The summer of 1997 was a memorable one for music, as a slew of alternative-rock bands made their march up the Billboard charts while the ladies of Lilith were impressing live audiences of varying generations. (Also: Hanson).
There are four songs in particular I associate with that particular summer: “Semi-Charmed Life,” Third Eye Blind, “If You Could Only See,” Tonic, “Push,” Matchbox 20 (this was before they were “Matchbox Twenty”), and finally, “The Freshmen,” The Verve Pipe. Don’t know it? Oh yes you do!
While others on this list might have more staying power on “adult alternative” radio stations, “The Freshmen” holds up 15 years later as a powerful, thoughtful ballad about recklessness and loss. The Verve Pipe’s singer, Brian Vander Ark, tells the tale of college romance gone south with haunting sincerity and raw emotion. I’ve always loved this song, as well as the VP’s more minor hits – “Hero” and “Never Let You Down” – and several album cuts. Back in the day when I actually bought CDs, I had a few of them from this Michigan band.
And so it happened that I had tickets to my first Verve Pipe show on or around September 14, 2001. The show, along with many other nationwide events that month, was cancelled. Obviously. In the ensuing decade, I had a few other opportunities to see the band, but travel or life got in my way.
This past Saturday, almost exactly a decade past my first intended concert, Mr. Glib and I paid a charitable donation of five bucks apiece to watch Vander Ark perform a solo set, in the spitting rain, at a street festival north of downtown Chicago.
To say the gathering was “intimate” would be putting it mildly. The relative inconvenience of the festival’s location, combined with the weather and the fact that the majority of the food/drink booths had already closed, brought the crowd to a staggeringly low number. Lack of promotion didn’t help matters, nor did the competing North Coast Music Festival, nor did the fact that half of Chicago gets the hell out of dodge for the last long weekend of the summer. Without exaggerating, I think we may have had as many people in our apartment for our last large party.
But this didn’t kill Brian’s spirit. Armed with only his guitar, he delivered a professional and solid set. Solo stuff. Verve Pipe stuff (old and new). A Beatles cover. His voice is as rich and pure and distinctive as it ever was. If he weren’t 45 years old and already “famous’, he’d be a shoo-in for Idol. Lee Dewyze who? As I told Mr. G, it’s a damn sorry state of affairs that the worst Verve Pipe song is better than the best Nickelback, and yet Chad Kroeger plays to thousands while Vander Ark had more minutse in his set than people in his audience.
His requests from the “crowd” were monopolized by a woman whose drunken cackle was matched in size only by her jug of spiked lemonade. God love Brian, he humored her, playing request after request. “Hero,” I would meekly chirp as he solicited for more titles. Ignored, I would nervously toss my head and laugh, as though him not hearing my one-word-title request was somehow more embarrassing for me than the pitiful crowd was for him.
And yet, another concert-go’er took pity on me. When Brian – 60 minutes into a promised 45-minute gig – asked for one final request to round out the evening, she and her husband shouted “Hero” right along with me. And sing “Hero” he did. A fitting end to a show that delivered in every way but the audience.
Afterwards, he hopped off the stage (in quite nimble fashion for someone who is 6’5″‘or so), sold Mr. Glib and I a couple of CDs (pulling the $5 in change right out from his jeans pocket), and chatted for a few minutes. About whether we had kids. About the cancellation of that post-9/11 show so long ago. It was an entirely satisfying experience and I think more highly of the dude who was happy to play for the few fans who showed. Plenty of musicians could follow his example. In fact, dare I say he could be a hero to many.