As far as music goes, Colorado’s The Fray are pretty dull. Sure, they’ve got pleasing piano melodies, solid radio hooks and armfuls of talent, but all things considered the music is pretty nocturnal and sleep-inducing. Or so most people think. In an attempt to distort those notions, the quartet took to the Nikon at Jones Beach Amphitheater stage and did their best to rock out. There was a U2-like confidence on the lilting, “Absolute,” and a frenetic sense of urgency on rockers “Little House” and “We Build, Then We Break,” but aside from that it was one mid-tempo number after another. Big-throated vocalist Isaac Slade even left his trademark piano to prance around the stage, but truth be told, the gesture came across more as preening than pleading.
Other times, he looked like a struggling high school thespian or a cheap Adam Duritz imitation. And then there were the lights. Sure it goes without saying that most coliseum shows these days are accompanied by an eye-assaulting frenzy of strobe lights, electronics and LCDs, but The Fray took it to a whole new level. Then again, Isaac Slade’s robotic performance and his lack of crowd interaction revealed a rather bland and workmanlike execution that gave the impression this show was just one of many. The concert’s best moments were the most unexpected. Guitarist Joe King’s tearjerking ballad “Ungodly Hour,” had a Ryan Adams-like croon to it that revealed he’s an overlooked and underused vocal talent, a point he later backed up with an acoustic version of 2006’s “Heaven Forbid.”
Their stripped-down acoustic version of Kanye West’s “Heartless,” already an iTunes and YouTube sensation wasn’t exactly a surprise insomuch as it was unconventional. Most incredibly the band was able to pull it off as if it was their own. The fact that a band of four married, clean-cut Christian gentleman could pull off a Kanye song with such ease was probably the performance’s most amusing moment. This is largely due in part to the fact that few, if any songs performed during their 80 minute set deviated from the sound on the band’s disc. And while it is certainly honorable to stick to a script, at what point does a band sacrifice procedure for the sake of improvisation or embellishment? Self-admitted fans of Counting Crows, it would have been memorable had the band adopted an impromptu sense of improvisation or something to make the set standout. But maybe that’s just not their thing. And while the music may be somewhat dull and the live performance both formulaic and predictable, at the end of the evening, few in attendance were complaining. Those smiling fans, mostly 12-20-year-old females, are what have propelled this rather by-the-book piano-rock band to multi-year arena-headliners.
Opening the set was Orange County, CA’s Jack’s Mannequin, whose wispy lead singer Andrew McMahon frenetically pounded away at his piano, as if his life depended on it. A leukemia survivor, McMahon took to the stage with a youthful exuberance and a sense of urgency and passion that was hard to fake, and even harder to resist. On slaphappy singalongs like “La La Lie,” and free-spirited single, “The Mix Tape,” McMahon and his band revealed a sense of optimism and catharsis that was show-stopping and memorable. Even though much of the material offered lacked the aforementioned improvisation, there was still something resilient and charismatic about all 10 songs. Which begs the question, was it McMahon and company that deserved to be headlining? Alas, the music business never quite makes any sense at all.
Post-Script: While The Fray are mehh live, in studio they are solid. Check out my review of their album here.