This New Year’s Eve offers a prime opportunity to party like it’s 1999. Or 1996. Or 1992. Or any other year from that decade, actually.
Saved by the 90s is a one-stop-shop party whose centerpiece is a band playing an improbably eclectic playlist of hits from that era, from Britney Spears to Nirvana. It arrives at the Middle East Downstairs on New Year’s Eve via a healthy dose of music-fan enthusiasm and an innovative business model.
The onstage quartet on Sunday represents one of six franchises around the country that grew out of a casual cover band three Berklee College of Music graduates started up in New York seven years ago. Initially it was just a way to blow off some steam and have fun, but the resulting group, called the Bayside Tigers, quickly earned a reputation as a good party host and played a series of residencies at increasingly larger venues. Part of the concept is to don ’90s-themed “costumes” and complement the band with a pre-show DJ who lays down a party vibe from the get-go. (DJ Rugged One is the resident spinmeister for the Boston group.)
Attendees at Saved by the 90s events range from folks for whom the hits of Collective Soul, Garbage, and Rancid evoke nostalgic memories to current college kids who are down for a crash course in pop-cultural anthropology.
“I think the one thing that unites the people that come is that they don’t take things too seriously. If you go to a really trendy show you’re going to get a certain kind of person. We’re sort of the opposite,” says Nat Esten, 31, a drummer-vocalist and manager of EDM acts who cofounded the enterprise with Berklee buds Alex Rossiter and Danny Finerman. “They’re not coming and expecting to be at the coolest party. But they’re expecting to be at the funnest party.”
As the Bayside Tigers started getting more and more out-of-town bookings, the founders had the idea of starting satellite bands in other cities with the same concept, branded as Saved by the 90s. They now have franchises based in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Columbus, Ohio. The organization is represented by United Talent Agency, which books gigs around the country, and then Saved by the 90s dispatches the closest affiliate to go throw the party.
Drummer Jimmy Coberly, who like most of the crew got involved through connections with fellow Berklee alumni, started out as a sub for Esten in New York before leading the first regional franchise, here in Boston.
He came to the project by way of teen pop group Love Via Dance Machine, which played its farewell show at the Middle East in 2013 after a five-year run that saw it written up in the pages of Tiger Beat and Bop.
Coberly, 27, was a toddler when Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was released. His cultural memories of the ’90s cluster around TV shows like “Rugrats” and ABC’s “TGIF” lineup of shows including “Family Matters” and “Step by Step.” Musically, he cites Goo Goo Dolls, Blink 182, and Third Eye Blind as favorite bands he grew up with.
“When I’m playing those songs, sometimes I think about what I was doing when I was a little kid. I’m playing ‘MMMBop’ onstage and thinking about when I had the Hanson tape and I thought I was the man,” Coberly says.
Saved by the 90s presents a resolutely mainstream portrait of the (Bill) Clinton years, and it proudly brandishes a brightly colored, early-’90s, pre-grunge aesthetic. (Coberly tends to wear a Ren & Stimpy T-shirt and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hat onstage, sometimes complemented with acid wash denim shorts.)
Hits of pure pop from C+C Music Factory, Gin Blossoms, and Everclear are in the lineup, plus dollops of stuff that has earned a bit more critical pedigree, like hits from Rage Against the Machine and Beastie Boys.
On a given night, Britney Spears’s
“. . . Baby One More Time” can give way to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This mixtape mentality may flatten out the musical context of a lot of the source material, but whether the resulting effect is cloyingly glib or playfully irreverent is up to the ear of the beholder. Indeed, part of the mission of Saved by the 90s is to celebrate the power of pop to create a common space for music fans of all stripes. Even if your favorite band is Tool, the idea goes, you probably still enjoy singing along to “Under the Bridge.”
“It’s a big tent for everybody,” Esten says. “We like to think of it as a really non-pretentious environment.”
The success of Saved by the 90s and its franchise model has inspired its founders to expand into other themes. A band playing hits from the first decade of the 21st century, Y2K, begins a Brooklyn residency in January. Then there’s The Little Mermen, which Esten describes as an “all-Disney party band.”
These groups’ parent company is named after Third Eye Blind’s 1997 hit “Semi-Charmed Life.” Esten, who still plays drums in the New York band, says the phrase sums up things nicely.
“We get to go up there and play for thousands of people and feel like we’re rock stars. But it’s just fleeting. Then we go back to our jobs.”
Saved By The 90s
At the Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, Dec. 31. Tickets $25, 617-864-3278, www.mideastoffers.comJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.