World On A Fishhook: 90’s rockers aging gracefully

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Life holds few certainties.

For the past 36 years, one of the rare things you could count on has been the Celebrate Fairfax! Festival. Every summer, the powers-that-be put together a three-day experience that is one-part carnival, one-part county fair and another-part rock concert.

Thousands flock annually to the 25-acre, Fairfax Government Center for the event. Originally, Celebrate Fairfax was held on the campus of George Mason University. The event was eventually moved to its current digs as the county’s population continued to balloon.

There’s a bit of something for everyone. Local businesses erect tents, toting their services or wares in exchange for cheap incentives. The usual, fair trappings are present, from face painting to funnel cake. Live music is the crown jewel of the event, however.

The county books big-name acts for Friday and Saturday night. Admission to the shows is included in the price of your fair ticket (a steal at a mere fifteen dollars).

The line-up generally consists of a few throwbacks from yesteryear. The reason is twofold. First, they’re a hell of a lot cheaper than booking the Kanye’s and Maroon 5’s of the world. Second, they want something the target demographic (parents) can enjoy.

For performers, there is a certain stigma that comes with playing the fair circuit. You haven’t exactly bottomed out, but you are certainly on the downside. It’s a vivid peek into the mortality mirror.

Take this year’s headliners for example: Bush and Everclear. Their highest-selling records came out in 1994 and 1997, respectively. A lot of musical water has spilled beneath the proverbial bridge since then.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume the passage of time has rendered these groups washed-up. In fact, more often than not, they turn out to be anything but – especially when it comes to churning out an hour’s worth of sing-along anthems.

Bush entered the stage to the ominous opening riff of “Everything Zen,” (in case you forgot, it sounds vaguely like the gates of hell coming asunder).

It is a cut from their debut, “Sixteen Stone”. The album yielded a whopping FIVE singles. All of them are as eponymous to the band’s sound as they are an era. If you’re a guitar player who grew up in the 90’s, the intro to “Machinehead” is programmed into your fingers.

From a timeline standpoint, “Stone” was an important record, as it served as a bridge between two distinct musical movements. The grungy bite to the guitar tone recalls the Seattle-influence of “Alive” and “Man in the Box.”

The faux-grandeur of the chorus to “Comedown” would signal the dawn of the next wave: nu-metal. It paved the way for self-aggrandizing anthems like Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.”

In 90s pop culture, irony ruled king. This is pre-Columbine, pre-9/11. Art would turn along with the century. Irony became snark. The ideologies of seriousness and gravity took front and center to levity in the minds of critics.

By contrast, Everclear’s “So Much for the Afterglow” views the world from inside a bedroom window looking out, rather than atop the globe looking down.

“This is a song about the way things are,” wrote Everclear front-man Art Alexakis, on the opening title track. And, true to his word, the singles off the record touched on tangible issues ranging from poverty (“I Will Buy You A New Life”) to the fallout from a troubled childhood (“Father of Mine”).

Alexakis penned these songs from personal experience and, ironically, they have somewhat come to define him, as the band never matched the double-platinum success of “Afterglow.”

Still, the singer was in good spirits, Saturday night, leading the crowd in a throaty rendition of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”, which the band covered on its 2000 album, “Songs from an American Movie: Volume 1.”

People sang along, even if much of the audience was not alive when “Afterglow” came out, let alone when Morrison penned the hit.

Alexakis has been busy. He hosts a podcast on Sirius FM and spends his summers traveling the country on his Summerland tours, whose lineups consist of Everclear and a few other relics from the 90s (contemporaries Fastball and Vertical Horizon also performed at this year’s Celebrate Fairfax).

Bush’s singer, Gavin Rossdale, seems he hasn’t lost a step either. During “Little Things”, he sprinted around the pavilion (no small feat given the depth of the crowd) and hauled himself up to the railing of the VIP tent, where he sang the song’s final chorus.

Naturally, the audience ate it up, as they did when Everclear played through a snippet of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. There’s a science to putting on an entertaining show, which these guys clearly have down pat, even if the means were a touch contrived.

In anti-rock, but appropriate Fairfax County fashion, order was restored.  Just as the show seemed to get cooking, the music was shut off around 9:30 so the festival could put on its vaunted firework show – a Friday/Saturday tradition.

As the last embers of smoldering colors lit the night sky, they illuminated the bands’ tour buses across the parking lot, set to depart. It was just another hour on a long journey’s itinerary. But, sure as the rising and setting of the sun, that journey will surely lead them back next summer.

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