Under the Sun tour reunites Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray and Gin Blossoms for a night of ’90s fun in North Charleston
By Stratton Lawrence Special to The Post and Courier – Wednesday, August 7, 2013
If you go
Jesse Valenzuela knows that his band the Gin Blossoms will probably never have another hit as big as 1992’s “Hey Jealousy,” and he’s perfectly OK with that.
“Never say never, but I’m certainly not fashioning any new songs with that in mind,” the guitarist says in an interview with Charleston Scene. “I’m not pessimistic; I’m a very optimistic cat, but I do think that the radio belongs to younger people and that kids should have their own heroes.”
For the kids of the ’90s, the Under the Sun tour that visits the North Charleston Coliseum on Friday is a chance to reconnect with the heroes of their youth.
The five-band lineup includes Fastball, Vertical Horizon, the Gin Blossoms, Sugar Ray and Smash Mouth, making their way through a collection of hit songs that were impossible to avoid during the final decade of the last century.
Thirteen years into the new millennium, the ’90s have begun to develop a musical identity like the decades that preceded them, and the Under the Sun groups are at that revitalization’s core.
Sugar Ray’s “Fly” reached number one in 1997, followed by “Every Morning” the next year.
Smash Mouth exploded onto the charts with “Walkin’ on the Sun” in 1997, scoring a second hit in “All Star” two years later.
Vertical Horizon is best known for its cusp-of-the-’90s track, 2000’s “Everything You Want,” while Fastball scored a Grammy nomination for its 1998 hit, “The Way.”
In addition to “Hey Jealousy,” the Gin Blossoms well-known songs include “Found Out About You,” “Follow You Dow” and ‘Til I Hear it From You.” The latter was released as a single from the “Empire Records” soundtrack, a film whose music and fashion are ubiquitous with ’90s culture.
“Everybody on this tour had some glorious years as pop stars, and it’s granted us this wonderful life to go out and make music every summer,” says Valenzuela. “If another radio smash happens, that’d be wonderful, but it’s definitely not something that makes or breaks my day. People are interested in coming out to hear us play, and that’s good enough for me.”
Each of the five Under the Sun bands has continued to record and released records since their days as radio bastions, but none have come close to the attention they received in the ’90s.
Smash Mouth released its album “Magic” in 2012, with the title track inching to No. 22 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. Sugar Ray released its last album, “Music for Cougars,” in 2009, but has since focused energy on the group’s image as a ’90s nostalgia act.
In 2012, Sugar Ray and the Gin Blossoms toured along with Everclear, Marcy Playground and Lit on the Summerland Tour, a formula that lent itself to the creation of Under the Sun. Each band on the current tour plays an approximately 40-minute set, focusing on the hits, in lieu of debuting new material.
“It’s like turning on the radio and having all your favorite songs,” says Steve Harwell, the front man for Smash Mouth. “It’s hit after hit after hit; it’s just a big party.”
With most of the bands’ members now in their 40s, performing 90-minute sets six nights a week might quickly wear on their stamina. But in the context of a traveling caravan with short sets each night, Harwell claims the energy has grown as the tour continues.
“The crowds have been phenomenal; they’ve been singing every ... word to every song, and every band is showing up each night on their game,” Harwell claims. “Fastball opens the show, and then Vertical (Horizon) comes out, and chicks dig them. Then it’s Gin Blossoms and Sugar Ray, and then we close the show and end the night with ‘All Star.’ You really can’t get any better than that, and the crowd goes nuts.”
Smash Mouth’s first major tour, in 1997, was a co-bill with Sugar Ray, so the connections between the bands are as old as the songs. Each night, artists from the various bands typically sit in and sing or play along with the other groups’ hit songs.
Despite the years, the Gin Blossoms’ Valenzuela says that the energy of the bands — and even their looks — hasn’t changed much.
“Mark (McGrath, of Sugar Ray) and Steve still dress the same, with their lounge gear on. They’re swingers,” laughs Valenzuela, admitting that the Gin Blossoms’ fashion hasn’t experienced much of an update either.
“Our individual members never had a lot of broad recognition, where people really knew what we looked like. It was just about this collection of songs,” he says. “If I’m walking down the street with Mark, people stop and shake his hand, and he’s always a real sweetheart and very gracious. But Gin Blossoms never had that sort of notoriety.”
Throughout the tour, fans that idolized celebrity singers like McGrath and Harwell during the ’90s have had a chance to meet them after the shows with VIP package meet-and-greet sessions.
“Some of the fans are fanatic; they’re like, ‘I grew up with you, and I’m so excited to see you guys tonight.’ That response lets us know that this is working,” says Harwell, adding, “I can’t complain. I’m stoked.”
Anatomy of a hit
Even the circumstances around Smash Mouth’s emergence onto the national scene have a distinctly ’90s flavor. After Harwell left his record deal as a rapper, he formed Smash Mouth as a ska-punk band and befriended a fledgling local California DJ named Carson Daly.
“We kind of started together, and Carson went to L.A. right when we finished making ‘Walkin’ on the Sun,’ ” Harwell recalls. “When I played him the song, Carson looked at me and said, ‘What the (expletive) is this?’ He got off work and I followed him to his house in my manager’s car, and he yells out the window, ‘Put it on KROQ!’ (Los Angeles’ trendsetting rock radio station), and it was like, ‘Boom. Smash Mouth.’ ”
Within two weeks, radio stations all over the country picked up “Walkin’ on the Sun” and the band had a No. 1 hit.
“When I heard it on the radio, I started crying. It put me to tears. I was like, ‘Holy (expletive), this is really happening,” remembers Harwell. “I knew it was going to change the game, instantly. I was turned down by three record labels in one day, and the next week they’re all blowing my phone up.”
The “summertime fun” vibe of “Walkin’ on the Sun” meshed well with Sugar Ray’s concurrent “Fly,” forming an early partnership that persists today. Likewise, the Gin Blossoms’ Valenzuela says he doesn’t take for granted the career longevity that a few good tunes have provided his band.
“I’m thankful for our hit songs. They’ve brought us a lot of success and they take care of my family,” he says. “For whatever reason, there’s been a resurgence in this music through nostalgia, or whatever you want to call it. At the same time, we never stopped playing. We play 100 shows every year and we have been forever. But everybody on this tour is really kind-hearted and respectful, and it’s great conditions to make music and entertain people. We’re having a ball.”
Were any of the Under the Sun bands to visit Charleston on their own, they could likely draw a crowd to the Music Farm, but together they’re able to play the Coliseum, the area’s biggest room. It’s the nostalgic synergy created when bands from the same generation join together that’s helped fuel ticket sales. Even the logo for the tour includes wrap-around text listing all of the hit songs audiences can expect to hear.
“You’re stronger in groups,” says Harwell. “There’s so much firepower on this tour, it’s crazy.”
Country and R&B groups have long used package tours to fill big summer arenas and amphitheatres. Although the Under the Sun groups cross genres, they all hark back to an era that audiences remember fondly, if for no other reason than that they were younger when they first knew those songs.
“Vertical Horizon is very different from Smash Mouth, but it goes back to a time when each of our songs were popular, and to package it together only helps everyone,” says Harwell.
For next year, Under the Sun is already in contact with Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Collective Soul about joining forces, Harwell claims, and Third Eye Blind and Barenaked Ladies have also entered the conversation as possible additions. There’s also talk of adding X-Games-style entertainment, including skateboarding.
“This is something we want to build on for the next 10 years,” says Harwell. “The reviews have been fantastic; some have said it’s the ‘summer package of the year.’ ”
After the Under the Sun tour concludes Aug. 17, Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray and the Gin Blossoms will tour Asia together this fall, continuing a collaboration that allows each band to perform for much larger audiences and in further locales than they might on their own.
“It’s the right time for this,” says Harwell, of marketing the ’90s as its own entity. “We’re going to keep it fresh and keep it fun.”