September means fair season across the country. Here in New England, states are pretty small, so all six states combine to have one giant, two-week, six-state fair called The Big E. For decades, great live music has been a staple of the fair. On Friday, 9/22, The Verve Pipe hit the Court of Honor stage for one of the best performances of this year’s fair.
Perhaps best known for the 1996 hit record Villians and its monster single “The Freshman”, The Verve Pipe took a hiatus after 2001’s Underneath but reconfigured in 2009 and have released a series of brilliant records led by the stellar songwriting of frontman Brian Vander Ark. The band, featuring Vander Ark on vocals and guitar, his brother Brad on bass, Channing Lee on vocals and keyboards, Lou Musa on guitar, and Brian Vannieuwenhoven on drums kicked off with “Spoonful of Sugar” from 1993’s Pop Smear, and didn’t let up for the 90-minute set.
I’ve been lucky enough to see this band live a few times over the last few years. Even though Brian Vander Ark has been the only constant in the band throughout their 30-year career, he always allows the current band to shine on their own. Guitarist Musa is a master of the Telecaster, his playing suites the songs perfectly and he is given ample space to take solos that not only enhance the song but add a bit of muscle to them. Channing Lee also shines, whether she is complimenting Brian’s vocal or taking the lead on her composition “Bridges Are Burning”.
Playing a free show at a state fair has its challenges. Yes, there are fans of the band who came specifically for the show, but there is also a large contingent of people who have just wandered into the stage area because they heard a band playing. Some bands will change their set to just play the hits and covers that the average fan would know. Others, like The Verve Pipe, are so sure of their ability on stage that they play a regular set, deep cuts and all, and know that it’s enough to draw the crowd in. Yes, the hits were there, a huge crowd sing-a-long for “The Freshman”, everyone on their feet for “Colorful” from the Mark Wahlberg movie Rock Star, but the band excels when it goes deep on tracks like “Villans”, “Medicate Myself”, and “Somebody Someday”.
Even though he is one of the great song writers of his generation, Brian Vander Ark is also a talented interpreter of other people’s material (check out his 2-volume Planet Sunday Sessions series). The Verve Pipe is known for some of the unique covers they add to their live sets. This night saw an incredibly delicate take on the Bowie classic “Life on Mars” that would have made Bowie himself smile as well as a ferocious version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” which showcased the massive vocals of not only Vander Ark and Lee, but also Musa and Brad Vander Ark on backing vocals.
It’s very easy (and lazy) to label The Verve Pipe as simply a “90s alt-rock band” or even a “one-hit wonder”, but they are so much more. The band boasts a deep catalog and their recent output (especially 2021’s Threads) have been some of the best rock records of the last decade. This is a great live band that deserves a chance when they come to your town, you won’t be disappointed.