If something happens twice, it’s a coincidence; three times, and it’s a pattern. So now it can be told: Williams College actually has developed a pattern of bringing nerdy pop acts to headline its annual Spring Concert.
Two years ago, the accordion playing, conga-line loving They Might Be Giants played Lasell Gymnasium. Last spring, Ben Folds Five brought a set of breakup tunes and some untoward pelvic thrusts to Lansing-Chapman Rink. This year’s entrant, the power-pop quartet Fountains of Wayne, introduced one of its encore songs as a song “about smoking pot and going to the planetarium.” Rock ’n roll!
Really, this isn’t a criticism. At least not anymore: It was easy to find fault with Folds’ nebbishy faÃ§ade when he archly mumbled chord notations between songs, but in playing Friday evening to a fair-sized Goodrich Hall audience, Fountains of Wayne didn’t afford the same critical option. The band was energetic, eager to please and overall pretty great.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood craft deliriously saccharine hooks like they’re coming out of a spigot. A spigot, it seems, that’s located somewhere in southern California: Fountains of Wayne’s trademark sound is grounded (if that’s the proper term – it’s all awfully lightweight) in the atmosphere, if not the strict vocabulary, of surf rock, with sprinklings of new wave, vintage pop and that loud/soft guitar the stuff the kids were so fond of in the early ’90s.
It might sound like a gumbo on paper, but onstage it made a lot more sense. When everything coalesced, on should-have-been-hits such as “Utopia Parkway,” “Sink to the Bottom” and the truly great “Denise” (where the Beach Boys cross paths with Devo, if you can imagine), Fountains’ airy pop took on an almost transcendent weightlessness.
It’s something of a tribute to the band that it successfully adapted its studio sheen (which has served it fairly well on its self-titled debut and the 1999 follow-up Utopia Parkway) to suit a less than magisterial live venue. Fountains of Wayne will never be confused for Television – not a song in the set required great technical proficiency of any sort – but they were tight and effective, and singer Collingwood’s nasal vocals fit thematically with the teenage yearning of “Red Dragon Tattoo,” “Laser Show” and “Barbara H.”
The band opened with “I’ve Got a Flair” and “Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight,” in all honesty two of the weaker tunes from its debut album; all told, they played more songs from Fountains than from Utopia. It was a smart concession: the first album isn’t nearly as lush as the sophomore effort, but it boasts slightly better, more consistent songwriting, and transfers well in a live environment.
The performance peaked with the one moment of real improvisation: during an otherwise faithful rendition of the band’s closest brush with chart domination, “Radiation Vibe,” Collingwood led the band through a winsomely shambolic medley of pop relics, playing everything from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” as straight pop.
Adding thematic relevance to the inter-song banter (and casting Collingwood’s Merril Lynch tee-shirt in a particularly ironic light) is the fact that Schlesinger and Collingwood are Williams alums (Class of ’89). And so Collingwood explained Goodrich’s previous incarnation as a studio art building (where he and Schlesinger filmed themselves playing Scrabble and drinking vodka for four hours as a senior project: “We got a C-”) and asked if professor of music David Kechley still taught (apparently, almost everyone who might be able to answer was still at the Berkshire Symphony concert). There’s nothing Berkshire about the band’s sound, of course, but that’s probably for the better.
Openers Star Ghost Dog first graced the Williams campus a couple of years ago as the closing act of Musicfest. In the intervening two years, the band’s chops have improved considerably. Tossing songs from its one-time WCFM favorite Happylove in with tunes from the new album The Great Indoors, the female-fronted quartet played crisp post-Pixies mini-anthems that would’ve been hits back when modern rock radio was listenable.
Innovation ain’t on the band’s agenda – nothing it’s done hasn’t been done already by Veruca Salt or fellow Bostonites Letters to Cleo and (best and most idiosyncratically) the Breeders – but by mimicking the sounds of the mid-’90s, Star Ghost Dog has positioned itself as a charming anachronism. And, it should be added, a tuneful and charismatic one at that.
Charisma was in no short supply during the brief set that kicked off the evening from Williams songwriters Ethan Rutherford ’02 and Mary Ventner ’02. Rutherford is a particular rarity – a collegiate acoustic songwriter who actually embeds hooks in his tunes – and the solemn quality of Ventner’s voice complemented Rutherford’s jovial vocals to fine effect.