Story and Photos by Andy ArgyrakisSomewhere after the grunge rock era and before the turn of the century there was a cute little niche community of clean, safe, and polished rock bands churning out risk free formulas that everyone from college kids to conservative 30 year olds could fashionably digest. Included within that troupe of musicians were Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better Than Ezra, Jars of Clay, Sister Hazel, and Tonic, all of whom boasted a squeaky clean image, graduated from a similar safe haven of songwriting, used the same few chords, and scored a handful of huge hits.
And as the '90s ended and the new century began, all of those bands pressed on in some way, shape, or form, releasing additional albums of similarity, praying for another hit, and playing various college campuses and summer festivals to keep their demographic pleasing desires alive. Out of those acts, Tonic has received the most attention as of late, with the release of their latest album Head On Straight spawning the single "Take Me As I Am," and more importantly, a Grammy nomination. But equally embarrassing as the loss at the award show, the record doesn't exactly pass the success test with flying colors, instead relying on regurgitated recipes from the group's past crossed with the uncomplimentary production of Bob Rock (Metallica, The Cult, Our Lady Peace). Though the project boasts some acoustic power ballads in vein of their top hit "If You Could Only See," a harder edged, more alternative approach on the rest just doesn't work in Tonic's favor.
Perhaps having realized that mistake and the fact that they will never be taken seriously within hard rock realms, the trio stripped down their stage show at Chicago's Double Door, resting on the laurels of the earthy acoustics and a coffeehouse vibe which made them famous in the first place. Much of their material that night was far from perilous and quite often bland at best, although seeing the guys without all the bells and whistles of a studio and under the vulnerable stage lights revealed a bit of performance proficiency. Opening with their early career single "Open Up Your Eyes" followed by current radio dweller "Take Me As I Am" got the sold out crowd interested from the start, as the group cast a surprisingly new atmospheric intricate shadow over such previously disposable selections. However, those facelifts didn't cover over their clichéd lyrical bases, or the similarly trite subject matters on fellow newbies "On Your Feet Again," "Believe Me," and "Head On Straight."
Luckily, other moments were free from such hackneyed phrasing, such as the bare bones self esteem build up "Lemon Parade," the patience prompting "Waiting for the Light to Change," and "Count On Me (Someday)" featuring a sonically synchronous sampling of The Cure's "Pictures of You." That snippet set the course for several other covers, including a brief but annoying parody of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and a reggae-splashed yet uneventful version of the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker."
In the end however, it was the Tonic's chart topper "If You Could Only See" that everyone was the most excited to hear, and although it's always been based around uninventive and threat free patterning, at least the members' weren't stale in their delivery. If only Tonic could see that shedding their cookie cutter image on record and incorporate the handful of competent elements from their live setting, then maybe the band's music would be taken a lot more seriously and grant them prosperity beyond the rote rock rut from which they were birthed.
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