Last night, the Goo Goo Dolls played the NorVa, a music club in downtown Norfolk, VA. I’ve grown up listening to the band on the radio, but never knew anything more about them. That is the perspective from which I will review their show. Names of band members have been fabricated based solely on their appearances because I don’t know their names.
Sound check was all wrapped up. The lights were suddenly turned down low. To the tune of hundreds of screaming, drunk 30-somethings, the black curtain behind the stage fell to the floor, revealing… a large gray textured sheet! Truly, the Goo Goo Doll’s backdrop reminded me of a pebble or a thread viewed through a microscope at 10,000X magnification.
But the dingy, vacant wall was either forgiven or forgotten as the band rolled out into the light. Oh, the light! An imposing brightness filled the main stage and overflowed, washing over the audience to a level that I — perhaps uniquely on account of my youth — found disconcerting; and I found that I could look down and distinguish the colors on the shoes surrounding my own. Of course, there was no time for pondering footwear. One of the greatest bands of the 90’s had begun to play!
I didn’t recognize the first song, but that didn’t matter much. Thinking ahead, I had expected to hear about four perfectly familiar songs. This moderate-rocking opener gave me an opportunity to survey the characters prancing and posing before me.
The frontman, whose bronze wrinkles recalled a young Keith Richards, exuded comfort in his stardom. Clad in the manner of light, snap-button jacket that I imagine must be sold with a matching canteen, he flaunted his practiced smile and strut from the very start.
To the left of A Young Keith Richards, cackling and convulsing, was a creature the 1980’s had nightmares about. I’m sure they call him Freak. Stringy black emo hair covered Freak’s face which, since such a style is most commonly worn by stick figures in skinny jeans and tight black tees, recast his “medium build” as “pudgy.” Freak smacked his bass and jetted around like a fireball, criss-crossing with A Young Keith Richards in their mutual excitement.
In the background were three more consummate musicians. On the keyboard, but with a guitar slung over his shoulder and a mic stand nearby, was the spitting image of the singer from the FreeCreditReport.com commercials. Elevated in the center of the group was, I believe, Dr. Gregory House, no doubt taking a short vacation from the medical practice to lay down some drumwork for this national tour. And finally, rising out of the shadow of the kit to display his operatic lead guitar skills, there was Fabio.
Stone-faced and svelte, Fabio had parted his neck-length golden hair directly down the middle. He left unbottoned the top of his black flared-sleeve shirt. From his blank eyes, Fabio could stare into your soul, or at least in its general direction, so well as he could see you from his cool, dim realm where he stood slightly hunched over his beautiful white guitar.
I processed the imagery that is the Goo Goo Dolls lineup just in time to be ready for one of those songs that I had known I’d hear: Slide. Here the crowd got its first taste of responsibility. A Young Keith Richards could not support the beloved chorus with his vestigial octave-and-a-half range, so he spent half the song with the microphone held out toward the audience. Happy to oblige were the reveling working-class adults who had learned the song by heart through countless roadtrips and high school dances.
Following the sonic festival of Slide were a string of songs I had forgotten I even knew, including Here Is Gone and Everything You Are. As A Young Keith Richards slyly substituted increases in volume for what were once high pitches in the melodies, I am pleased to say that his friend Free Credit Report Guy showed notable vocal prowess on the harmonies.
Then, between songs, Freak started chatting with the audience. He tossed a Rubik’s Cube into the crowd in hopes that someone could solve it for him before the end of the show. As he trailed off, drums started to pulse and guitars started to pound. But A Young Keith Richards was strumming away on the side of the stage, so…. Oh no. No.
Yes. Freak started to sing a song.
The sounds of late-80’s punk started to emerge from the stage as that rocky voice crunched out lyrics about goodness-knows-what. I was far too absorbed in the visual flare of the nightmarish creature who had taken over the Goo Goo Dolls concert. Rote song structures and heavy rhythms on simple chords accompanied windmill strokes as Freak galloped back and forth in delight. The horror lasted for only two songs — departing, as it arrived, without explanation — but it may haunt me for weeks.
A slew of satisfying songs followed to quell my fears. Four black balloons were tossed into the crowd to be batted around during Black Balloon. Worry might have arisen around me, though, when A Young Keith Richards announced that they would be playing new songs from a forthcoming album. It’s always a danger to be declared a legend in your own time; people just want to hear the classics over and over. Undaunted, the Goo Goo Dolls pressed through a block of strong, catchy rockers that might portent yet more great successes on the charts.
In the middle of the new material, the boys pulled out Name, challenging the audience by asking how many of those in attendance were old enough to remember when that song first came out. As the cheers of assent echoed, A Young Keith Richards made sweet music with his fourth different acoustic guitar of the evening. Dr. House kept time. Fabio spent the song slightly hunched, looking blankly at the audience. It was the same expression seen on Keanu Reeves when he first learned to stop bullets.
Shortly thereafter, Freak returned to the microphone, threatening to drive my heart to palpitation. I won’t review the two songs he spewed forth: they were much like the first pair. I waited, trembling, for A Young Keith Richards to reclaim power from the beast.
Once he did, I knew we had reached the home stretch of the set. A Young Keith Richards was handed his forty-seventh different acoustic guitar of the evening while Dr. House led Freak off stage, presumably to feed him. A ballad introduced as “terribly depressing” followed which featured, shockingly, the transposition of the spotlight onto Fabio for a ten-second slide guitar solo. Any longer and I presume the artificial light would have either damaged his complexion or turned him to dust.
At long last, it was time for Iris. This time the lion’s share of the song was left to the audience to perform. The bridge blew my mind as Fabio stepped to the very front of the stage for a wickedly sick shredding solo that lasted all of six seconds. On his heels, Free Credit Report Guy appeared out of nowhere with a tenor saxophone and absolutely busted loose for about twice as long. Then the toys were put away, the song was drawn to a close, and before long the band was filing off the stage.
The encore opened with a sweet little ditty named Sympathy and closed with a truly awe-inspiring performance of Broadway. The happiness on stage reflected the crowd and could be heard clearly in the soaring harmonies. With that bit of high majesty, the Goo Goo Dolls left us for the evening, retiring backstage to put Freak back in his pen.