The Fray’s biggest hits have proved to be an accessible blend of piano-driven ballads and mid-tempo rock, with “Over My Head (Cable Car)” and the title track from 2005’s How to Save a Life enjoying tremendous airplay via radio and television over the past four years.
The Denver band’s headlining show on Wednesday night, July 29, 2009 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, however, saw it aiming for the kind of wide-ranging territory identified with the likes of Coldplay. An ambitious set list found those Gavin DeGraw-ish hits, anchored by vocalist and piano man Isaac Slade, injected with just the right amount of sonic firepower to fit comfortably alongside more muscular material from the group’s self-titled sophomore album from earlier this year.
After opening with an infectious take on its aforementioned smash –- a crowd favorite that got everyone to their feet and singing along –- Slade along with guitarist-vocalist Joe King, drummer Ben Wysocki, guitarist Dave Welsh and two supporting musicians proceeded to deliver a largely effective mix of songs from both of the group’s albums.
Yet, though the crowd screamed and cheered loudest when a grand piano was wheeled out to the center of the stage for the Fray to play “How to Save a Life” a mere five songs into its 90-minute set, it was the performance of several new songs that reached higher artistic heights this night.
“Say When,” with its lush textures wrapped around Slade’s confessional lyrics, fit the Fray’s burgeoning aims, artful red lights enveloping the stage adding power to its delivery. Sparse arrangements of ballads didn’t necessarily detract from the Fray’s approach either; the beautiful “Never Say Never” led seamlessly into “You Found Me,” a song that began with Slade alone at the piano and singing in a lower register. The rest of the band then came in, and by the time the first chorus hit Slade was singing in a higher range with explosiveness to fit the song’s thematic tug-of-war between religious faith and doubt.
The Fray’s encore featured a mini-tribute to Michael Jackson via a version of “Man in the Mirror” (both Coldplay and Tears for Fears infused recent sets with similar tributes, albeit by covering “Billie Jean”) as well as a night-ending, emotive take on the band’s own “Happiness.”
Opener Andrew McMahon led his band Jack’s Mannequin through a remarkably energetic and consistent 55-minute showcase that rivaled the strength of a sold-out show at House of Blues Anaheim in November 2008. Obviously thrilled at performing on the large stage, McMahon recalled that he had lived in Dana Point for about 10 years, and that it was a teen dream of his to someday perform on this stage.
McMahon didn’t let that now-realized dream go to waste. After opening with a rousing version of “Dark Blue,” he proceeded to play another 12 up-tempo tracks, memorable highlights of which included “Spinning” and “Swim” off his second Jack’s album The Glass Passenger, as well as the alt-rock favorite “Bruised” and the singalong “La La Lie” from the group’s debut. Closing out the set was a rocking take on Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” with McMahon so fired up that he went into the crowd and then climbed atop his grand piano.
Opening the bill was Vedera, a Kansas City band that offered a pleasing set highlighted by singer-guitarist Kristen May’s soaring vocals, reminiscent of Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan and Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash. Her soprano infused “Satisfy” and “A World Apart” with a winning kind of urgency that outdistanced the straightforward song arrangements.