Smash Mouth was one of my first favorite bands – and the one that ruined live music for me for years.
Growing up, I – like most of the globe – was obsessed with the song "All Star." At eight or nine years old, I would wake up at the crack of dawn on weekends to watch VH1's "Top 20 Countdown," eager to see the catchy pop rock song at the top of the list – and grumping my way through breakfast if the Goo Goo Dolls, Tal Bachman or the combined forces of Santana and Rob Thomas managed to knock it off its perch. "Astro Lounge," Smash Mouth's 1999 record featuring the smash hit, was one of the first CDs I bought for myself – one of those formative moments where I'd found my own music that I liked as opposed to just listening to what my parents or siblings enjoyed.
I thought they were great; I had the weeks of number one VH1 "Top 20 Countdown" rankings to prove it. So when I heard they were performing at that year's Home Run Derby at Fenway Park, I was obviously glued to my TV, eager to hear this great band play live for my first time.
They were not good.
Perhaps it was the acoustics of a century-old baseball stadium wrangled through an ESPN broadcast. Perhaps it was then-lead singer Steve Harwell admittedly being hammered. But that night, I came to the sad inevitable discovery that bands don't always sound live like they do on their records. And if a band as esteemed and as accomplished as Smash Mouth – the best band in the world according to my naive, unformed, Froot Loops-drunk child brain – couldn't play well live, well, then clearly no one was worth my time. So no concerts for me, thank you very much. Why would I pay to hear a worse version of the record, surrounded by loud annoying people? (Maybe I've just actually been spiritually a 79-year-old this whole time.) It would be seven more years until I and my shattered musical innocence attended my first concert.
More than 20 years and hundreds of concerts later, I found myself facing my childhood '90s Cali surf-pop rock demons, as I took on the assignment to review Smash Mouth's Summerfest set at the UScellular Connection Stage. And both 33-year-old Matt and nine-year-old Matt were pleased to find that the nostalgic band's performance cleared the bar set at "didn't destroy the concept of live music again." But really, while all that glitters wasn't gold Thursday night, it was at least bronze or maybe pewter.
It should be noted that, now more than three decades deep into their existence Smash Mouth is more like "Smash Mouth" at this point – with only one original member still with the band: bassist Paul De Lisle. (Though keyboardist Michael Klooster has been with the band since the '90s as well.) Most notably, Steve Harwell, the sunglassed and spiky-haired face of Smash Mouth, is no longer with the band, retiring in 2021 due to health issues and a number of chaotic on-stage incidents – including infamously ranting at a Colorado food festival crowd for throwing bread at him. I'm happy to report there were no flying carb attacks on Thursday night. (Sadly something ACTUALLY worth mentioning thanks to recent terrible concert fan behavior.)
Replacing Harwell at the lead mic now is Zach Goode. The singer looks more like he should have a career standing in for comedian Rob Riggle but he sounds pretty close to the former Smash Mouth singer, replicating the frontman's signature nasal West Coast snarl in a way that cannot be good for one's vocal chords.
Most critically, though, he didn't replicate Harwell's viral video-inducing antics. Instead, Goode simply delivered a very sincerely enthusiastic performance, spinning the mic and scampering from side to side of the stage and fiddling with the microphone cord and leaning into a closer look of the crowd and lassoing the mic cord some more and dropping Milwaukee references into songs and boy, he's really having trouble with this microphone situation, isn't he? (He'd mention later this was his first show in years with a wired mic.) Wearing a grey Harley Davidson long-sleeve for the first several numbers, Goode gave real P.E. teacher energy – and that's before he did some push-ups near the end of the night – but the performance was undoubtedly engaging. The enthusiasm felt real for the whole 90-minute set and, best of all, it gave no one any reason to make gobsmacked viral TikTok videos.
As for the whole show, the UScellular Connection Stage concert was both exactly and nothing like expected – genuine fans singing along to songs next to younger fans discovering the limits of irony while patiently waiting for "All Star," dads swaying and cheering next to Gen Z-ers in Shrek-eared bucket hats, sincere enthusiasm next to smatters of polite applause, a deeply unhip show with a big bustling crowd, simultaneously everyone and no one in on the joke. Before the show, a fan next to me – attending with her mom, a fellow fan – commented that she couldn't figure out the demographic of the crowd. Later in the show, Goode couldn't peg it either. The night definitely had layers like an onion.
From the start, it was clear those waiting for their "Shrek" meme hits would be waiting, as Goode and company started with "The Crawl" off their 2006 album followed by "Pacific Coast Party" off their self-titled 2001 record. Judging by the lukewarm applause in between songs and the tepid response to Goode's attempts to get the crowd dancing – particularly a "drive your car" move – that was a significant part of the audience at the UScellular Connection Stage. Even so, the band was competent and energetic (keyboardist Klooster got so into a song he looked like he was about to topple over), so the crowd couldn't help but bop along to the songs – especially with "Can't Get Enough Of You Baby" wedged in the middle of the two deeper cuts.
Smash Mouth had a plan, however, to get the crowd really going with their next song – one that, as Goode pointed out, was written for Milwaukee. It turned out to be "The Fonz," the band's tribute to Henry Winkler that seemed to fully go over the younger crowd's head judging by the moderate applause it received by the end.
OK, so that didn't work entirely as hoped – but after "Then The Morning Comes" and "Getaway Car," hits for the true fans in attendance, Goode announced he was going to do a song that folks might know – one that was made popular in a kids movie, causing a positive energy spike in the crowd. The song, of course ... was "Hot" from "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." Either Goode had no idea what he was doing or EXACTLY what he was doing, but it sure set the song up for failure, drawing an audible groan from several parts of the audience when it wasn't THAT song from THAT popular kids movie. The wait would continue.
In the meantime, Smash Mouth would just continue to pump out enjoyable West Coast '60s pop rock surf-infuenced jams – including "Diggin' Your Scene" complete with an extended drum and keyboard solo session, "Walking on the Sun" with a little Bond riff mixed in and "Come On Come On" led by Smash Mouth stalwart De Lisle on vocals. Even though, for many in the crowd, those songs ranged in popularity from "not in 'Shrek'" to "definitely not in 'Shrek,'" the last propulsive pop rock hit couldn't help get into their veins, the audience as a whole getting into "Walking on the Sun" in particular – so much so, it seemed to defeat a makeshift "Shrek" chant attempting to take off.
After adventuring through some different genres with the stoner groove "Road Man" and a trio of ska-dabbling "crazy punk rock stuff" from their earlier albums, Smash Mouth finally arrived at one of the crowd's long-awaited favorites: their cover of "I'm a Believer," made iconic from the end dance party of "Shrek." The younger audience members dutifully popped, finally cheering and dancing along with the diehards in the crowd to the song's catchy surf rock licks.
Obviously there was one more Smash Mouth smash hit left on the audience's to-hear list – but first they would get Rickrolled. But really: After "So Insane," the band performed their rendition of Rick Astley's famous "Never Gonna Give You Up" – a big night for Astley considering Yung Gravy was probably playing his riff "Betty" at the same time on the other side of the grounds. It sounded fine, but there was a certain "meme on top of a meme" feeling to the ultimate "Shrek" band playing the ultimate internet prank song.
The band added in a cover of "Why Can't We Be Friends" before finally reaching the apex of the evening: "All Star," from the major motion picture ... well, pretty much all of the major motion pictures in the early 2000s, but particularly "Shrek." (Even though it was attached to the cult superhero comedy "Mystery Men," so much so characters appeared in the music video.) Obviously the crowd went nuts; only a liar would say they didn't, the lyrics of the song automatically emerging from one's memory like their first area code or home phone number. Smash Mouth may not have been trendy, but no one was too cool Thursday night to enjoy that particular nostalgia blast.
"All Star" seemingly marked the ultimate finale to a solid 80-minute showing, but after leaving the stage – and after much of the crowd left the bleachers – Smash Mouth returned for an encore, one more demanded by the setlist than the audience's polite applause. That being said, when the band reemerged for a cover of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me," the hardcores happily rocked out – and even some of the youthful throng headed for the EDM stage or beyond U-turned to enjoy one final song.
Yes, enjoy. It wasn't a hip show – the crouched, semi-chaotic dad vibes on the stage could easily read more fairgrounds show than Summerfest show – but after years of disreputable headlines and viral videos, it was a respectable show, a worthy 90 minutes performed with energy and peppy fun. The hits really hit – and though some crowd members may have audibly sighed through the lesser tracks, hearing songs off "Astro Lounge" again had its own entertainment for me, feeling dusty synapses in my brain get used for the first time in years, suddenly remembering lyrics and riffs seemingly forgotten long ago.
And as Goode pointed out during the night, there was something nice about a crowd so eclectic and wide-ranging, eagerly gathered in one place. It was certainly unique – and a unique, well-performed night? I'm not sure what else I could hope for from a Smash Mouth concert in the year 2023.
Nine-year-old Matt would've loved to see it. And as for 33-year-old Matt? Well, he didn't leave with a finger and a thumb on his forehead.
"Can't Get Enough Of You Baby"
"Pacific Coast Party"
"Then The Morning Comes"
"Diggin' Your Scene"
"Walking on the Sun"
"Come On Come On"
"I'm a Believer" (The Monkees cover)
"Never Gonna Give You Up" (Rick Astley cover)
"Why Can't We Be Friends" (War cover)
"You Really Got Me" (The Kinks cover)
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.