What I Learned from Fountains of Wayne at the Bearsville Theater

1) Acoustic shows should be advertised as such. Even “full band acoustic” shows.
There was nothing in the Bearsville Theater’s advertising for Fountains of Wayne’s July 5 gig to indicate that they were doing anything other than a full-throttled regular electric band show. Only when I saw the sparse stage set-up with its noticeable lack of amplifiers did I suspect this might be anything different, and not until their second song, a decidedly lightweight, acoustic version of what is the typically revved up “Little Red Light,” that I realized we were in for a stripped-down night. Some of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen have been acoustic: they bring out subtleties, they offer nuances, they provide intimacy. It’s just nice to know about it advance.

2) You can tell a band’s view of its catalogue by what it includes in its live set.
Fountains of Wayne’s third album, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, is one of my favorite power-pop albums of all time; as an thematic ode to a certain suburban lifestyle, its only rival is Squeeze’s East Side Story. However, its follow-up, 2007’s Traffic and Weather, was an embarrassment. The few good tracks sounded like the group were coasting on clichés, while the bad ones, and there are some I have to skip entirely, sounded like someone had set about to imitate Fountains of Wayne’s cutest storytelling ideas, but with the laziest of rhymes and most obvious of punchlines. At the Bearsville Theater, we got but three songs from Traffic and Weather; we got seven from Welcome Interstate Managers. Looks like Fountains of Wayne drew similar conclusions.

img_2404.jpg Adam, Brian, Chris, Jody: The notion that Fountains Of Wayne write their songs according to formula has been well-noted in the side-splittingly hilarious and painfully accurate song “Fountains of Wayne Hotline” by Robbie Fulks. You can hear it here.

3) Semi-acoustic shows are a great way to present new songs.

Seemed like this mini-tour may have been planned in part to test some new material. (And not before time.) To that end, titles like “A Road Song” and “Summer Place,” coming from a group that’s already penned the numbers “i95” and “Fire Island” might suggest that the group are still mired in their limited world view, but on first listen, these new ones sounded convincing, while the encore’s “Cemetery Guns” sounded especially encouraging.

4) Had this not been an All Ages Shows (in the school holidays)…

…There would have been but half as many people in the audience. The Fountains are, truly, an all ages band, attracting fans from under tens through deeply committed rock fans well into their fifties, with was a core contingent at the front in their mid-teens, a crowd barely born when Fountains of Wayne first burst onto the scene in the nineties. And thank God there was no school the next day; an 11pm gig on a Sunday night might otherwise have been a disaster.

5) Wry, dry humor is still humor. I think.
Lead singer/rhythm guitarist Chris Collingwood barely cracked a smile all night, and many of his introductions might have come across as vaguely mean-spirited. But just because Chris is not given to cracking a smile, does not mean he isn’t smiling on the inside. Fortunately for those who suspect him of being snide, songwriting partner, bassist, keyboard player and backing singer Adam Schlessinger is given to the more conventional means of telling jokes: his have punchlines.

6) You can still be a guitar hero even on acoustic guitar.

Electric guitars and amplification can hide a multitude of sins. All credit then to Brit-born Jody Porter for ramping up the night’s energy level while limited to playing on acoustics. Some of his solos were nothing short of inspiring – achieving that rare balance of demonstrating musicality without ever descending into flash. And Brian Young was everything most groups would look for in a drummer: capable, competent, on time – and happy to stay in the background.

7) Audience participation is almost always a good thing.

For “Hey Julie,” Chris and Adam brought some of the front row on stage to bang some tambourines and shakers. They got one rather overly-eager girl – and two or three members of Shandaken’s finest, Tell Him I’m Ugly, all of whom looked as if they were born to the moment. Even Chris Collingwood seemed impressed.

8) Alter your hit song at your peril.

You can sense that Fountains of Wayne view “Stacy’s Mom” as something of an albatross. They can’t not play it, but they don’t want the audience to think it’s all they’re known for. Their compromise, at least in “full band acoustic” mode, is to save it for the encore, slow it down to a jazzy format, and skip a verse. This is what is known as “neither fish nor fowl” and may have been the only disappointment of the night.

Fountains of Wayne with Kelly Jones and Mike Viola.

9) We like to hear your friends.
Opening slot went to former Candy Butchers front man Mike Viola, performing acoustically with Kelly Jones at his side. They pulled off something Ken Stringfellow had tried at the Bell House in Brooklyn the other week and failed: singing without microphones, on a delightful uptempo country song that might have been called “I’d Like To Find A Way To Love You.” In the Fountains’ tradition of mentioning other artists in his songs, a number I believe to be called “Burn” included the phrase “I saw Jules Shear in the wood.” Whatever it meant, it was majestic.

10) The best Fountains of Wayne songs more than stand the test of time.
In case you sense any cynicism on my part, it’s only because I felt so bitterly let down by Traffic and Weather. But a handful of songs off Fountains of Wayne’s eponymous 1996 debut, and its follow-up Utopian Parkway, indicated just to the extent to which a great pop songs remains a great pop song for ever: here’s to “Radiation Vibe,” “Red Dragon Tattoo” and the night’s finale, “Survival Car.” And as for Welcome Interstate Managers, it remains forever a Desert Island Disc.

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