Sept. 16 @ The Catalyst Club, Downtown Santa Cruz

Arriving before the main event at a live gig is always a gamble.  Apparently everyone decided to play it safe and wait to show up until Sugar Ray was on stage, because opening act Aimee Allen sang to a crowd you could count on two hands.

Allen’s lonely soulful voice was as sad as her numerous pleas for bar patrons to stand up and move closer. But, try as she might, she could not guilt us all into scooting forward.  Decked out in a plaid shirt and studded belt, her slightly ska sound inspired one viewer to draw a comparison to Gwen Stefani.  Her voice carried over accompanying acoustic guitar, and the reggae and dubstep influences would probably have been well-received had more than a handful of people showed up.  Perhaps her single in the recently released slasher film “Sorority Row” will bring her into the spotlight and deliver bigger crowds next time.

While the Huntington Beach-hailing quartet The Dirty Heads played after Allen, members of the crowd bobbed and swayed to an infusion of reggae, hip-hop and Sublime-inspired ska punk.  For a while, I was convinced that the band’s lead vocalist, Jared Watson, was actually “Jay” of “Jay and Silent Bob”, thanks to his serious stoner vibe.  Alas, there was no mangina display — only organically rhythmic beats with a familiar, laid-back, So Cal surfer ambiance.

By the time headliners Sugar Ray took the stage everybody was ready to dance, and leading man Mark McGrath blasted onto the scene in classic black wayfarers, with a swagger that seemed to warn patrons they were in for a real spectacle.  “It feels like its time for a No. 1 song from 1999!” McGrath shouted at the crowd just before busting out the catchy pop tune “Every Morning.”

At 41, McGrath is arguably still as sexy as ever, despite exclaiming that he had his hair freshly highlighted and frosted for the current comeback tour – one which he seems well-aware isn’t going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone any time soon.

It’s been 21 years since Sugar Ray’s initial formation, and the band doesn’t seem any closer to taking itself seriously. McGrath recently joked in an interview that, “We’re certainly not the most talented guys, and I can barely sing, but how about two thumbs up for just having fun?” — an attitude that that is conspicuously infused into songs on their newly released album, amusingly named Music for Cougars.

The recent show adhered to the same ideal; indeed, the night was less about high-quality tunes and more about entertainment, something McGrath became well-acquainted with during his four-year stint hosting the entertainment television show “Extra.”

Highlights of the show included seeing the band’s softer side during a tender performance of “When Its Over,” which McGrath wrote after his first broken heart at age 21.  McGrath’s crotch grabs, inspired by the late, great King of Pop and a freestyle karaoke battle between fans on Kid Cudi’s song “Day and Night” also stood out.   An all-out homage to the nineties, the band finished up the night with an extended version of the hit “Fly” — and  the only thing better than that was glancing over and seeing UCSC student Bryan Strauss’s belly, which read: “Do Me Mark!”