Mark McGrath and Sugar Ray Puts on Sweet Show at the Golden Nugget

Written and photography by Heather Vale

He wowed me on “Rock & Roll Jeopardy.” He disappointed me on “Celebrity Apprentice.” He impressed me on numerous other TV shows and hosting gigs, including “Extra.” And he has been one of my favorite all-round performers for close to 20 years.

I’m talking about Mark McGrath, lead singer of Sugar Ray. And after all the concerts I’ve seen and reviewed over the years, McGrath has now confirmed his status as one of the best showmen I’ve ever seen.

He rolled into town in August with his brainchild concert series Under the Sun, “the annual summer festival tour celebrating the golden age of alternative pop rock ‘n’ roll,” according to Sugar Ray’s website. Now in their second year, the lineup this time also featured Uncle Kracker, Smash Mouth and Blues Traveler, and they all swooped in for a few hours of fun and great tunes at the Golden Nugget’s Grand Event Center.

UncleKracker-HV-MarkMcGrath-0909-enhance-SMMy favorite part of the night was meeting McGrath and Uncle Kracker at the pre-show meet and greet. I got a picture taken with me between the two in my trademark “Heather Sandwich” pose, and this was definitely one of the most delicious Heather Sandwiches of all time.

True to form, McGrath came out to meet us – me and a bunch of fans who had won tickets – being friendly, personable and incredibly energetic. It’s hard not to like the guy. He has that elusive triple-threat combination of good looks, intelligence and talent – and the talent crosses multiple platforms to boot. Then again, I’m sure some people actually hate him for all that, but it says more about the haters than McGrath.

Sugar Ray followed Uncle Kracker in the evening’s number-two spot. It’s kind of surprising considering that the concert tour was McGrath’s idea, and most performers in his position would secure the headlining spot. That’s what Everclear does with their competing music tour, Summerland – and while McGrath originally was involved in that tour’s incarnation as well, he ultimately chose to start his own.

As for who headlines, Smash Mouth lead singer Steve Harwell talked to me by phone a few days before the show. He emphasized that the bands all get along well and aren’t compelled to compete for the sake of ego-gratification.

Believe it or not, Sugar Ray was founded in 1986 (as The Shrinky Dinks), although the California-based band didn’t become nationally known until the mid-‘90s. Their 40-minute on-stage set played like a greatest hits album, and lead guitarist Rodney Sheppard – sporting a retro newshound look – was as sharp as ever.

They started off with “Someday,” followed by “Every Morning,” “When it’s Over,” and a cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” Throughout the performance, McGrath addressed the crowd like a pro, told stories and jokes, and jumped around like a monkey, using risers on either side of the stage to make the most use of his space and give everyone a sense that they were included in the banter.

Early on he joked that an audience member must be from Henderson because she wanted to hear a hit song (or so he says – but I didn’t actually hear her say that). His retort was, “In Vegas, we save the hits till the end!” And while that didn’t prove to be true, which was part of the joke, they did play their biggest hit last.

The entire set was a well-laid-out lead-in to their grand finale, “Fly.” This version didn’t include reggae musician Super Cat, who lent a unique flavor to the original radio release. It focused more on McGrath, allowing him to showcase his own skills.

From stage right, where I was at that point, there was way too much bass and it impacted my enjoyment of the song. But from the center of the room it sounded good, and that’s what they optimized for. It would have been nice to have more consistent acoustics… which, being my only complaint of Sugar Ray’s set, is pretty darned good.

Overall, this was one of my favorite shows ever. While it was tough to photograph McGrath because he barely stood still for more than a second, I appreciated the level of showmanship he brought to the stage – something I haven’t seen any other performer do lately. So I’d have to say Sugar Ray is still pretty sweet, all these years later.

HeatherValeGoss-Vegas2014-lg2Heather Vale is a freelance journalist, writer, interviewer and producer also known as The Unwrapper. For over 20 years she has worked in all media: TV, radio, print and online. Currently she is one of the top freelance interviewers on the web, and specializes in the internet marketing, personal development and arts & entertainment niches. A native of Toronto, she has lived in Las Vegas with her young son since 2012.

You can reach her at her website, TheUnwrapper.com, or on Facebook at Facebook.com/Unwrapper.

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