By Nancy J. Parisi
News contributing Reviewer
NORTH TONAWANDA – Picturesque Gratwick Park – Niagara River along one side of it, bustling train tracks on the other and a whole lot of wide open green space down the middle – was the perfect, mildly breezy summertime venue for the Niagara River Rocks Concert show Sunday night. Headliners The Fray and dual opening acts Barcelona and Oh Honey formed the lineup of this second-to-last show of the popular series.
Taking the stage amid a swell of screams, The Fray, led by lithe showman Isaac Slade, vocalist and pianist extraordinaire, launched into a high-energy set. The band’s pop creations range from mid-tempo R&B love ballads to party-ready ragers: the thousands before them sang along to all of the set’s seamless 90 minutes.
The band began with “Closer to Me” from their fourth and latest album, “Helios,” and would wait until much later in the set to perform its biggest pop hits to date, “How to Save a Life” and “Over My Head (Cable Car)” from the band’s 2005 pop rock debut.
Slade, one of rock’s best movers and shakers, was everywhere: down in the pit sharing the mic with fans, standing atop barricades amid the thousands (security rushing after him like the Secret Service following a president), atop a 10-foot amp and on his shiny black Yamaha baby grand piano (an impromptu stage-within-a-stage).
Besides the gymnastics of Slade, an absolute gorgeous moment in the set was “Wherever This Goes,” which blended into a trio of Slade and guitarist and band co-founder Joe King joining voices with opening act Barcelona’s lead singer Brian Fennell on haunting gospel song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” It was before this melding of pop and gospel that Slade looked out at the front row of faces against the barricade and said “Happy Birthday” to a fan in a birthday tiara.
Erin Killian, turning 19 on Sunday, was in full birthday regalia: a pink and silver tiara, a pink metallic birthday necklace, a sundress and a smile a mile wide. She was there with four friends and they had arrived much earlier in the afternoon from East Amherst.
“She’s obsessed with them!” said Shannon Conway, Erin’s friend. The girls had been standing among the general admission crowd but the kindly Niagara River Rocks crew invited the girls into the VIP area as a special birthday surprise.
During The Fray’s set Erin was heard to say “I’m going to pass out.” She did not, maintaining her rock and roll cool.
The Fray ended with three very mid-tempo, piano-centric tunes: “Break Your Plans,” “Never Say Never,” and “Same As You.” “You guys have been so great,” Slade said. “Thank you so much … if you come back, we’ll come back.” A deal was struck.
The pop trio Barcelona, fond of Ray-Ban Wayfarers and ’80s-influenced synth layers, played a concise set that was equal parts bouncing pop and soulful R&B. A spacey guitar led into a lush version of “Paper Lion.” Although touted, like The Fray, as having a very piano-based sound, their set relied upon solid guitar work and driving drum and bass lines.
During poetic “Cure” (“So take away all my sin, give me a sweet prayer on my lips”) a few raindrops fell but the dark clouds decided to hold on to their precipitation. Fennell paused for a train whistling by before closing. Midway through Barcelona’s set Fennell was joined by Slade for a rich duet on “Fall In Love.”
Oh Honey, a band proudly based in Brooklyn (they would mention their home base several times during the show), opened up the early evening show. Vocalist Danielle Bouchard and Mitchy Collins and their three bandmates make folksy, near-Celtic (just add fiddle!) tunes.
They introduced a new song “about never giving up,” but Collins noted that all their material might be new to all those in attendance. Their cover of R&B girl trio TLC’s “No Scrubs” made the ’90s dance hit a folksy duet. They, too, worked around the whistles of passing trains as well as horns of boats out on the river: dozens of boatloads enjoying the mellow, three-band night just like those on land.