A great performance by an artist is a communion that finds band and fan breaking bread together. These are the shows that are tattooed on my soul, ones where there's energy in the room I wish I could bottle and take with me. At Chicago's United Center in late May, Daryl Hall, John Oates and Train performed pitch perfect sets totaling more than three-hours to a sold-out crowd. Daryl Hall and John Oates visited Chicago exactly one year earlier to the week with Tears For Fears and the current tour finds them performing stimulating excursions of suave pop soul. "Maneater, "Out of Touch" and "Say It Isn't So" kicked off their set with the expansive band stretching these songs into new directions. Their songbook is staggering, with twenty-eight Top 40 hits between 1976-1989. Each and every song felt like an old friend, embracing you at your time of need.
Highlights of the set included "Sara Smile" with a swelling organ and Daryl Hall's brooding vocals. "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" stretched to nearly ten minutes showing that even a band in their fifth decade is still pushing their music into weird, twisted and jazzy detours. The key difference between the 2017 and 2018 sets is the appearance of Pat Monahan from Train for a trio of songs including a new composition "Philly Forget Me Not". Monahan, Hall and Oates all hailed from Pennsylvania so it only made sense they collaborated on a new song with a great beat, bright guitars, bopping horns and a soaring chorus. "Wait For Me" was a song Train did with Hall on Live From Daryl's House many years back and at the United Center, it was a moment full of intimate soul capturing raw emotions followed by "Calling All Angels" where Monahan punctuated through the songs lush harmonies in tandem with Hall. What can you say about "Kiss on My List", "Private Eyes", "Rich Girl" and "You Make My Dreams"? They are flawless pop creations capturing the imagination of the audience who hearts ascended in tandem with their voices. I remember a time when Daryl Hall and John Oates were deemed unhip for really no other reason than being a prevalent force on radio dials where their pop singles where represented the very best pop music could be. They shimmered, grooved and in retrospect, are amongst the finest musicians to ever grace the Top 40.
As mighty as Hall and Oates were on the stage, we need to talk about Train, the San Francisco pop-rock outfit who opened the show with a searing 75-minute set. Often misunderstood because of their dominance of radio dials, onstage they are a revelation; a tour de force group of musicians who walk out every night to seduce the crowd. What I discovered early on was that Train didn't need to sway anyone, this was family. They are a band that belongs in big venues, where the songs are allowed to spread their wings and soar. Selfishly, I want to see them in a small intimate place, but within the halls of the United Center, where Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls rocked the foundation two decades back, Train rose to the challenge and each and every song was met with enthusiastic roars. It's easy to dismiss them as a band without teeth who craft safe pop tunes, but one song into their set you begin to realize there's a fervent desire to be the best they can be. Music criticism often overlooks whether the artist is serving their talents well and instead is often concerned with how they don't sound like artist x, y, z. Writing well-crafted songs that stay with you, stick to your insides and seep their way into your bones is no easy feat, but there's an authenticity to what Train does, and they're brilliant at what they do.
Opening with the uplifting "50 Ways to Say Goodbye", the band took command of the audience and never looked back. Before the crunching guitar riffs of "If It's Love", singer Pat Monahan strode across the stage with an aura of poise and swung for the fences. The chorus of "Love" is a contagious ear worm in the best way and the crowd sung along to every word. If the audience's rapturous reaction to song-after-song wasn't enough to sway the naysayers, there was the Led Zeppelin cover of "Heartbreaker". Monahan has made weighty impressions over the last decade by appearing on tribute shows showing the range of his voice. He's covered Johnny Cash's "Help Me Make It Through The Night", Gregg Allman's "Queen of Hearts" and Aerosmith's "Dream On" with an emotional timbre few can match which is why their Led Zeppelin covers should not surprise anyone. In 2016, they released Train Does Led Zeppelin II and continue to perform the covers in concert. Their grip on the material was lean, mean and sweltering. Two guitars, bass and drums pummeled the audience with decibel-breaking devastation showcasing a band that is considerable and musically muscular. At the song's conclusion, Monahan humored the crowd (who was in awe at what they had witnessed), "That was not our song". Later in the show, they delivered a thoughtful and dramatic rendition of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'". If you look beneath the pop-balm production of their albums, their lyrics echo Petty's best work with details about their love for geography, heartbreak and irreplaceable love. I had forgotten about their first hit from 1999, "Meet Virginia", an understated pop song that is immaculate and if you think about it, you could see Petty singing "Meet Virginia" and making it work if it was paired with a few extra blues chords. People can throw insults at the band, but Train's presence is no joke, they command the stage, their instruments and their audience, and are a gift to Hall and Oates on this tour.
You forget how many hits Train has and even some of their deeper cuts like "Save Me San Francisco" shake the room in a way most other acts biggest hits can't match. "When I Look to the Sky" was pure gospel soul wrapped up in an arm-waving pop melody while "Marry Me" featured Monahan on an acoustic guitar stripping the song of any hint of sappiness and was transformed into a poignant and ethereal ballad with emotions boiling over. Throughout the show, Monahan's vocals were nothing short of spectacular, capturing distant memories, unfulfilled dreams and silver linings of hope. Backing Monahan was Hector Maldonado on bass, Jerry Becker on keyboards, drummer Drew Shoals and Luis Maldonado on guitar and Nikita Houston and Sakai Smith on backing vocals. You need to see Train live to appreciate their commitment, range and authenticity.
The hits continued with the surging "Drive By", the audience sing-a-long of "Play That Song" (inspired by "Heart and Soul) and "Hey, Soul Sister" (don't forget the comma). Watching the arena during "Sister" is something I will not soon forget. Nothing about this song should work and yet this peculiar number found its way to becoming the biggest song in 2010 and the reaction of the crowd to it was bigger than anything Hall and Oates played that night, a staggering feat considering their catalog is stacked. It may be impossible to escape but when you listen to the song without prejudice, you realize its heart lies with the bass guiding the melody into a masterful pop concoction. Nearly a decade after it invaded the radio, "Hey, Soul Sister" captured the essence of euphoria.
One song, not on the current set list is "This'll Be My Year" from their Butch Walker produced California 37 album. The song which tips its hat to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and is a first-person narrative where Monahan sings about the ups and downs we encounter in life. Verse by verse, he takes the listener on a journey through his isolation, his jubilation, his ache and his scraps with life on his excursion to find the best version of himself. Life is a series of events that often define who we are at our core. A delicate balancing act bridges the good and the bad and if we're lucky, we cross that passage to a place of solace where we can be the best version of ourselves. As "This'll Be My Year" reaches its climax, Monahan deftly delivers the story of meeting his wife over a faint organ before the band comes in and takes the song, and the audience home before Monahan lets it all go in a teetering vocal performance for the ages. Even if you dislike the construct of the song, the devotion Monahan shows for his wife is undeniable in one of the most creative and vulnerable love songs of our time. In his wife, he found a home and shared it with his audience in the hopes they can see their story as well. As I watched the crowd at the United Center, I couldn't help but see families smiling, singing and dancing. Train may not be the hippest band or one that will get press in Pitchfork, but their music has created a soundtrack much needed for troubling times that grips us like a youthful recollection where the coziness of a family quashes our fears. Like a family, you don't choose the music you love, it finds you and judging by the crowd in Chicago, Train, Daryl Hall and Jones Oates have made a permanent home for their fans where their music helps guide and define their lives.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Daryl Hall and John Oates & Train Live In Chicago
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