On a night where Mother Nature let the final vestiges of spring blow breezes through the interior amphitheater of the Ak-Chin Pavilion, power-pop balladeers The Fray and Train had the audience dancing at a feverish and frolicking pitch.
While the two occasional chart-toppers accomplished the same goal of keeping fans of all ages engaged in their well-oiled live performances, they came to the dance with different stage personas.
The role of the fluffer is one singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson has come to master, as the veteran folk-pop troubador warmed crowds up before the two main attractions. Nathanson wove his way through the crowd figuratively and literally, en route to a 40-minute set that was highlighted by his platinum single "Come On Get Higher," accented by audience pleasing covers of "Laid" by James and closing his set with chorus volleys from the crowd on "You're the One That I Want" from Grease.
The Fray came out with its bare essential stage set. With worn piano and little flash, the four-piece band came to play, wearing its emotive personas on their sleeves and working out their angst-riddle, tortured songs that hurt so good, through a 65-minute, 15-song set consisting of a balance of songs from its four-album catalog.
Led by the clean-shaven head of singer-piano player Isaac Slade, the Fray kicked into gear with rock-and-roll abandon opening with "Heartbeat" and closing with the Southern-fried R&B-laced "Love Don't Die."
In between, backing vocalist and rhythm guitarist Joe King, lead guitarist Dave Welsh and power drummer Ben Wysocki played the stationary foil to Slade's contortionist sit-stand piano playing and stage and pavilion roving. It was here the band ran through its hits "All At Once," "How To Save a Life," Over My Head (Cable Car)," and "Never Say Never."
One of the highlights aside from the crowd singing happy birthday to both King and Slade, was the performance of "Hurricane" one of six numbers played from the band's latest album, Helios. The live version was played with ferocious guitar and fervor that belied the ballad-laden evening.
Patrick Monahan led his main attraction Train with his amazing and powerful pop chops. The band weaved through 19 songs from six of its seven releases, six numbers of which came from their 2014 release Bulletproof Picasso.
Whereas The Fray relied only on its musicianship and stage presence, Train pulled out all the bells and whistles, with undulating video screens with landscape images, smoke machines, and a laser light show throughout its 90-minute set.
Not one to be outdone by the crowd-pleasing Fray and Nathanson had harnessed, Monahan also skipped through the crowd, taking selfies with front-row fans, bringing a group of local children on stage to dance and t-shirt throw-outs to the crowd. Monahan even had Nathanson and Slade join in on a "With a Little Help From My Friends" Beatles cover.
As for its music, the band did what it does best, play anthemic, power pop albeit with recorded backing vocals. Quality backing instrumentation was more than deftly handled by tireless drummer Drew Shoals, bass player Hector Maldonado and keyboardist Jerry Becker. Backing vocals were handled soulfully by Sakai Smith and Nikita Germaine Houston.
Veteran guitarist Jimmy Stafford proved every bit the guitar virtuoso, and even did a nasty rendition on encore Aerosmith cover "Dream On". But of course the cheers reached their apex during the hits "Soul Sister" , "Marry Me" and encore number "Drops of Jupiter".
All in all, it was a night when the Arizona crowd got caught up in the emotionally-saturated performances by getting up and shaking what they bought and leaving their tissues at home.
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Last Night: Train, The Fray and Matt Nathanson at Ak-Chin Pavilion last night.
The Crowd: For as laid back as Phoenix crowds tend to be at outdoor venues, this near-sold-out audience was on its feet early and often, as for all three bands, interaction with the crowd was at the forefront.
Personal Bias: I have been in the Valley for just over a year and in that time covered at a handful of outdoor festivals and shows. Was expecting everyone to settle in for a relaxing easy-chair evening of power pop ballads. what I and the thousands on hand got was a larger-than-life landscape and soundscape the likes of my beloved Blossom Music Center in NE Ohio. The Ak-Chin was very clean and made for easy access to sight of the stage, but what was missing was the rolling frolicking hills from the historic Cuyahoga Falls Ohio venue. Still, the ability to have stadium-style crowd, sound volume and depth with roving performers from all three groups created quite a stir and kept the audience active.