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+ {Pat Monahan}

Initially hitching a ride on the trad-rock and mainstream bandwagons, TRAIN have since become one of North America’s big-ticket items; crossing the paths of both touring allies COUNTING CROWS and Canadians BARENAKED LADIES along the way to their destination. `Meet Virginia’ and `Drops Of Jupiter’ might’ve kick-started their singles campaign a-rolling, however TRAIN have been one of the few album-orientated rock/pop combos to succeed in a singles market saturated by rap and/or country music.
Formed 1993, in San Francisco, California, singer/percussionist Patrick “Pat” Monahan had left behind his roots back in Erie, Pennsylvania (plus his part in a LED ZEPPELIN tribute act, Rogues Gallery), to stumble across singer/guitarist Rob Hotchkiss (ex-Apostles).
Hitting it off almost immediately, they became bosom buddies and duly began playing acoustic-driven pop music in the local coffee houses of the city’s Bay Area. The pair then decided to invite other Apostles casualties, Jimmy Stafford (guitar), Charlie Colin (bass) and Scott Underwood (drums/percussion), to form what would ultimately become TRAIN.
After a rejection from Columbia Records, the band themselves self-financed their eponymous debut, TRAIN (1996) {*6}, on their own Wolfgang imprint. Promoting songs that would become an integral part of their repertoire on support slots to HOOTIE & THE BLOWFISH, CRACKER and their aforementioned allies, A&R executive Tim Devine decided that the major label had missed a trick, convincing subsidiary Aware/RED to re-track and re-issue the set in February ‘98.
Significant airplay for guitar-driven ballad, `Free’, further convinced their new bosses to give `Meet Virginia’ to the mainstream radio. And under a whole new lease of life, the debut set climbed to its peak #76 position, whilst the single itself soared to #20 in autumn ‘99. But for time constraints and the need for fresh material, tracks such as `I Am’ and `Homesick’ might well’ve been shoo-ins for success having received heavy rotation on college radio.
Like COUNTING CROWS before them, TRAIN dealt in soft, tingling Americana sentimentality that became overtly hyperbolized come the release of their sophomore set DROPS OF JUPITER (2001) {*7}. Paul Buckmaster, long-time associate and main driving force on ELTON JOHN’s past and present classical/string arrangements, finely-tuned the more heartfelt tracks, whereas pop guitar songs such as `Getaway’, `Hopeless’ and `She’s On Fire’ became a tad mundane after two or three listens. The album slowly climbed into the Top 10 on both sides of the big pond, while its classy radio-friendly title track did a similar feat.
The new kings of MOR roots rock returned in 2003 with their second Brendan O’Brien-produced set, MY PRIVATE NATION {*7}, another solid Top 10 album which rarely veered from their tried and tested sound and earnest lyrical themes. The record’s more interesting moments came courtesy of O’Brien, who co-wrote a handful of tracks, including `Save The Day’ and the title song; though not Top 20 gain, `Calling All Angels’.
2004’s ALIVE AT LAST {*5} – recorded at WorkPlay Theatre, Birmingham – stopped TRAIN in its tracks; at least in terms of multi-platinum sales. It transcended its rock history-referencing title for a concert distinguished by disarmingly vibrant sound quality and a warts ’n’ all corps d’esprit. Love `em or loathe ‘em, Monahan could at least belt out a cover of the FACES’ `Stay With Me’ as if their last beer depended on it.
Pat didn’t have the sandpaper-soul talent of… say… a ROD STEWART, but he and his roots acolytes stormed the Top 10 once again with the dependably fashion-defying FOR ME, IT’S YOU (2006) {*6}; another O’Brien-tutored opus introducing Hotchkiss and Colin’s respective replacements Brandon Bush and Johnny Colt (ex-BLACK CROWES). Like its in-concert predecessor, the album did not warrant a UK release – delayed one thought. In among the worthy originals such as `Cab’ and `Give Myself To You’ was a rendition of SUGAR’s `If I Can’t Change Your Mind’; a track possibly difficult for TRAIN passengers to access.
When his band was out of commission for a few years, PAT MONAHAN’s window of opportunity beckoned via solo set, LAST OF SEVEN (2007) {*6}. However, not yet a household name that could shoo-in sales at the drop of a hat, the album sold moderately despite decent reviews for the single, `Her Eyes’, and other co-penned Patrick Leonard pieces like `Ooh My My’ and `Cowboys And Indians’; though once again the UK was given the cold shoulder.
Returning from their mini-hiatus without Colt or Bush, TRAIN and a variety of producers (including Martin Terefe) worked well to buff up any rusty rivets that might’ve clogged up the soft-rock bridges of SAVE ME, SAN FRANCISCO (2009) {*6}. If `Drops Of Jupiter’ had, for years, been their fans’ go-to song, then the Top 3 smash, `Hey, Soul Sister’ – name-checking MR. MISTER and a MADONNA – finally introduced a surrogate stand-in. And allowed to take a breath in Britain the following spring, the track and the set itself cracked the charts; though the jury was out on `I Got You’ (sampling The DOOBIE BROTHERS’ `Black Water’) and the MAROON 5-ish home-soil hit, `If It’s Love’ (name-checking WINGER).
Three years down the line, TRAIN turned their attention to the pseudo-concept of CALIFORNIA 37 (2012) {*6}. Whatever one thought of the transatlantic Top 10 album and its attendant big-ticket single, `Drive By’ (not forgetting `50 Ways To Say Goodbye’, `Bruises’ and `Mermaid’), the Monahan and Co juggernaut continued to stop-off into the minds of the amiable AOR sector. One earworm in particular: the opening name-spinning retrospective `This’ll Be My Year’, was as close to anything BILLY JOEL did in the yuppie 80s.
Serving TRAIN for two decades finally took its toll on Underwood, whose berth was taken by Drew Shoals, whilst the group expanded to a quintet once again via Jerry Becker (keyboards) and Hector Maldonado (bass). And sounding defiantly like MEN AT WORK or STING on BULLETPROOF PICASSO (2014) {*5}; especial on the opening `Cadillac, Cadillac’, TRAIN motored along the unwinding tracks without any signs of letting up. However, with no solid singles on board; `Angel In Blue Jeans’ buffered below the US and UK 50 mark, TRAIN’s time at the top was under threat. And if there was any evidence to where Monahan, Stafford and Co were headed, then the festive slush of CHRISTMAS IN TAHOE (2015) {*4} was the proof.
What long-time TRAIN ticket-holders needed was their fave band getting back to their roots. What they didn’t expect was that their idols would weirdly take that step further by karaoke-ing their own idols Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham a la TRAIN DOES LED ZEPPELIN II (2016) {*5}. It was not that the set was so terribly awful in its copycat readings of `Whole Lotta Love’ et al, it just proved exactly how contemptuous a band could become. Indeed if every act exercised this call of duty, classic rock would be in some bloody mess. In the event, stalwart Stafford subsequently jumped ship and was replaced by Luis Maldonado.
Thankfully for true fans, TRAIN were full steam ahead several months later with a girl a bottle a boat (2017) {*5}. Needless to say, sales picked up again via hit single, `Play That Song’, a track that re-routed Hoagy Carmichael’s staple, `Heart And Soul’. In essence, dropping off any retro hard-rock inclinations at the station to let in schmaltzy contemporary rock/pop, Pat and Co played it safe with non-hits, `Lottery’, `The News’ and `Drink Up’.
© MC Strong/MCS 2002-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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