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Friday, June 25, 2010

Alive and Kicking

Alive and Kicking:
Stamford Alive@Five Show Prevails in Stormy Region
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Stamford, CT – A mid-afternoon regional storm, punctuated by what meteorologists called a ‘microburst’, threatened to upset plans for a live outdoor concert series in Stamford and literally upended life in Bridgeport.

Sweeping through the Stamford-Milford corridor of southwestern Connecticut, a fast-moving thunderstorm characterized by booming thunder, bright lightning flashes, torrents of rain and 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts created havoc on an otherwise sunny, humid summer day. In most areas, damage was limited to localized power outages, some downed trees and flash flooding. But in east Bridgeport, the storm was particularly pronounced. Nine buildings collapsed, power to over 26,000 people was knocked out, hundreds of trees came down, windows were blown out and cars were crushed by debris. On Interstate 95, which bisects the area, a tractor-trailer was literally picked up and flipped. The latter made the northbound side of the thoroughfare a parking lot for hours.

Music enthusiasts just trickling into Stamford to attend the first installment of the city’s very popular Alive@Five concert series/street fest nervously wondered if the worst had passed, particularly as strong winds still continued to toy with the tents and umbrellas of vendors set up around the perimeter of the site. Often, the defense strategy required staff to hold each corner of their tents, as well as any materials set out on tables, to prevent them from becoming airborne. Despite their efforts, brochures and entry forms went flying as did table umbrellas, tumbling over and into anyone nearby. As such, people padded about keeping their wits about them.

As Ten Feet Deep, the rock-pop group from NYC that had won the city’s recent Battle of the Bands competition, mounted the stage, the strongest gusts had quieted and a general calm took over. The gathering, modest at first -- as this year an admission fee of $5 and a “no coolers” policy had been instituted -- pushed forward as lead vocalist Alexander Craig crooned his first notes. Supporting him was Brendan Ryan on lead guitar, Pete Chema on bass and Mike Leff on drums. Glad to be in this high-profile setting, the young musicians bounced around on stage with newbie passion and put out a nice polished sound. To the side, a girl selling TFD t-shirts and CDs bounced along with them, offering her wares – boxed and otherwise. Leading hits included “Without Melinda”, “Cardinal Rule” and “Someone Else”, with a fine rendition of “Whipping Post” thrown in for classic measure.

At the end of their set, much of the crowd temporarily dispersed to go for supplies, which included beverages like water, soda, lemonade, Heineken and wine, and food like Romo’s pizza, tacos, YumNuts (flavored organic cashews) and burgers.

Concertgoers were all wrist-banded and contained within a fence-defined area that enclosed the whole site. There was a lot of police presence – even Stamford’s bomb squad was here keeping an eye on things, as well as several ambulances on standby. There was going to be no messing around like in past years.

The field filled back up as featured band #2, Soul Asylum, stepped up. This blast from the past – the group’s high point was in the early 1990s – still portrayed its signature swagger and Midwestern scruffiness, a likable mix that maintained a dedicated following. Led by vocalist/lead guitarist Dave Pirner and backed by Dan Murphy (rhythm guitar), Michael Bland (drums, formerly with Prince) and George McElvey (bass), the band exhibited a lot of guitar swinging and mock, good-natured jamming. Their set included rock songs like “Runaway Train”, “Without A Trace” (dedicated to former band member Karl Mueller who died of throat cancer in 2005) and “Black Gold”. The latter is about the Gulf War crisis of the ‘90s but could easily have been a statement about oil companies today, particularly given the mess in another Gulf – the Gulf of Mexico, fouled by a still-leaking BP well.

The crowd had grown denser by this point and, if you wanted to go for anything now, you risked losing a prime viewing spot. As such, people employed “gofers” and “I’ll buy, you fly” incentives to obtain their goods. The audience continued to stay close-knitted, even through the next break, but perhaps because of the sponsoring rock station spokesmen who tossed t-shirts, hats and other promotional materials into the crowd. The freebies even included merchandise from the Jerry Springer Show, the daytime reality program now produced from Stamford. In fact, the show’s promotional extensions were everywhere here, visible via staffer’s t-shirts, drink cozies, hand fans and pin-ons.

Finally, the main attraction, the Gin Blossoms, rolled onto stage to a warm and now extensive reception as several thousand people had now amassed in this Washington Boulevard-adjacent downtown site. Formed in 1987 in Tempe, AZ, the GBs were mid-1990s stars then broke up in 1997. The alternative, post-grunge rock and pop performers reunited in ’02 and are now set to release a new album this September.

Lead singer Robin Wilson, looking like a cooler version of Gilligan with five o’clock shadow, got things rolling, with rhythm guitarist Jesse Valenzuela, bassist Bill Leen, lead guitarist Scott Johnson and drummer John Richardson at his back. In their line-up were songs like “Found Out About You”, “Til I Hear From You”, the hit “Follow You Down” and the classic ditty “Hey Jealousy”. The latter was first released in 1993 and broke Billboard’s Top 25 chart. Their elation that year was short-lived as then-guitarist/songwriter Doug Hopkins committed suicide in December. The Blossoms also debuted a new single, “Miss Disarray”.

A real crowd pleaser, Wilson climbed atop speakers, toured the pit between the stage and the steel barricade behind which the crowd was penned and even mounted a drum. He also rotated between playing the harmonica and lending a tambourine, then a cowbell, to audience members as band support extensions. These fans kept great time and were the envy of others around them.

As they performed, the blazing sun dropped in the sky behind the stage, a cool breeze settled in and the crowd rocked and danced together, just enjoying the whole scene… blissfully unaware of the (emergency) state of affairs in sister city Bridgeport.