It was a contest of equals: Sugar Ray versus Smash Mouth, duking it out on
the stage of the 9:30 Club, each vying for the adoration of Washington,
D.C. fans. Both bands hail from southern California; both have hot singles
custom made for grooving in the heat; both are currently battling for the
title of Alternative Summer Superstar.
Headliner Sugar Ray seemed to have the upper hand going into the show.
Their song "Fly," complete with dancehall toasting courtesy of Super Cat,
has saturated alt-rock radio and MTV. But Smash Mouth--invited personally
by Sugar Ray to join the tour--were formidable contenders. Although their
summer of love-y single "Walkin' On The Sun" (RealAudio excerpt) has been out for less than a
month, it's already giving "Fly" (RealAudio excerpt) a strong run for its money on the airwaves.
With Smash Mouth having just joined Sugar Ray on the road, Wednesday's
concert marked the first time the two bands had ever played
together. It was a night for checking each other's moves and assessing the
tour ahead. It was also an opportunity to gauge audience reaction. The
crowd was clearly primed--the show was sold out and the floor was packed
early. But neither band's hit single reflects the overall sound of their
album. Would East Coast crowds be down with the total package?
Round One: Smash Mouth came out swinging. Tight as a spring, they dope
slapped the audience with the speedy ska of "Flo" just to make sure
everyone was alive and kicking. Kicking they were; by the time "Beer
Goggles" was underway a mammoth mosh pit had formed in the center of the
floor. Eventually the slamming slowed down, but the crowd never stopped
moving. Four songs into the set, Smash Mouth continued to pound them with
their harder, more punkish material. These were songs most folks in the
club had never heard, but that didn't matter. Smash Mouth grabbed them for
the ride from the opening tune, and the audience jammed with adrenaline for
the rest of the show.
Much credit went to Smash Mouth's commander in chief, singer Steve Harwell.
With drummer Kevin Coleman parked in back, barely visible behind his kit,
and Greg Camp (guitar) and Paul De Lisle (bass) holding tight at the front
corners of the stage, Harwell was left to work the center. Part Sgt.
Carter, part John Belushi, the singer demanded attention with his forceful
delivery, but was obviously there to have fun. Harwell led by
example--jumping, skanking, playing air guitar, and prompting the audience
to get down with him. Meanwhile, Camp and De Lisle supported Harwell with
power packed backing vocals that underscored Smash Mouth's live abilities.
By the time they hit "Walkin' On The Sun" (RealAudio excerpt), the floor was full of bumping
and grinding. Producer Eric Valentine joined the band on keyboards to tap
out the song's signature hook. Upstairs in the backstage gallery, the
members of Sugar Ray joined the audience in getting down. Singer Mark
McGrath bounced and pounded out drum beats in the air. When Smash Mouth
closed out the set with their ska cover of War's "Why Can't We Be Friends,"
one could imagine the guys in Sugar Ray having that very same thought as
they prepared to hit the stage.
Round Two: McGrath signaled Sugar Ray's intention to keep the competition
respectful from the start. "This is the first night of what looks like a
very great tour," he told the audience after the set opener "Rhyme
Stealer." "I want to say fuck you to Smash Mouth because they tore it up
Of course McGrath--who bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Ethan
Hawke--was well aware that he could afford to give props to Smash Mouth.
The second he stepped onstage, the young girls who packed the front row
were screaming and grabbing for a hold of him. Both bands had curried the
crowd's favor early on. But whereas Smash Mouth emerged triumphant by
serving up the musical goods hot and fresh, Sugar Ray already held the
audience in their back pockets before they even stepped off the tour bus.
That's not to say, however, they didn't come through onstage. McGrath
plied the crowd as much as Harwell. Dressed in a tank top undershirt
(which was eventually ditched, to many fans' delight) and black pants, the
singer covered the space from tip to tip. He leaned into the crowd on top
of the monitors, he climbed on speaker stacks, and bounced everywhere else.
While most of the set featured Kornesque mixtures of metal and funk
("R.P.M.," "Anyone"), the more hardcore numbers ("Sweet Home California")
and quirky covers ("Stand and Deliver") were equally well received. Sugar
Ray's secret weapon lay in DJ Homicide, who was given freer reign live than
on the band's Floored album, to great affect.
With "Fly" (RealAudio excerpt), the band rocked the house into singing every word. McGrath
himself was passed over the crowd's heads as he sang, and then returned to
the stage where he brought up a woman from the audience to dance. The song
sealed the night. On record, Super Cat's toasting is plainly the
highlight, but live, the crowd participation buoyed the chorus and sent the
song soaring with a summertime good vibe.
The Decision: If allowed to rule, the mob would have undoubtedly handed
the title belt to Sugar Ray (or maybe just McGrath), though they would have
also noted Smash Mouth's strong showing. This reporter, however, deemed
Smash Mouth the true victor, having rallied an unknowing crowd solely with
their music and energetic performance.