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The dying cry of '90s radio lords



Nearly every morning of my freshman year of high school, my radio alarm clock woke me to the sound of "The Dolphin's Cry" by the band Live. It was a bit creepy, I admit, hearing the ultra-emotive croon of singer Ed Kowalczyk belting, "The way you're bathed in light/ reminds me of that night," as I rose and shone. The local rock station ostensibly had a thing for programmed playlists that synched rather well to my thing for sleeping in as late as possible. So, yes, I suppose you could say that Live—that teasable and grossly melodramatic post-grunge band from somewhere in Pennsylvania—meant something to me.

Memories like that and a little prodding from a friend led me to see Live, well, live for the first time in 2008. They shared a bill with fellow '90s wanderers Blues Traveler and Collective Soul in a small amphitheater; not long before that Live song rocked me to wake, Collective Soul had captivated me at my first concert ever, playing hits I never knew they wrote in front of a flashy arena-rock backdrop. And besides, who wouldn't want to reimagine John Popper as his doppelgänger Jared the Subway Guy in real time?

The answer, apparently, was just about anyone else my age: In our mid-20s casualness, my friend and I were rarities in a sea of middle-aged men playing air guitar and older women screaming whenever Kowalczyk stripped shirtless (a common occurrence, confirms Google Images). Very few members of our own generation had paid $35–$60 for these three nostalgic acts, instead packing into Cat's Cradle to see The Hold Steady or Bull City Headquarters for Titus Andronicus that week. To be honest, if my tickets weren't free, I probably wouldn't have been at the nostalgia corral, either.

Don't expect a big difference with the crowds at Raleigh Amphitheater this Thursday and Saturday, when both the Last Summer on Earth Tour and the Summerland Tour shepherd a slew of '90s hitmakers to town. Of the four bands in the first package—Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Cracker and Big Head Todd and the Monsters—none have charted a Top 10 single in the U.S. since 1998. The five acts on the latter bill—Everclear, Sugar Ray, Gin Blossoms, Lit and Marcy Playground—haven't done so since 2001. Most of them tout new lineups and new albums, the titles of which may hint at their expected audience. Sugar Ray named its most recent LP Music for Cougars, while the Ladies just issued the archival collection Stop Us If You've Heard This One Before! Can we, for real?

Cracker frontman David Lowery recently wrote about the obsession with file sharing that's allowed my generation to find much more music via the Internet than the radio and record stores ever allowed. Indeed, bands like his and the rest of the acts on the Last Summer on Earth and Summerland tours stand to suffer the most from the trend, because they are on the losing end of this generation's increasingly truncated long-term memory and loyalty.

It's not that those of my age don't remember Lit or Blues Traveler; it's just that, I think, we've moved past it. In a music culture of instant online tastemakers, the constant discovery and consumption of new music seems to have shortened attention spans of listeners when an artist fails to produce a successful single or hit album. Last week, for instance, when former buzz band kings Clap Your Hands Say Yeah announced that two members were leaving, the prevailing response seemed to be, "Wait, they still exist?" Sure, CYHSY recently headlined Cat's Cradle, but they were touring with a band who was riding a wave of buzz, just as they once did. One-hit wonders are losing their staying power. That is, it's hard to imagine Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Black Kids touring big, packed rooms together in a decade, but we'll see.

This week's shows remain a testament to the staying power of, only a decade ago, a couple of hit songs. To that end, don't expect many at Raleigh Amphitheater to be aware that these bands have new albums, much less know the songs from them. (When Barenaked Ladies released a new one in 2010, it didn't break Billboard's Top 20.) Maybe, like me, they're just hoping that with a college degree under their belt, they might be able to finally figure out why that dolphin cried so much.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Cougar bait."

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