Setlist: The Sweetest Lie (new song); Big Machine; Slide; Dizzy; Here Is Gone; Another Second Time Around; Smash; Can’t Let Go; Black Balloon; Home (new song); Better Days; Stay With You; Now I Hear (new song); Tucked Away; Name; Let Love In; As I Am (new song); All Eyes On Me; Acoustic #3; Iris. Encore: Not Broken (new song); Broadway.

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Review: Alice in Chains

(Above: Alice In Chains’ new singer William DuVall has no problem claiming “Dam That River.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As Alice in Chains took the stage Sunday night at the Midland, a large, beating heart was projected onto a curtain. Nearly two hours later, the reformed grunge band proved to the sold-out crowd they were still very much alive.

The band had its foot on the gas and eyes on the rearview mirror. The quartet proved they were once again a going concern by delivering more than half of its new album, “Black Gives Way to Blue.” In turn, longtime fans were rewarded with nearly all of the classic 1992 album “Dirt.”

New singer William DuVall had no problem filling the shoes of Layne Staley, the band’s former lead singer who died of a drug overdose in 2002. While DuVall’s vocals are eerily similar to Staley’s, he puts enough of himself in the performance to prove it’s not just karaoke. In a way, his style recalls H.R. of the Bad Brains. Like H.R., DuVall can be soulful and hard as nails at the same time.

But while all eyes were judging DuVall, there were no questions about who was leading the show. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell was the first member hit with the spotlight, and frequently stationed himself center stage. The band’s chief songwriter, Cantrell sang lead or harmony vocals on nearly as many songs as DuVall, and never failed to elicit cheers with his solos.

Several times the crowd’s lusty singing threatened to overwhelm the band. Cantrell encouraged the crowd to join in on the chorus of “Got Me Wrong,” but they needed no enticement when the opening line of “Would?” rumbled out of Mike Inez’ bass guitar. Classics “Man in the Box,” “No Excuses” and “Rooster” also turned into massive sing-alongs.

The succession of the three opening numbers on “Dirt” early in the set were so vital and energetic it was hard to believe the material was nearly 20 years old. Later, the already psychedelic “Sickman” was somehow even more trippy, as the band dragged the throng through the sonic undertow.

While Staley wasn’t missed onstage, he was noticeably absent from the songwriting process. Staley had a way of tightening and punching up Cantrell’s songs. Unfortunately, several of the newer songs lacked Staley’s urgency. “Last of My Kind” went nowhere for nearly six minutes. There is an unquestionably great song buried somewhere in the seven minutes of “Acid Bubble.” Unfortunately, it too was content to plod along unchecked at mid-tempo.

While the new material didn’t get the massive responses of the tried and true, they still went over well. There were plenty of hands in the air and heads nodding along to show the crowd hadn’t come out to see a nostalgia act. New songs “Check My Brain” and “Your Decision” should figure into setlists for some time.

It would have been easy for Alice in Chains to take the easy route and cash in. The Doors, Queen and INXS have all lost a charismatic frontman and tried to plug a stand-in into the spot. Alice in Chains have succeeded thus far because they are looking beyond the flannel shirt/Doc Martens set. They’re not preaching to the choir, they’re still looking to convert.

“Sometimes,” Cantrell said, “it takes a few times banging your head against the wall until you finally get through, if you know what I mean.”

Setlist: All Secrets Known, It Ain’t Like That, Again, Check My Brain, Them Bones, Dam that River, Rain When I Die, Your Decision, Got Me Wrong, We Die Young, Looking In View, Down in a Hole, Sickman, Lesson Learned, Acid Bubble, No Excuses, Angry Chair, Man in the Box. Encore: Sludge Factory, Would?, Rooster.

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