Barenaked Ladies get new West Windsor concert site off to fine start

by JAY LUSTIG
Barenaked Ladies (from left, Ed Robertson, Tyler Stewart, Jim Creeggan and Kevin Hearn) performed in West Windsor, Thursday night.

Barenaked Ladies (from left, Ed Robertson, Tyler Stewart, Jim Creeggan and Kevin Hearn) performed in West Windsor, Thursday night.

The title of the latest Barenaked Ladies album, released last month, is Silverball, and singer-songwriter-guitarist Ed Robertson, a pinball fanatic, mentioned during the band’s Thursday night concert at the Mercer County Park Festival Grounds in West Windsor that pinball expert “Jersey Jack” Guamieri was in attendance.

I couldn’t help thinking, too, that there was something pinball-like about the show: The focus of attention kept bouncing wildly around the stage ,with all band members singing, at times, and chiming in with wisecracks whenever they felt like it, even if — maybe, especially if — someone else was already talking.

These guys are master musicians, of course, but their longevity has a lot to do with the comedy they add to the music in a live setting, and their ability to infuse the show with a certain amount of chaos. Thursday, for instance, Robertson not only talked at length about the beauty of Mercer County Park and the indignity of having to use a porta potty backstage, but worked lyrics about those things into songs and raps. Tyler Stewart came out from behind his drum set (with Robertson filling in for him) to sing lead on the encores: the fast, punk-like “Drawing” and a riotous cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” At one point, Robertson led the band through a goofy medley of recent pop hits, including Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”; at another point, he sang the band’s theme song for the hit sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.”

This was the first major concert at the Mercer County Park Festival Grounds; there have been cultural festivals, dog shows and other events there, just not big concerts. And it went off smoothly, though light rain fell through opening act Colin Hay’s set, and heavy rain came down during  Violent Femmes’ middle set. (Barenaked Ladies showed impeccable timing, taking the stage just as the rain stopped.) There was a small area with chairs in front of the stage, and a huge lawn surrounding it. Parking was a breeze, porta potties were plentiful and easy to get to, and the lines for food and drinks were generally short. You could hear everything clearly, even if you were sitting far away.

A nice treat for Barenaked Ladies fans were two cameos by Hay. The band backed him on his Men at Work hit, “Who Can It Be Now?” (which also featured Blaise Garza of Violent Femmes on saxophone), and he and Robertson dueted on the Barenaked Ladies song, “Pinch Me.” Barenaked Ladies members also made guest appearances during his and Violent Femmes’ sets.

Honestly, I hadn’t seen Barenaked Ladies in concert since singer-songwriter-guitarist Steven Page left in 2009, and was impressed at how well they’ve held up. Page and Robertson wrote most of the material for the band together, though Page, a more powerful singer, took more of the lead vocals. With Page gone, Stewart, bassist Jim Creeggan and keyboardist-guitarist Kevin Hearn are taking a bigger role in the stage show, and while Robertson’s voice has more rough edges than Page’s ever did, that’s not a huge problem when the band has such a stellar catalog of songs.

Concerts coming up at Mercer County Park Festival Grounds include R5, July 18, and Lee Brice, Aug. 13. For information, visit mercercounty.org.

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