Last Friday, BoDeans headlined Festa Italiana‘s opening night. With no discernible Italian connection, the performance would’ve seemed strange if not for the band’s Milwaukee roots. The following night’s Calypso Lemonade Stage (aka Harley-Davidson Roadhouse) headliner was none other than Gin Blossoms, a Tempe, Arizona-based band with seemingly no affiliation to Italy nor the city of Milwaukee. Ill-fitting as the Gin Blossoms’ presence at Festa Italiana was, the few thousand people who came out to sing along to the ’90s radio rock powerhouse’s handful of hits seemed to care about the name of the festival. They were just happy to see Gin Blossoms.
Saturday night, almost exactly 25 years from the release date of the band’s breakout New Miserable Experience that went platinum (four times), Gin Blossoms appeared before a surprisingly large crowd and played an energetic hour worth of standout singles, time-tested deep cuts, and a few new songs. The band—which, quite miraculously, still has four members in its ranks who played on that 1992 record—took the stage and wasted little time giving festers what they wanted as they opened with “Follow You Down” from the certified platinum 1996 follow-up, Congratulations…I’m Sorry. From there, Gin Blossoms chased the modest 20-year-old single with “Miss Disarray” from their 2010 record and, in doing so, laid out the terms of the show to come: they would play each of their charting songs at some point, but people would have to hear some new material in the process.
After the catchy second wave Blossoms song, singer Robin Wilson lightheartedly acknowledged the unorthodox circumstances of the band’s appearance. “You don’t have to applaud,” he said. “We were given a huge supply of cannolis and stuff backstage.” The quip was followed by “Don’t Change For Me,” another song from 2010’s No Chocolate Cake, and a New Miserable Experience filler called “29.”
Between-song interactions were minimal. Wilson introduced his bandmates and earnestly beamed as he announced Gin Blossoms will be inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall Of Fame this year along with Meat Puppets. He also introduced the set’s fifth song as one he wrote “when he was really sad, and then it sold four million records” before the band proceeded to play an album-caliber rendition of “Until I Fall Away.”
With one third of the set in the books and having only two “big” songs (by Gin Blossoms standards, as most material peaked in the teens on Billboard charts) to that point, the band crowded the middle of the show with new songs from their yet-to-be-released album, as well as somewhat obscure ’90s numbers like “Pieces Of The Night” and “As Long As It Matters” before bringing the set home by giving the captive audience the songs they craved. The announcement of “one more new song” caused a few groans, but eventually gave way to cheers and screamed lyrics when “Allison Road” and “Found Out About You” were finally played in—to quote Wilson—”the most romantic city in the world.”
If you’re doing the math, that leaves just two more Gin Blossoms mainstays that needed to be played. A rock solid version of “Til I Hear It From You” began the descent, as Wilson asked the audience to help supply some of the vocals and they collectively complied. Finally, Gin Blossoms brought the show and that night’s Festa Italiana in for a landing with the still-great “Hey Jealousy” that ended moments before the fireworks display started. Strangely, that wasn’t the end of the show. After a few minutes, the band reemerged (perhaps out of contractual obligation to account for starting the show 10 minutes late?) to play covers of Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and a rowdy rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
It’s safe to say that none of few thousand folks gathered at the Calypso Stage expected their Saturday night to consist of watching fireworks as a mid-echelon alternative band from the ’90s played cover songs at an Italian heritage festival. Who could’ve known that? It was unexpected and downright odd, but none of that really mattered. It was pretty much perfect.