Ben Folds Five, other ‘90s hitmakers band together on tours

Ben Folds performs with his reunited band at the Greek on Sunday evening during a ’90s double bill.
Ben Folds performs with his reunited band at the Greek on Sunday evening during a ’90s double bill.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Ben Folds Five began its 1997 hit album “Whatever and Ever Amen” with a flashback.

“September in ‘75, I was 47 inches high,” sung pianist Folds. “... I still got beat up after class.”

Sunday night at the Greek Theatre, Folds used those lines to open a concert that was itself a flashback: a band from the late ‘90s — back in business since 2011 — revisiting its old material for an audience happy to take the trip.


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Full of bespectacled thirtysomething white people (as well as the guy who played Will in “Will & Grace”), the crowd sang along and listened respectfully to several more tunes that came from a reunion album the band released last year.

But the new stuff seemed beside the point.

“It’s definitely a nostalgia thing,” said one concert-goer, Morgan Mann of L.A., smoking a cigarette with her sister and a friend after the group’s set. “We all just turned 30, and this was like our summer hangout music in school.”

Ben Folds Five isn’t the only band out triggering such memories. This summer ‘90s-era pop-rock acts are on the road in numbers perhaps unseen since their original heyday.

On Sunday, Folds was sharing a bill with Barenaked Ladies, and Friday night Everclear, Live, Filter and Sponge are to stop at the Wiltern as part of the so-called Summerland Tour. Next month the Greek will go back in time again with Under the Sun, a five-band show on July 13 featuring Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, the Gin Blossoms, Vertical Horizon and Fastball.

And on July 17 the Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox Twenty are scheduled to play the Gibson Amphitheatre.

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Why now?

Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray — the lightweight Newport Beach crew whose “Fly” and “Every Morning” owned Top 40 radio a decade and a half ago — thinks it’s because people have finally started missing the era in which those bands flourished.

He and Everclear frontman Art Alexakis had been talking about a ‘90s-centric tour “for a while,” McGrath said. “But there was kind of a ‘90s hangover after the millennium. It was too soon.”

Last year he decided that enough time had passed, though, and he and Alexakis launched Summerland with both of their bands, as well as the Gin Blossoms, Lit and Marcy Playground.

The tour, including a stop at the Greek Theatre in June of 2012, was a success.

“We were very happy,” said Paola Palazzo of Nederlander Concerts, which books the outdoor venue in Griffith Park.

So this year the two singers, convinced that the market for these bands is strong, split off into two different packages: the party-hearty Under the Sun and the grungier Summerland. There were friendly philosophical differences, as well.

“The last one got a little Vegas-y for me,” said Alexakis, whose hits with Everclear openly addressed drug use and divorce. “I wanted to do something more rock.”

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He also wanted to feature groups still putting out records — “real bands,” as Alexakis put it — as opposed to outfits that “just come out, play the hits and call it a day.”

McGrath sees no shame in that. “Bands like us, we couldn’t get anywhere near the Greek on our own,” he said with a laugh. “So having us all together is what makes it work. Short sets with quick changeovers — it’s a ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ kind of tour.”

The consumer-friendly vibe is part of why Palazzo said she’s not worried about oversaturation this summer. (According to another Nederlander representative, the Greek has sold more than 4,000 tickets for Under the Sun; its capacity is 5,900.)

And though it leaves groups with little time to experiment or stretch out onstage, Sugar Ray’s manager, Chip Quigley, said the lean-and-mean approach can actually work to their advantage.

“You get these corporate talent buyers at the shows, and they see Vertical Horizon doing their big song, and they go, ‘Oh, I like this band — let’s book them for our next retreat in Boca Raton,’” Quigley said. “It’s the kind of thing that can keep a career going.”

McGrath is leaving the door open to future survivors.

“I see this as something that can keep going with other genres,” he said. “I want the Lemonheads and Naughty by Nature. I’d have Los del Rio, for Christ’s sake,” he added, referring to the duo responsible for “Macarena.” “If you had a hit in the ‘90s, you’re welcome here.”