Train Newcastle Web by John Burrows @ishootgigs@ Newcastle O2 Academy, February 14 2013

Train tracks have become a signpost for middle age: the band’s Radio Two profile, dominant audience demographic and inoffensive songwriting appeal say it’s so.

So where on earth frontman Pat Monahan found more than 10 teenage girls to join him on stage for a sugary sweet rendition of Mermaid is anyone’s guess. Then again, this was a night of surprises.

For starters a Train timetable ran like clockwork in the UK for the first time in years. On stage promptly – and off stage even earlier than anticipated – the super cool Californians clearly live and die by the old adage that ‘less is more’. Or maybe it’s ‘quality over quantity’. Or even ‘don’t risk a potentially damaging denouement when the singer’s pipes are about to pack in’. 

Monahan got his excuses in early as Train chugged through an unconvincing version of Parachute and an equally implausible version of 50 Ways To Say Goodbye. “I don’t know what’s up with me,” he told the Train spotters, clutching his throat. “But if I’m going to lose my voice anywhere I’d rather lose it in Newcastle.” Neat.

The second surprise of the night was that after Monahan’s meek admission, an initially patchy performance improved incrementally – so much so that come set closer Drops Of Jupiter (Tell Me) there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

Train’s decision to bring Gin Whigmore along for the ride had already paid dividends by the time the bouncy little alt rocker joined the headline act for a perky rendition of Bruises.

Earlier her wildly optimistic band had threatened to put the main men in the shade with a support set demanding attention – even the odd Valentino whispering sweet nothings into his beau’s left ear allowed his gaze to wander when confronted by the wispy Ms Whigmore. In tandem with Monahan she stole the show.

But it was a close run thing. Train’s departure from their over-produced studio norm allowed Jim Stafford to prove himself as a genuine guitar hero: the rhythm flowed, the riffs raised the bar and the solos soared. Those occupying a place towards the older end of the middle age scale reached for the ear plugs and recoiled in agony – the rest of us edged closer for a better view.

Given his platform, Train’s most impressive performer took the heat off Monahan and gained credit from the classic rock connoisseurs – not a bad night’s work for a muso so often ignored in the rush for guaranteed radio airplay.

Of all the surprises on a night of unlikely twists and unforeseen turns it was the decision to rely so heavily on their most recent material that irked a large section of a Train queue calling for the classics.

Thirteen of the 16 songs were culled from 2009’s Save Me, San Francisco and last year’s California 37 – Radio Two would have been so proud. But for every beaming fan ignorant of the band’s 19-year history there was a mildly disappointed champion of overlooked gems Free (1998), She’s On Fire (2001) or When I Look To The Sky (2003).

Train’s dilemma is this: face being shunted into the sidings as happened in the wake of commercial flop For Me, It’s You or maintain the momentum and journey onwards and upwards. If it means Train keeps on rolling, the latter will do.

Simon Rushworth

Picture courtesy of John Burrows @ishootgigs