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It's a rare evening that you'll see a local opening act completely blow away the more successful headliner. But it happened one night last August at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, when Psychic Rain were warming up for the Outfield. There was front man Greg Stoddard, who sang and played guitar with a conviction rarely seen since the Alarm. Brian Stewart plucked chiming lead guitar riffs and threw in a swagger that was vintage Keith Richards. Meanwhile, drummer Norm Antonini and then-bassist Patrick "Rico" Shannon laid down a solid rhythmic foundation. Stoddard got everyone's attention when he suddenly jumped over a railing that held scattered beers and glasses just as his guitar cord was coming unplugged.
"If I tried to do that without a guitar on, I think I'd probably fall and break my neck," Stoddard said, laughing, during a recent conversation. "That was a perfect example of the adrenalin rush I get from playing. I was pretty lost in the moment."
Together since 1993, Stoddard and his band mates conjure up the spirit of their major influences onstage. "Everyone in the band loves U2," he said. "And the Alarm were one of my favorite bands of all time. I thought they were speaking to me. They'd look into the crowd and try to make contact with fans. I totally try to do that. I don't wanna close my eyes and be a shoegazer or a rock star. I want to connect with people."
That approach to shows, plus the buzz of enthusiastic word-of-mouth, led to such lucky breaks for the band as landing a slot playing on the Mark & Brian Christmas show (featuring Kiss and Matthew Sweet) a few years ago at the Hollywood Palladium. When their engaging 1996 album, World Ironic, arrived to local raves, Psychic Rain seemed poised to become the next big OC band.
But it didn't happen, and a disillusioned Stoddard was ready to call it quits. "I was gonna break up the band," he admitted. "I just felt we had run our course and things needed to change."
Then another opportunity presented itself in the form of benefactor John Shanahan, creator of the Hooked on Phonics children's reading system. Shanahan saw a newspaper article lamenting the band's fate. He had already heard Psychic Rain's music and thought they deserved another chance, so he started a record label (Worldstar) especially for them, got album-oriented-rock heavy hitter Ron Nevison to produce their demos, and helped them land a deal with Warner Bros. When they recorded their new CD, Spun Out, and it came time to mix the album, Stoddard and Shannon couldn't help but get a little starstruck when they found themselves mingling in an LA recording-studio lobby with Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow.
"Me and Rico looked at each other, going, 'No way,'" Stoddard said. "You forget they're regular people."
With Spun Out, Psychic Rain have achieved a winning sound somewhere between uplifting guitar-pop and trippy psychedelia, yet so timeless it could've been recorded any time within the past 20 years. Songs range from sweeping, introspective pop à la Toad the Wet Sprocket ("Holding On") and chunky, guitar-driven Goo Goo Dolls-style alterna-rock ("Still Not Over You") to organ-drenched, Black Crowes-worthy slow jams ("Standing in the Corner"). Elsewhere, there are highflying harmonies ("Take Me Down"), infectious melodies that just won't quit (the title track's chorus has been embedded in my brain for months), and lyrics insightful enough to have been penned by the most seasoned pros. Unlike so many disposable rock discs, it's a strong listen from start to finish.
"There are not a lot of albums like that anymore," said Stoddard. "It's a talk-show world now. Everything is a soundbite. You get your one hit, get your pretty face out there, and you've got a career."
Hoping to avoid the quick-hit, here-today-gone-today scenario, Psychic Rain extricated themselves from Warner following a corporate shake-up at the label. ("We felt like the stepchildren," Stoddard lamented.) A long wait and much legal wrangling followed, but the group finally released Spun Out last month. They're now seeking a distribution deal with another major label.
And, suddenly, breaking in new bassist Lenny Spickle after Shannon's recent departure. "We just felt we were going in different directions musically," Stoddard said. "So we ripped off Lenny from [OC band] August Burning."
Under Shanahan's tutelage, the guys have a generous salary and don't have to worry about getting day jobs. The focus is the band and keeping their buzz from dying out. So far, it has worked: "Take Me Down" was featured in the opening scene of a recent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Spun Out's title track will be heard in the upcoming film Down to You, starring Freddie Prinze Jr. College- and commercial-radio airplay has been modest but steady. And a major-city U.S. tour is in the works. True to that old Springsteen lyric from "Thunder Road"—"Show a little faith/There's magic in the night"—Psychic Rain have stuck it out and are on the brink of finally reaping some rewards.
"It won't be for lack of trying," Stoddard said. "We take pride in our music, and I hope people hear that when they listen to the record."Psychic Rain open for the Smithereens at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8927. Fri., Dec. 3, 8 p.m. $17.50; discount tickets available through Psychic Rain at (562) 302-0701.Spun Out can be purchased at OC Tower Records stores or at www.psychicrain.com.