Thrown From the Train

I go to five nights of Train concerts to find out if SF's biggest band is really all that bad

It's about 10:30 on a wet and dreary Friday night when, downstairs, in the basement of Cafe Du Nord, San Francisco's R&B-tinged pop-rock megaband Train -- which, like it or not, is one of this city's biggest acts -- rounds the one-hour mark in its set. For the past few minutes, the band's been swingin' with one of its newer songs, the soulful rocker "Save the Day" from its most recent release, My Private Nation. Dashing vocalist Pat Monahan has been working the verses and the chorus, and now he's slow dancing with the bridge, moving his hands down to get a grip on its ass, so to speak, and he's got it swooning, the song, not to mention the ladies in the crowd, whose Casmir Mist and White Diamonds are making the room smell like a Macy's. As Monahan's right-hand man, lead guitarist Jimmy Stafford, soothes this savage song with some slow, gentle chords, these ladies droop over the singer's banter: "Now what I'd like to do right now, is just create some incredible romance, a very sexy mood in the room."

"Woo-hoooo!" screams a dude in the audience.

Monahan points to a woman standing in the front row and beckons her to the stage. She bravely goes to him, and when she giggles, nervously, ready to melt, he kneels down, leans in, sings honey in her ear, and then kisses her on the cheek, sending her quivering on her way with a story to tell the whole softball team. Then he selects another, and it's the same routine. Some luscious words and a kiss. Then one last woman, again with the kiss and a smile before he lowers her back into the swaying throng, down off the cloud and into the maw. How very heavenly for these women, who must be, what? Twenty-five? Thirty-one?

"My name's Amanda Howarth, and I'm 15 years old," Amanda Howarth tells me during the intermission that immediately follows "Save the Day." Fifteen? Shows what I know about Train. Howarth traveled from Walnut Creek tonight with her mom. She owns all three Train albums, but My Private Nation is her favorite. She especially likes the second cut, "All American Girl." Regarding her chance to spend a few seconds onstage with Monahan and her favorite band: "It was unreal. It was like slow motion, I had no idea what to do. It was like living a dream."

That reminds me: One of my mom's most cherished memories is when, at 21, she traveled from Orange County to the Las Vegas Hilton to see Elvis. There, in the middle of "Can't Help Falling in Love," Elvis singled my mom out of the crowd, escorted her up onstage, and kissed her on the lips. ("Everyone he kissed, he kissed on the lips. It wasn't just a little peck, it was big mushy kisses," she proudly remembers.) I think it's fair to say that in that moment my mom was "living a dream."

Two weeks ago, I went to five nights of intimate club shows that Train hosted at Cafe Du Nord. It should be said, first and foremost, that I do not like Train. I do not like it on a plane, I do not like it on a .... Seriously, though, the Green Eggs and Ham reference is perfect. Like the weird-looking creature in the Dr. Seuss story, I more or less mope around muttering about not liking mainstream act X, Y, or Z. But, saaaay, maybe I would like Train, if only I gave the band a chance. So I did. I went to all of these shows with an open heart, hoping I would learn something surprising or new, that I might see or hear something that debunked my cynical assumptions.

And I learned a lot. For example, Train fans are lightweights. On almost every night there was an overloaded woman who fell down or passed out before the band's first intermission. This, even though a bartender, addressing Du Nord DJ Nick Tangborne, said she'd probably make more money off Tangborne and five of his alcoholic friends. The Trainers didn't drink a whole lot, but man, they sure got drunk.

I learned, also, that a Train crowd is not the most polite bunch. Though there was only one altercation that resulted in a rowdy fortysomething getting ejected, the audience, especially toward the front, was surprisingly rude, pushing and shoving, trampling on feet -- I guess it was no different from a typical concert, but this from a mass of people who know all the words to a song called "Calling All Angels."

I learned that Train fans come from all over. Some of them, according to one source, were stalkers and had to be removed from the venue. Others were slightly less zealous, like Rachel McClarrington, 21, who drove out from Vacaville to see Train for the first time. Gillian Glynn and Naomi Malig, 29 and "older than 29," respectively, were from up the block and remembered seeing Train back when the band was playing small clubs around the city. There were the "Trainiacs," a local cadre of women who have followed the group for years and who manufactured a laminated, spiral-bound "Trainiacs '04" calendar. And there was Kitty Groenewegen, a swimming instructor and librarian at the University of Amsterdam who flew from the Netherlands to see Train "because these are special shows, and I could combine it with time off from work, and I like the band." Of all the reasons people gave for coming, the most common quality that seemed to draw them -- other than preternatural obsession in some cases -- was that Train is "awesome."

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