Better Than Ezra was that band that had a couple great songs in the 90s and then flew under the radar for a while. It turns out they’re also that band that puts on a great show to leave you smiling at the end of the night, which I discovered at the TLA on Monday. Whether it was making fun of each other (bass player Tom Drummond made the mistake of saying that the TLA show was the last stop in a great New England run, which had singer Kevin Griffin teasing him about his geography all night), playing goofy covers (“Sara Smile” from “our favorite band, Hall and Oates”, a “Royals” tease, and an impromptu Rocky Balboa rap from keyboard player James Arthur Payne), or challenging the drummer to do inventive fills, everyone in the band seemed to have a blast, and that carried over to the crowd. “I’m having such a great time,” Griffin said, as he threw guitar picks into the crowd.
Tim Williams and John McLaughlin were the openers. Williams had the excellent marketing plan to give out free beer coozies to all those who signed up on his email list, complementing his fun set. John McLaughlin sounded like a mix of Adam Levine, Ben Folds, and Billy Joel (whose influence he recognized in his predictable but well-executed cover of “Piano Man”) with a strong, soulful voice and piano playing that got more animated as the set went on. He seemed like a good guy, and it was hard to tell if he was kidding when he said how nice Philly drivers are and how they never honk at him when he does something stupid on the road. The audience was on his side, and laughed either way.
Better Than Ezra was being recorded for a DVD, which gave the crowd some extra incentive to scream and throw their hands in the air, and they were already primed for a good time after singing along to “Piano Man” and listening to happy soul music on the house PA. From the opener, the pop gem “King of New Orleans”, the band celebrated where they came from and enjoyed being where they are. Maybe because Griffin has stayed active in writing hits with or for other bands (like Sugarland, Tristan Prettyman, and Train), there was nothing stale about the performance, and the new songs sounded great – just as good as 90s hits like “Good” and “Desperately Wanting”. Like their friends Barenaked Ladies, they don’t take themselves too seriously, and I think that’s the key to their success and their connection to the audience.
For the encore, Griffin came out solo and sang Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene” and BTE’s ballad “Porcelain”, showing his range as a singer before popping it back up with “In the Blood”. The crowd went home satisfied, hoping for more tours and new music from Better Than Ezra.