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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

Wednesday, Feb 18 2004
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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."

Was the band awesome? Uh, yeah. Sure. In an "awesome spectacle" kind of way. Newly outfitted with bassist Johnny Colt (formerly of the Black Crowes), keyboardist Brandon Bush, and rhythm guitarist Tony Lopacinski, and filled out by original members Scott Underwood (drums), Stafford, and Monahan, the sextet was, as far as I could tell, having never seen it before, in top form. Like a seasoned wedding band, the guys played songs that were so tight, so streamlined, they sounded like they'd been engineered at NASA. Each night, Train sailed through roughly 30 tunes spread out over two 1-1/2-hour sets. In addition to all the hits -- songs like "Calling All Angels," "Meet Virginia," and the Grammy-winning "Drops of Jupiter" -- the group played a variety of covers, from Prince's "Raspberry Beret" to AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" to Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle," which Train performed the Black Crowes' version of, complete with the same Crowes guitar solo, which means the band was covering a cover, which strikes me as weird.

But I guess it shouldn't. Because that's just the kind of band Train is. Like so many before them, these guys haven't created a sound, they're merely playing the sound that's been handed to them -- timeless rock 'n' roll -- and doing it well. Train is the local bar band that made good, the one that knows all the hits and, if you don't mind, would like to play a few originals, too. Like its song "All American Girl," in which Monahan tries to figure out what makes this chick he's obsessed with tick, the band itself is "Just like everybody else in the world/ You just got lucky, that's all." Harmless, right? Like a sugary cupcake. Except, why would anyone fly from the Netherlands to eat a cupcake?

Toward the end of the fifth and final night of my dalliance with Train (that's about 20 hours, total, for those of you keeping track) I got to talking to Sean O'Conner, proprietor of Thee Parkside, a small rock club near Potrero Hill. O'Conner was a little tipsy. He had been at his 10-year college reunion all night and had just stopped by to check on the band that he remembered seeing 13 years ago, when it was a fixture in the few clubs and coffee shops of North Beach. A big teddy bear of a man, O'Conner took me to school the moment I tried to diss Train for being unoriginal. His final, slightly slurred words on the matter just about summed it up: "As gay as this band is, they're rockin' some people."

Really, honestly, truly, I wish I could accept that as being good enough, but I can't. Here is why, as explained through a metaphor that my roommate Charles came up with on the morning after he accompanied me to one of these shows. (Warning: Severe digression; please bear with me.)

Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? Remember the famous opening scene, in which Indiana Jones spelunks his way through the Mayan (Incan?) temple until he discovers the sacred golden idol? OK. So the golden idol, to Indy, is a treasure. But to the people who made it, the Mayans or whoever, it's a powerful symbol of their culture, hence the reason they built this whole big temple around it. So removing the golden idol is like symbolically stealing these people's culture, which is why they booby-trapped the pedestal it sits upon, and why Dr. Jones must oh-so-deftly replace the golden idol with a bag of sand. But that doesn't work. The temple is not fooled by the bag of sand, and the walls start crumbling, and all of a sudden Harrison Ford's getting chased by a giant boulder.

To explain: Elvis, the Beatles, and all the rest of rock 'n' roll's grandparents are that golden idol. And the music industry is the temple that's been built up around them. But for years now, in place of those pioneering acts, the record company executives have been giving us bag after bag of sand, only with each new bag, they take a few grains out. This was fine for a long time and resulted in some pretty cool pop music. Lately, however, the bag of sand has been getting lighter and lighter, and the temple -- i.e., the consumer who fuels the industry -- is not fooled. And that, friends, is why we have illegal downloading, which is the giant boulder that's threatening to squash the record industry as we know it. Because the bottom line is, why would anyone want to pay for sand?

Train is just another bag of sand. Granted, it has its "Trainiacs," and yes, people come from far away to hear the band's music, but the impression I got from talking to fans was they were not so much dedicated as happily entertained. During each of the five shows, most everyone in the crowd was yammering, even yelling during the songs -- hell, I saw people taking pictures of each other in the middle of one tune. That doesn't prove that a Train show is not a fun place to be on a Saturday night, just that the band -- like any good bar band -- is expendable. Pointless. Interchangeable with the band that came before and the next band waiting to replace it. Of the dozens of people I asked, close to none could tell me: 1) Their favorite song ("I just like 'em all"); 2) Their favorite album ("I like all of them"); or 3) The name of a band member besides Monahan.

But hey, maybe I'm all wrong. Maybe Train is more than just a rock band on its way to a county fair near you in 2007. Maybe Amanda Howarth will grow up to someday tell her kids all about that magical night when Pat Monahan kissed her on the cheek in a small club in San Francisco. Maybe, though I doubt it. There was only one Elvis, but there's a never-ending supply of Trains.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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