By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
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This Holiday Inn parking lot in the heart of Hollywood feels like the surface of the sun. It's just after 10 a.m. on Wednesday, February 8, the beginning of the Fray's first national headlining tour. But while the mercury will rise to a record-breaking ninety degrees before the end of the day, the members of Denver's biggest breakthrough act are as cool as ice: This heat is nothing compared to the searing intensity of the industry spotlight now focused on the group. Propelled by one of the country's hottest songs -- "Over My Head (Cable Car)," currently resting in the Top 10 on Radio & Records Triple A and Hot AC charts -- the Fray has sold out nearly every date on this tour well in advance. On the strength of that infectious, piano-driven pop ditty (from How to Save a Life, which itself peaked at number one on Billboard's Heatseeker chart), the band has also garnered high-profile supporting slots on tours with Weezer and Ben Folds, been the subject of a You Oughta Know segment on VH1, and appeared on The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson and Late Night With Conan O'Brien. And this evening the Fray will perform its hit on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in front of six million or so viewers.
The track rings with the simple refrain "Everyone knows I'm in over my head" -- words that seem oddly prescient, given the Fray's astounding trajectory. Still, vocalist/pianist Isaac Slade, guitarist/vocalist Joe King, drummer Ben Wysocki, guitarist David Welsh and touring bassist Jimmy Stofer look remarkably composed as they board the van that will shuttle them to the studio for an 11:30 a.m. sound check. Even with all that's happened over the past few years, they say the best part of the experience has been the relationships they've fostered with each other. Besides, none of them expected to make it this far, anyway.
A half-hour later, the van passes through the gates of the NBC compound and comes to rest beside Jay Leno's vintage Fiat in front of the Tonight Show soundstage at the rear of the lot. Inside, Leno himself, dressed in his trademark denim jeans and button-up, welcomes the musicians with a few friendly words and escorts them up the stairs. But despite the host's amiable demeanor and his crew's laid-back attitude, everything about this production is regimented down to the minute. Before the Fray has a chance to settle into two adjoining dressing rooms, someone from the production staff appears and beckons the band to the stage.
As the members plug in their instruments for the first take of "Over My Head (Cable Car)," they're flanked by crew members who position cameras and run them through the day's production schedule; various representatives from the Fray's label are seated in the audience. While the soundman dials the group in, Slade, sitting behind a keyboard that looks like a baby grand piano, pulls a camera phone from his pocket and fires off a few shots. At 24, he's already accustomed to a national audience.
"One of the most nerve-racking gigs I've ever had happened to be captured on camera for millions of people on Conan," Slade reveals. "I freaked myself out for that show. It was the first time we really played in front of a significant number of people. And I used a real piano, so it was harder for me to play. And it had all this weird stuff on the keys, so my fingers kept slipping. For the first half of that song, I was a wreck. That was very overwhelming. It felt a lot like when we played for the executives at the Sony building in New York to see if we could become something more than a local band."
But right now, on the Tonight Show stage -- which is roughly the size of the Bluebird's -- the Fray looks a lot like the same group of locals who were playing the Climax Lounge and the Soiled Dove not all that long ago. They're even using most of the gear they used then, which came over earlier on their posh new tour bus. For both Ferguson and Conan, all of the equipment was rented, which was "sort of like driving somebody else's car," notes Wysocki. Welsh has personalized his vintage Musicman amp by attaching a piece of paper to its grill with his fiancée's name, "Janelle," crudely scrawled on it in black marker; Wysocki has clipped a small image of his wife's face on the head of his kick drum. And just in case there's any question where these boys hail from, Welsh's amp rests on an Anvil case with stickers touting several Denver radio stations as well as "Salazar U.S. Senate." They all seem as poised as if they were filming an episode of the Noise Floor.
"See, no big deal," remarks Anna Chiarelli, Slade's fiancée. "It's just the Tonight Show. I think that's how they keep up with all this, by making it no big deal."
The Fray is a very big deal right now, but a large part of the group's charm is how humble everyone remains. Just three years ago, the act had sold under a thousand records and played fewer than fifty shows -- none of them out of state -- and now it's at the top of the charts. But by the time these musicians absorb whatever pivotal event has just occurred, the moment has already passed.