Good Pop, Cheesy PersonalityBy Dan Katz
Is it really a good thing to be a rock star? I’ve never gone to a Kiss concert, because I have minimal interest in a show that consists only of a band vigorously playing guitars, sticking out their tongues and yelling at the crowd for approval. I was unexpectedly confronted with the Kiss vibe on Saturday, when Vertical Horizon headlined a show at the Paradise Rock Club. Their music was well-played, but there was a certain cheesy element to their performance that kept me from fully enjoying it.
Openers Angry Salad started things off right with a cohesive pop sound and some extremely infectious tunes. The audience had little reaction to the band’s initial appearance on stage, but after their first song, they were given a much warmer welcome. During their set, the band displayed impressive control over catchy modern rock songs like “Empty Radio” and “Coming To Grips,” as well as notable guitar skills in faster numbers like the unusually dark “Scared of Highways” and their big single, “The Milkshake Song.” The latter was driven by a loud percussion sample that gave the song an uncomfortably artificial feel, but lead singer Bob Whelan added some much-needed spontaneity by happily singing the last verse in Spanish. Closing with their fast-paced rendition of “99 Red Balloons,” the local boys undoubtedly gained some new fans from the audience.
Vertical Horizon clearly didn’t need to gain fans from the audience; I was amazed by how many people were singing along with every song in their set (and in tune, too, which is a skill that many pop audiences tend to lack.) The band has not received excessive mainstream exposure, but they clearly have an army of die-hard followers. Unfortunately, the band was very aware of this, and most of their communication with the audience consisted of lines like, “How do you guys feel about Vertical Horizon?” and encouragements to clap along with almost every song (including slower-paced ones like “Everything You Want,” where it seemed incredibly out of place.)
Musically, the band had clearly mastered their material, but much of that material was very similar. Their real musical skill surfaced in their sporadic acoustic songs, which were intensely rhythmic and very energetic, as well as in epic tunes like “Shackled,” the closer from their current album. The band also showed an odd predilection for starting covers of eighties songs and ending them prematurely, segueing suddenly from Police and U2 standards into Vertical Horizon originals. While for the most part the band peaked with their most challenging material, the highlight of their set was a powerful performance of the radio single “We Are” that showcased the group’s skills at vocal harmonies and their ability to make simple guitar lines very powerful.
In general, the music at Saturday’s concert wasn’t particularly groundbreaking -- but this wasn’t a Mercury Rev show, it was a pop rock concert, and in that respect, the performances by both bands were extremely enjoyable. However, in the end, Angry Salad struck me as more entertaining than the headliners, thanks to more interesting guitar parts, a great sense of humor, and a willingness to talk the audience as friends rather than disciples. In my book, good songwriting and a little humility go a long way. Plus, sometimes you’ve just got to root for the home team.