Photos: Gin Blossoms, Tonic & Vertical Horizon at Express LIVE!
With my feet now planted firmly, though wistfully, in my 40s, it’s hard not to feel at least a little nostalgic when it comes to the music that shaped my college years. I used to harmonize to the Gin Blossoms’ “Follow You Down” while I wrote papers until the wee hours of the morning (which was most days of the week). And when my eyes were too strained to focus, I’d walk for hours on our perpetually rainy campus with Tonic’s Lemon Parade playing at an unreasonable volume on my Discman — held firmly in hand lest it got bumped and skipped past my favorite parts of the song. Vertical Horizon’s “Best I Ever Had (Grey Sky Morning)” provided me with a bit of melodic respite as I tussled with the realities of graduating and figuring out whatever was next.
Hint: it was more college.
So, when that trifecta lands on the same ticket for a summer tour, you buy a ticket and a Blossoms t-shirt that still smells like freshly screened ink, and you stand a little too close to the speakers in the pit and let the warm glow of it all wash over you.
But let me be exceptionally clear: this is not a throwback show resting on the good graces of a maudlin audience. These bands are all still actively making good, relevant music. Vertical Horizon’s excellent most recent album, The Lost Mile, arrived in February, and Mixed Reality, the Gin Blossoms’ first studio album in eight years, will be released on Friday. Tonic’s Emerson Hart is wrapping production on a solo record that’s due later in the year, with new music for the band planned for 2019. All three outfits, who have been touring constantly, sound vocally and instrumentally impeccable, each of their lead singers lifted by tight, fit rhythm sections.
Vertical Horizon was the first to take the stage, playing their set directly into the sun that was making its sure, but slow, descent behind the amphitheater.
“I love you, Columbus, but I’m not loving this heat!’ exclaimed front man Matt Scannell after opening with energetic versions of the recently-released “Written in the Stars” and the vintage album cut “Send It Up.”
Following a brief detour to 2009’s Burning The Days with “The Lucky One,” the band dug into “Best I Ever Had…,” the moody ballad that anchored their 1999 major label debut Everything You Want, and then “We Are,” their first substantial radio hit from the same record.
Scannell, whose pungent vocal blends a certain sweetness with a discernible urgency, then led enthusiastic fans in a sing-a-long, separating male and female voices into two different counter-melodies that would serve as a primer for the crowd-pleasing alt-rock radio staple “You’re A God.” The band finished with “Everything You Want,” their breakout single that took them to the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles chart in July 2000.
After a short break, Tonic launched their stage time with the brassy “Open Up Your Eyes,” their first commercial single and lead track from their debut album, Lemon Parade, followed closely by “Take Me As I Am” and “Liar,” both from 2002’s Head On Straight. Cheers from the crowd swelled when they recognized the thick electric guitar intro of “You Wanted More,” which was prominently featured on the band’s 1999 sophomore record Sugar and on the American Pie motion picture soundtrack. The former’s title track surfaced mid-set, showcasing the delectable balance that results from the merging of Hart’s buoyant lead vocal and acoustic six-string, Dan Lavery’s punchy bass, and Jeff Russo’s crunchy electric axe.
The trio paused before they played what was arguably the most anticipated track of their set, “If You Could Only See,” with Hart briefly explaining its origin and acknowledging “this song is twenty-one years old! Unbelievable!” Near the end of the song, Hart requested the audience to sing the chorus a cappella. “Let’s give her a proper birthday salute!” he bellowed before turning his microphone toward the waving hands and willing voices in front of him. The set concluded, at the urging of a particularly excited fan near the front row, with the gritty chug of “Casual Affair.”
“Okay, man! We’ll play that one! You’re making me kinda nervous — all I want to do is play music with all my friends here, man!” Hart chided.
Daylight disappeared almost completely as the Gin Blossoms took the stage after another intermission, with svelte lead singer Robin Wilson leaping to the front of the stage as the opening lines of “Lost Horizons” — the opening track off their 1992 opus, New Miserable Experience –– met with voracious approval from the audience.
Vigorously playing a gleaming white tambourine atop the ample chops of band mates Bill Leen, Scott Johnson, Scott Hessel, and Vertical Horizon’s guitarist Donovan White (standing in for an absent Jesse Valenzuela), he worked effortlessly through “Long Time Gone” and “Allison Road,” ignoring the least savory moment of the night when a half-filled water bottle flung from the crowd sailed over his head and landed mid-stage. Wilson’s pipes are ageless and have stunningly retained their youthful post-grunge glimmer a quarter century later.
As the band began to play “Hold Me Down,” Wilson handed his tambourine to a fan and invited them to play it while he continued the song. “Focus!” he instructed as he mimed the rhythm with his hands. “Hands Are Tied” and “Until I Fall Away” came next before he acknowledged “Angels Fly” as one of the tracks from the soon-to-arrive Mixed Reality. Two additional new tracks, “Here Again” and “Break” followed a quick nod to their 1996 album, Congratulations I’m Sorry, with its third single, “As Long As It Matters.”
The Blossoms wrapped their main set by sliding into a flawless trio of their radio standards, “Found Out About You,” “Hey Jealousy,” and “‘Til I Hear It From You.” After a short pause, Wilson made good on his promise during our phone interview earlier in the week that Emerson Hart and Matt Scannell would join him on stage for the first song of the show’s finale to cover the Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic “Wild Horses.” Unsurprisingly, their three agile voices meshed beautifully in a fitting tribute to a phenomenal rock piece.
After an enthusiastic ovation, the finale concluded with the ineludible “Follow You Down,” the only remaining Gin Blossoms theme that hadn’t yet made it on stage. It was worth the wait.
The Gin Blossoms/Tonic/Vertical Horizon Tour will continue through August 9 in Savannah, Georgia. Columbus fans who sadly missed the show can catch up with the program in Huber Heights at The Rose Music Center on Wednesday night, or at Hard Rock Live in Northfield on Thursday, June 14.
The Gin Blossoms will release their eighth studio album, “Mixed Reality” on June 15 via their official website. Check out the concert preview interview between me and Tonic lead singer Emerson Hart from last week, and the in-depth discussion Vertical Horizon front man Matt Scannell and I shared in 2016 during a previous tour stop in Columbus.
Matt Ellis is a freelance photographer who covers bands that visit the city and the Columbus Crew MLS team. More about Matt can be found at Matt Ellis Photography.