Gin Blossoms please crowd of 12,000 at Mid-South Fair
by Larry Nager

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Next year on the Mainstage of the Mid-South Fair--Lollapalooza '96?

 Well, maybe we're not quite ready for that. But if piercing booths aren't yet vying with Pronto Pup stands, the mainstreaming of so-called "alternative" rock came to the fair Thursday night, as the Gin Blossoms drew an estimated crowd of 12,000, the largest Mainstage crowd this year.

 The young, five-man band was a logical choice to bring a bit of cutting-edge rock to the fair. With a sound that mixes rich pop melodicism reminiscent of the Beatles and the Byrds (the two bands that the Gin Blossoms paid tribute to at the concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), with a driving, propulsive attack, the group manages to be just as accessible to older rockers as it is to the college crowd.

 The latter was out in force Thursday, packing the area around the Mainstage, standing on the benches and singing along to such infectious Gin Blossoms fare as "Hey Jealousy," "Found Out About You," "Until I Fall Away," "Allison Road" and its current hit from the Empire Records soundtrack, "Til I Hear It From You."

 For most of the 80-minute show, the Gin Blossoms featured songs from the new album the band has been working on at Ardent Studio in Memphis, where its multi-platinum New Miserable Experience was recorded.

 Like other alternative groups, the band was first drawn there by the studio's connection to Big Star, the influential Memphis power-pop band of the early '70s that recorded three albums for Ardent Records. Bringing things full circle, the band featured former Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, now A&R director for the revived Ardent label, on an aggressive "Hands Are Tied."

 The Gin Blossoms also paid tribute to another influence in their three-song encore, playing the Byrd's "Feel A Whole Lot Better." It was a far better, looser version than the one they played at the Hall of Fame show.

 Because of the Gin Blossoms' lengthy association with Memphis, "our other hometown," as chain-smoking lead singer Robin Wilson called it, the concert had a relaxed, hometown feel. Wilson talked about eating at Corky's and Harry's On Teur, shopping at Oak Court Mall and going to the movies at the Highland Quartet. They even introduced a new song written by guitarists Jesse Valenzuela and Scott Johnson, "Memphis Time."

 And while the huge crowd proved that alternative rock belongs at the fair as much as country music and oldies, the Gin Blossoms' new material laid to rest any doubts about the band's future. Many wrote the group off after songwriter-guitarist Doug Hopkins was forced out of the band due to alcoholism after the recording of New Miserable Experience. He later killed himself.

 But new songs like "Til I Hear It From You" and "Day Job" make it clear that the Gin Blossoms can write superb pop-rock just as well as they can play it.

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