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Echoes of the '90s heard at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas

December 13, 2009 |  1:23 pm

The surprise guest at Saturday night's opening installment of KROQ-FM's Almost Acoustic Christmas passed away in 1996.

After the majestically earnest 30 Seconds to Mars finished its set of electronics-shaded rock, the Gibson Amphitheatre stage rotated to reveal a wizened quartet surrounded by votive candles, resembling an impromptu street-corner memorial. Once the audience recognized the saxophone riff from the KROQ staple "Date Rape," they seemed thrilled that Sublime -- or "Sublime," depending on whose lawyers you ask -- had returned in part. "These candles are here to remember Bradley Nowell," said Rome Ramirez, who replaced Nowell as the band's singer and guitarist fourteen years after his death from a heroin overdose.

Indeed, much of the first night of Almost Acoustic Christmas -- the second, featuring Muse, Vampire Weekend and Phoenix, is tonight -- stoked the flames of Nowell's contributions to a Southern California rock culture in which punk is the indigenous pop music and the '90s still loom large for today's artists.

That ethic carried over even to artists who long since eclipsed the local strictures. Dead by Sunrise, the new act from Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, eschewed that act's arena-sized rap-rock for a street-level scruffiness that, though typically hook-centric, wasn't nearly as fully formed as Linkin Park. But even Bennington's B-list songwriting would have been preferable to the relentless dirge of Three Days Grace, a sallow Canadian band whose set suggested that not even single-payer healthcare could heal the wounds it inflicted on those who like rock with rhythm or sex appeal.

Leto-gallery 30 Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto did much to lighten the proceedings, sprinting through the central walkway of the Gibson while fans reached out to him as if he were a religious icon -- the band's T-shirts for sale in the lobby, which read, "Yes, this is a cult," underscored that feeling. New single "Kings & Queens" has the band's best chorus to date, and though 30 Seconds has a sprawling pretentious streak, it was all in good radio-festival fun.

Although Sublime never introduced itself as such during its set (the question of who owns that band name -- the surviving members or the Nowell estate -- is still in legal limbo), Ramirez filled Nowell's role ably. He's a fine guitarist and played soulful turns on chill-bro anthems like "Badfish" and "Santeria." He nailed Nowell's vocal inflections to the point that if you were in the beer line when the set began, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether Tupac and Elvis might also be in the building.

A similarly re-formed-sans-singer Alice in Chains felt like a curious reminder of a time (the '90s) when alt-rock and pop music were distinct, sometimes opposing genres on radio. The close harmonies of guitarist Jerry Cantrell and firecracker vocalist William DuVall were unnerving, but the band's midtempo churn dragged behind the upbeat pace of its Almost Acoustic peers.

On the contrary, Rise Against is probably one of the fastest bands in recent memory to have a top-five album. "Appeal to Reason," the punk band's latest album, injects some Chomsky-lite political railing into a rock mainstream where most angst is personal, and singer Tim McIlrath showed off Journey-worthy pipes on "Savior" and "Audience of One." There's not an un-derivative note in Rise Against's catalog, but they're an unlikely and welcome presence on the album charts.

AFI, on the other hand, has unexpectedly turned into a challenging top-40 staple that tweaks punk's more masculine impulses. Singer Davey Havok is one of few mainstream rock frontmen toying with androgyny and feyness today, and on the band's latest album, "Crash Love," he transformed into a kind of winking Vegas crooner. He headlined the night in a glittering gold suit (with hair highlights to match), and seemed to finally get that his pleading mewl could express sass as well as boundless suffering.

Singles like "Miss Murder" and "Medicate" had a bit of T. Rex pomp to them, and reminded the audience that though KROQ sets the agenda for commercial rock in L.A., its marquee artists need to stay a step ahead of that culture to remain compelling.

--August Brown

Photo: Chester Bennington of Dead By Sunrise performs for the crowd at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas concert. Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times