Okay, they're a little peppier than most bands. Frontman John Stephens and bass player Tommy Gruber seemed more interested in charming the crowd than rocking it. You have to be at least a little good-natured to appear on a bill called The Hard Rock Café Tour, let alone one sponsored by Jolly Rancher, but Neve's members also came off as boy-band smug, a trait accentuated by their well-groomed cuteness. Not every alt-pop band scrubs up like the Goo Goo Dolls; some of them start out Ivory clean, and a layer of dirt or two could only help Neve. Same goes for the group's songs, which had the enthusiasm of first shots -- but also the callowness.
Frankie Machine did better, representing its tinny, also self-titled debut with a more muscular sound. This quartet's singer, Ryan Martin, has a tougher voice (which sounded more convincing but less tuneful without benefit of studio compression) but looks no meaner than Neve's Stephens. The group's advantage over Neve, if it has one, is the credibility it gets from being on Mammoth rather than Columbia. But the problem with some package shows is that they give the audience too much of what they want. Frankie Machine and Neve did little to distinguish themselves from each other. They contrasted Peter Searcy mainly with speed, though all three acts had the sugared eagerness you'd expect from a candy-coated tour.
Searcy, touring behind the best album of the three acts, was also the most accomplished performer of the night. A veteran of several bands, all of which were better than Frankie Machine or Neve, Searcy demonstrated how to bring original songs to life. It helped that his songs clearly were written by a man with a notebook and a guitar, not a band in a rehearsal space. Searcy didn't unleash the energy uncorked by the other two Ritalin-deprived acts. Instead, he seemed powered by the songs, warming up over his set. Even with more contemplative, emotional material, he didn't disrupt the rock vibe of the evening, bringing instead the contrast sorely needed by his tourmates.