On Sunday night at Red Rocks, Joe King told the boisterous, capacity crowd that this particular performance — the second date in a sold-out, three-night stand — marked the penultimate gig of an exhaustive two-year Stateside run supporting his band's multi-platinum debut, How to Save a Life. And indeed, the Fray sounded polished and pristine, like seasoned pros who've spent the better part of the past couple of years on the road, honing their chops. The vocals of King and his counterpart, frontman Isaac Slade, were pitch-perfect.
All the same, during the first part of the set, their workman-like proficiency struck me as a little too, well, too workman-like. The songs, which by now they've played at least a thousand times over, lacked the vitality of earlier performances.
Not that anyone else seemed to notice. I'm certain most Fray fans would say that the band sounded great. And it did, even if there were certain intangibles missing from these first few songs that made them less moving than I once found them. Maybe it was because I'm so familiar with the material — I've heard How to Save a Life so many times now that I'm pretty sure I can save a life — that it's lost some of its resonance. Or maybe it was because I've seen the guys play so many times, there was little about this set that was illuminating. Or maybe it was because "Anthem," the last song in Born in the Flood's twilight set, had been so transcendent, inducing, concluding in waves of feedback as Joseph Pope raised his bass over his head and tossed it to the ground. I honestly don't know what it was — I just know that at the start of the Fray's set, I spent more time than I would have liked analyzing why I wasn't more into the music.
I doubt that many folks on hand this past Sunday have followed the Fray as closely as I have over the years; I doubt that anyone else noticed the subtle nuances that seemed so glaring to me. And those nuances were precisely what you should expect from a group at the Fray's level. When you're paying good money to see a band of this caliber, the players are supposed to be on point. You'd be justified in being disappointed if they aren't.
To that end, Isaac Slade's piano playing these days is nothing less than immaculate. Gone are the sour notes that occasionally would color the act's songs. But still, those little imperfections helped endear the band to me early on.
But by the same token, I've followed the band so closely that there were things I appreciated about Sunday night's performance that others might have missed. To its credit, the band didn't play it straight on every arrangement; Slade embellished certain melodies on older songs such as "Vienna" in a way that musicians often will in order to keep things interesting for themselves after touring so relentlessly night after night.
The show kicked off promptly at 9:30 p.m., with each of the members ambling out in silhouette, back-lit by a massive LED screen that stretched the length of the stage. A giant green blip made its way from left to right across the screen, conjuring a readout from an EKG monitor, as the band kicked into a faithful version of "All at Once." Slade crooned the first verse and part of the chorus with sparser accompaniment before venturing center stage during an interlude, when he clasped his hands together and raised them above his head, no doubt as a symbol of gratitude. Next up was "She Is," which was undermined by a slightly lopsided mix that favored Slade's piano and vocals and left David Welsh's tasty guitar work buried, for the most part. At the conclusion of that song, Slade tossed out props to fellow locals the Dualistics and Born In the Flood, which had opened the show. Then he announced, "We're the Fray. We're from Denver, C-O" and led the group in a dead-on rendition of "Dead Wrong."
Early on in its career, thanks to piano-heavy sound and soaring vocals, the Fray was dogged by Coldplay comparisons. Overall, such characterizations have proven to be slipshod at best. But as the band cued up "Absolute," a promising song it introduced last fall during its last stop at Red Rocks, the association made a little more sense — in part due to the anthemic nature of "Absolute," which is arguably the most kindred of anything the Fray has penned thus far. The pixalated 8-bit-esque animation projected on the screen during the song did nothing to dispel the similarities, particularly since it recalled similar art that the Cold ones used on their last tour. But regardless of all that, "Absolute" is a stellar addition to the Fray's already impressive oeuvre.
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Up until then, the show had been pretty textbook, with a minimum of banter. But the more engaging the band became, the more captivating the show became. A persistent rain continued to fall during "Heaven Forbid" and "Vienna," prompting King to ask, "How y'all doing? How's that rain feel? You guys wet enough?" as he introduced another new, untitled song. That was followed by "Dixie," a rootsier, alt-country number that King wrote during the holiday blizzards this past winter, as well as "Fall Away." And then the undeniable crowd favorite: the ubiquitous, inescapable ballad, "How to Save a Life."
Shortly thereafter, the rain got heavier as Slade made his way to the front of the stage solo, armed with an acoustic guitar. He dedicated "You Are My Sunshine" to everyone who loves being from Colorado, then played a rain medley, as he put it, that included "Summertime," "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Happiness," another newish tune that he debuted last fall on the Rocks. By then Slade, his piano and the entire front portion of the stage were being pounded by sheets of rain. From where I stood, it looked like he was under a shower spigot. A few minutes later, Slade was rejoined by his bandmates for an inexplicable, acoustic take on Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." In that moment of levity, the band reminded us of the affable bunch of goofballs we've all come to know and love. And then they closed out the night with "Trust Me" and "Little House."
I didn't stick around for the encore. I left when King started pulling people out of the crowd to play tambourine on (natch) "Over My Head (Cable Car)." By then the rain was torrential and I was soaked to the bone — and besides, I'm pretty sure I know how that one ends.
As I walked down the steps, which looked like a waterfall, it finally dawned on me: The Fray's strength doesn't lie in the fact that it can play a perfectly impersonal arena rock show by the numbers. Leave that crap to Coldplay. Its strength lies in the intangibles, the unspoken ability that the band has of connecting with its audience. And that's what will keep it above the fray.