- Mike McMahan
- The Gin Blossoms perform Friday night at the Aztec Theatre.
The Aztec was packed with middle-aged Gen Xers, so a lot of people were willing to consider the matter. Lyrics like, “I never thought I’d still be here today,” were poised to bring the ’90s feels, especially following the unexpected and tragic death of early ’90s icon Luke Perry earlier in the week. Maybe everyone needed some good ’90s memories.
The Gin Blossoms had a nostalgic feel from the time they were new. The theme was reflected in the album’s title. It seemed to suggest that while things sucked in the past, fear not, there’s always new heartache to come. Perhaps it was the fact that guitarist Doug Hopkins committed suicide after recording their debut, signaling to the band that, if there was any doubt, the good times wouldn’t last forever. Perhaps it was their accessible music, a “jangle pop” sound heavily influenced by ’80s REM — a sound REM themselves had already moved on from.
Or maybe it was the lyrics themselves, which tended to dwell on past mistakes and regrets. Drinking yourself stupid? You had the epic-in-miniature “New Horizons” or their debut hit, “Hey Jealousy.” The possibility of future redemption? You got “Mrs. Rita” and its hopes that the titular fortune teller will come back around to create a sense of possibility. Or you had the rationalization and regrets of cheating, covered in, uh, “Cheatin’.”
The band took the stage shortly after 9 p.m. with a trio of songs from their most recent LP, Mixed Reality. The musicians have aged gracefully, not the easiest thing in rock ‘n’ roll. Their hairlines were thinner, but the band’s geniality remained. Frontman Robin Wilson, who has always projected an everyman image, teetered on the edge of a douchebag vibe with a shirt unbuttoned halfway down. Still, his accessibility prevented him from going full Hasselhoff.
The crowd’s energy jumped up a notch as Wilson announced theNew Miserable Experienceportion of the show and the band launched into “New Horizons.” Wilson’s voice has aged well. Bassist Bill Leen remains the band’s secret weapon, and he was loud in the mix, his playing clearly influenced by melodic legends like Paul McCartney and Peter Hook. Guitarists Jesse Valenzuela and Scotty Johnson also come from a school of melodic playing. Johnson replaced Hopkins at the time of New Miserable Experienceand, with several stories about Hopkins and his life, may remain the “new guy” forever.
And, indeed, Hopkins loomed large over the performance. After all, he was the primary songwriter, and the strength of this material is the reason the Gin Blossoms are able to pack a theater all these years later. And the songs’ huge hooks were on display for “Hey Jealousy” and “Mrs. Rita,” as the crowd sang along with every word. “Until I Fall Away” was the first slower, more reflective moment, and the first side of the album concluded with a reading of “The Cajun Song,” one of its two roots-flavored tracks.
The audience’s enthusiasm remained as the set rolled on, particularly for “Allison Road.” The most reflective moment of the evening may have come in “29,” a song about aging that now serves as a reminder of the folly of life in one’s 20s — the last decade where you think you know everything.
And then, with “Cheatin’” and its classic country vibe, New Miserable Experience was over. The Gin Blossoms took a chance after by throwing in another new song, meaning the centerpiece of the evening was bookended by unfamiliar material.
But the band brought everyone back quickly, closing the regular set with “Til I Hear It From You” and a two-song encore that concluded with their one remaining hit, “Follow You Down.” But the encore opened with the evening’s only real surprise, a cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.” The song fit right into the band’s repertoire and asked an obvious question about the path not taken. Given the strength of this material and the success of their first two albums, why aren’t the Gin Blossoms bigger?
Now, given the packed house, there is an argument to be made that they are pretty damn big. Which is a fair point, though the complete album offering clearly drove the attendance. And the Gin Blossoms certainly seemed enthusiastic about the crowd size. Even so, these guys aren’t Radiohead. Maybe they aspired to be arena headliners, only to have one of their early ’90s brethren steal the crown.
But last night, at the Aztec, it didn’t matter. For a while, it felt like the last 27 years hadn’t happened. Aging may not get any easier as the years pile up, but it’s nice to hear from an old friend and reflect on what still being here all these years later really means. And maybe embrace the survivor’s story that misspent youth wasn’t so misspent after all.