Tonight was full of surprises. The first and most significant being that I just had an amazing time at a Mandy Moore concert. As in, it’s probably in my top 5 concert experiences of all time, including Morrissey, Portishead and the Beta Band.

I got tickets because Sara is a huge fan. My main concerns going in were that I feared it would be boring, and I also feared that it would be embarrassing for Mandy Moore, considering that most pop stars play the Qwest Center and here she was playing Sokol Auditorium. When we arrived, I discovered it was Sokol Underground. It seemed like it only had potential to get worse.

We got there a little late, and I immediately had to head to the restroom for a second appointment with my triple Haystack from Dinker’s about an hour earlier. From the restroom, though, I could hear the last two songs of opening act Chris Stills – son of Stephen Stills – and I was very impressed. He could easily be branded a Jeff Buckley impersonator if not for the fact that he had the vocal power to pull it off, creating a confident beauty not often found in opening acts. At least that’s how it sounded from my stall.

Ben Lee’s follow-up was fantastic. He was a shameless crowd-pleaser, but with enough self-deprecation that the charm outweighed the cheese. I had never been much of a Ben Lee fan – the last time I deliberately listened to his music was in the late ’90s – but this set won me over. He definitely plays the irony card in a lot of his songs, but there was an obvious layer of genuine passion beneath it all. He wasn’t afraid to go for laughs, but he closed out his set by declaring “This is the way music should be enjoyed – just a bunch of people having fun in a room together.”

Sokol Underground is little more than a room – a hot, sweaty, low-ceilinged, black-walled room. In other words, probably the last place I would ever expect to see Mandy Moore in concert. From her between-song banter, she kind of made it sound like the Pop Princess wanted to slum it up with a “real” band – going out on the road in a bus, playing clubs. Like it was role-playing or something.

And occasionally, it felt like you could take the kid out of the theater but you couldn’t take the theater out of the kid – there were a few embarrassing bouts of air guitar; each lyric was facially broadcast to the back row, apparently carrying the weight of either a baby being born or a friend dying.

But surely old habits die hard, and when it came to getting the impression that Moore was acting, that’s where it ended. Everything else tonight felt astonishingly pure and sincere. This didn’t seem like a pop star and her backing musicians – this felt like a band that was having the time of their lives.

Much of Moore’s new material is pretty guitar-oriented, and in the pop world it’s more reminiscent of someone like Kelly Clarkson than the generation of Britney, Christina and Jessica that spawned her. But it’s a genre she slides effortlessly into, and I think much of what makes it work is the trust she appears to have in her bandmates. Rather than treating them onstage like they’re simply working the props for her performance, she seems to be entirely comfortable with being one of them. The band members play around in the middle of songs, feeding off each other and feeding the crowd with the fun they’re having. They slinked in and out of genres and it all felt totally natural when they did.

Not to say that it’s all just playtime – Moore played a bigger part in writing her new material, and much of it deals with heartbreak. In particular, one of her new songs, “Gardenia,” is played with just Moore on vocals and a soft piano backing. I grew very frustrated during that song as some valley girl wannabe behind us was loudly talking about her stop at Urban Outfitters earlier that day. I think it says something for the quality of this band that I was more concerned about preserving the sanctity of Mandy Moore’s songs than some college girl.

The setlist included some reworkings of her new songs, some funny creations they’ve written on the road (one apparently inspired matching tattoos that all members of the band got yesterday on their day off), and some amazing crowd pleasers. I’ve been saying for months that if I ever got in a band again, I wanted to cover Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and tap into the pure rock potential that lies hidden in that song; color me surprised that Mandy Moore beat me to it, but she did. They turned that song into the guitar masterpiece it should be. The band whipped out a cover of Billy Joel’s “Big Shot” for an encore – claiming it was the first time they’d ever attempted to play it live. Moore read her lyrics off her Blackberry; guest Chris Stills had his on paper.

They also managed to make “Candy” into a fantastic barroom piano romp that was simultaneously hilarious, impressive and ridiculously catchy. I think it says a lot for Moore that she’s rebranding herself as a serious songwriter, yet she’s not afraid to have fun with her background.

Musical director Michael Chaves was in charge of putting the band together for the tour. He’d been through Omaha before with previous bands Low Millions and Five for Fighting and playing guitar with John Mayer, but this was the best tour he’d ever been on, he said. He told me “It’s all about having fun. I’ve been in bands before where there’s great musicians, but nobody has any fun. I don’t need that. I’ve got a wife, a house, I could be working in the yard. It makes a big difference when you’re doing it with people you love.”

That could not have been more obvious standing out the audience. The crowd was into the whole show from the opening acts onward. It was probably the most unpretentious crowd I’ve ever been a part of, completely unafraid to play along with the whims of the artists onstage and reward them at the end of each song.

If this lineup put out a live album, I’d snatch it up immediately. I’d like to put in my vote for the Omaha show.

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