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Everyband at the Everyzoo: Collective Soul 'rocks' Lincoln Park

Every year, the presence of mediocre but once moderately successful bands that fill out the lineups of dozens of concert tours and small local festivals and concert series' inherently pose a question to their fans and the rock world at-large: What keeps us going?

In my first report on Lincoln Park Zoo's "Jammin' at the Zoo" summer concert series, I found that the Gin Blossoms attracted a surprisingly loyal audience, in addition to the "let's just get out of this damn house and go SOMEWHERE!" bunch. Fellow rockers-of-my-middle-school-days Collective Soul, who played the series' second installment a week ago Friday, are in a tighter spot. Sure, people sang along with hits like "December," but CoSo was never the most stylistically distinct band. Lead singer Ed Roland may be among the more pleasant in a sprawling generation of Eddie Vedder impersonators, but people aren't going to puzzle over Roland's oft-slurred words as they do Vedder's. He's only Ed Roland.


Collective Soul play a random mix of symphonic rock ("The World I Know"), domesticated grunge ("Gel"), and, on their recent albums, something that sounds much like Matchbox 20 (hey. Matchbox: I won't honor your pretentious "real" name). This means that, like rock itself, they're eclectic and derivative. Eclectic and derivative: Muddle 'em together and you just might get "Collective." They can still sell tickets - the Zoo show sold out - but, artistically speaking, what the hell are Collective Soul supposed to do now? Embrace their role as the Everyband and play zoos across America?

Their songs have always relied catchy, simple chord progressions, but they never produced anything as spirited as Pearl Jam's "Not for You" or Soundgarden's "Jesus Christ Pose" - and even Chris Cornell is hell-bent on breaking my heart these days. As an Everyband, CoSo can merely incubate the spirit of competent (if slightly lazy) early-to-mid-'90s rock, especially as shows like Jammin' at the Zoo draw people who are old enough to have hated the first generation of Nirvana fans.

Collective Soul at least seem to embrace their lesser, copycat status. Consider their latest video, for the song "Better Now." The band performs in the middle of a two-lane road, literally just waiting for a girl to drive up, not unlike U2's video for "Beautiful Day," set in part in the middle of an active runway. It's as if Collective Soul's job is to homogenize the images and sounds of the leading bands in their market sector and re-package them in even more palatable, strip-mall-ready doses.

I expected to spot at least a few people exuding '90s-rock nostalgia, but judging by the t-shirts, there was little to be found. I did see one or two battered-looking Collective Soul t-shirts, but I saw at least a dozen newfangled, fashion-conscious ones. Wear them while watching Sex and the City! Wear them while sampling new skin-care products and Bath & Body Works!

Collective Soul and other bands of similar ilk are doing their part for this slice of the culture. After I wrote up the Gin Blossoms show, zoo spokeswoman Kelly McGrath kindly kept me on the press list despite my arbitrary criticisms. She also said she wished I'd mention that income from Jammin' helps keep the zoo free. My first reaction was, fair enough-- but I'm a critic now! But I've come to realize that, even if a free zoo isn't an essential end in itself, every dollar we put up voluntarily helps to protect us from the city's and park district's bungling largesse.

It's also a reminder that public amenities can be marketed to the local luxury set as well as to tourists and middle-class locals. Even more so than at the Blossoms show, the zoo seemed to anticipate a sophisticated, child-bearing bunch. The cardboard Sam Adams cutouts showed up again, as did the Midtown Tennis Club (raffling off free memberships) and tables bearing free copies of Chicago magazine and luxury real-estate catalogs. The CoSo crowd got some extra goodies, though. Pontiac displayed two versions of the Solstice, its new "luxury roadster" - one in "Mysterious" black and another in "Aggressive (victory)" red. The local real estate brokerage sponsoring the show threw in a coloring book consisting of a grand total of six pages apparently printed from this National Geographic Society coloring page and hastily bound at Kinko's.

They should have made this thing bigger, because it apparently wasn't enough for one toddler I spotted. His parents, standing on the right side of the stage - right behind a booming set of PA speakers, no less - kept trying to lift him onto the stage. At one point he succeeded in waddling over to one of the guitar players.

Before the show started, I found some shade in the alley between the great-cats house and the food court--"Cat Food Alley," let's call it--which seemed to attract a whole Tom Waits album's worth of loners and misfits. It's where Jammin's sturdy veneer of class goes to die. "This is the place that takes THREE HOURS?" a grown woman whines aloud as she follows her son into the food court. About 15 seconds later, she storms out, huffing, "OK, I believe we'll never do this again." (For some perspective: It took me only about five minutes to get a cheeseburger in the food court, even though it's crowded.) Her husband tried to calm her down a little bit. If anything was going to save this family's evening, it might as well be an Everyband to take the edge off.

Collective Soul's opener, Treaty of Paris, is one of those Everybands that hasn't yet come to terms with its place in the rock universe. "Yes, we're generic," their music insists, "but our hearts are so full!" Got a mood to set? We sets 'em up cheap. Their ambition to create a gaping sky of emotion in the stultifying cardboard box that is mainstream rock may be genuine, but they are ignorant of the box, as well as, on this night, the happy chattering and picnicking of the zoo crowd, blissfully unaware that the band onstage is really feeling it.

Treaty of Paris clearly demonstrates why it's becoming more common to split rock up into large group tours, festivals and the like. As youthful and energetic as they seem to be, they're too earnest--and a little too eager to force the crowd to get excited - to fit in at a festival like Pitchfork. Instead, they've been on the Warped Tour. Compared to Pitchfork, Warped seems more and more like a tour for people who just need to get riled about something (though it usually includes at least a few solid hardcore punk bands), so I realized it's a perfect fit for the Treaty as lead singer Mike Chorvat - loser of the Jason Schwartzman lookalike contest, for sure--pumped his arm into the air and the two guitarists went into feigned rock-n-roll convulsions. And that was only a minute or so into the set.

I can understand all that physical effort, because there's nothing exciting about their music itself - a soggy salmagundi of U2, Superchunk, Matchbox 20, and post-punk. In fact, they need to be placed in a sub-genre, "Matchboxcore," which I name for Matchbox 20's obnoxious, whiny tendencies. So many young bands have taken that to an ungainly extreme. I can't even name most of the bands that would fit into this genre, but we've all heard them, beating down on us from fast-food restaurant speakers, clogging up VH1, and just in general making "Push" and "If You're Gone" sound graceful and restrained by comparison.

Or maybe this group of bands could be filed under Collective Soul, where soul goes to die when the market-tested formulas are collected together and the distinct is smoothed away - it's still rock, but rock safe enough for yuppie zoos, where threats are defused and wonder is caged.


Posted on August 7, 2006

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