Better Than Ezra was the second band to step on stage Sunday night during the 1990s-themed Under the Sun Tour stop at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center. But the Louisiana natives should have had top billing.
The quartet shined the brightest during an overall entertaining, nostalgia-driven three-and-a-half hour show packed with hits, courtesy of fellow chart-toppers Sugar Ray, Eve 6 and Uncle Kracker. Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath, as he did during the band's 2012 visit to Sands as part of the Summerland Tour, was a charismatic emcee.
As the first act of the evening, Eve 6 set the tone by delivering a solid seven-song set that touched on all of their most popular tunes: "Promise," "Open Road Song," the grungy "Think Twice," the prom-tailored "Here's to the Night" and "Inside Out."
Better Than Ezra boosted the energy with an exhilarating eight-song performance that was also heavy on hits. The band did not waste time building the night's momentum with a rocking one-two punch of "Good" and "King Of New Orleans," followed by a bouncy rendition of the hip-hop-tinged "Extra Ordinary."
Singer-guitarist Kevin Griffin -- making his first Bethlehem outing with Better Than Ezra after two previous solo stops at the neighboring ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks -- gave McGrath a run for his money in terms of audience engagement and showmanship. In addition to being a talented songwriter (the guy knows how to craft an insanely catchy vocal hook) and impromptu lyricist, Griffin is a terrific front-man. The highlight of which was a thumping spin through "Juicy," which started as a brief tease of The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" before eventually seguing to "Rapper's Delight," then to Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P." and back. (At the start of the song, Griffin invited the ladies in attendance to join him on stage, many of which obliged and crowded the stage.)
Better Than Ezra finished their set by smoothly transitioning from the rising tide of "Desperately Wanting" to the driving force of "In the Blood." Drummer Michael Jerome -- a dynamo stick man -- brought the song to a thunderous crescendo with an impressive, cowbell-led solo. Their performance proved to be a tough act to follow.
Sugar Ray had their work cut out for them after the slobber-knocker display of musical talent which had ended minutes earlier. But the band did their best by slowing down the groove with their brand of sun-soaked, California pop-rock.
The quartet played to their strengths by sticking to their Top 40 favorites: "Every Morning," "When It's Over" and "Fly." What McGrath lacked in vocal prowess -- his attempt to belt out EMF's "Unbelievable," a (somewhat surprising) cover choice, was rough -- he made up for in personality. McGrath recovered early and nicely after flubbing the first chorus of "Someday" and seemed to be legitimately enjoying himself on stage, embracing the tour's throwback vibe. (During the aforementioned goof, McGrath quipped, "blame it on the Jameson.")
By the time show closer Uncle Kracker and his band walked out from the side of the stage, a sizable chunk of the crowd were headed to the parking lot.
The man also known for his work as Kid Rock's deejay, unsurprisingly, padded his chill eight-song set with several covers. (I doubt many of those who showed up Sunday were there to hear Uncle Kracker deep cuts and obscure B-sides.) The group started off with "When the Sun Goes Down," Uncle Kracker's 2004 collaboration with country singer Kenny Chesney. Renditions of Sublime's "What I Got" and Kid Rock's "All Summer Long" were played in full. Uncle Kracker's 2001 radio smash "Follow Me" was used to segue into a country-rock version of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long," while "No Stranger to Shame" flowed nicely into a bit of Steve Miller Band's "The Joker."
Uncle Kracker's performance was not terrible by any means, but nothing stood out either. It would have been a better fit as the opening set instead of the final bow.
It's a shame Better Than Ezra did not play longer.
UNDER THE SUN TOUR SET LISTS
- "Open Road Song"
- "Think Twice"
- "Here's to the Night"
- "Inside Out"
Better Than Ezra
- "King of New Orleans"
- "Extra Ordinary"/"Can't Feel My Face" (The Weekend)
- "Miss You" (The Rolling Stones)/"Juicy"/"Rapper's Delight" (The Sugar Hill Gang)/"O.P.P." (Naughty By Nature)
- "Desperately Wanting"
- "In the Blood"
- "Every Morning"
- "What the World Needs"
- "When It's Over"
- "Unbelievable" (EMF)
- "When the Sun Goes Down" (Uncle Kracker and Kenny Chesney)
- "Drift Away"
- "In a Little While"
- "Follow Me"/"You Shook Me All Night Long" (AC/DC)
- "No Stranger to Shame"/"The Joker" (Steve Miller Band)
- "What I Got" (Sublime)
- "All Summer Long" (Kid Rock)