Live review: Night 1 of KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas
The holiday season is a time for traditions. Be it the dog-chewed Frosty the Snowman ornament or a rarely used broccoli casserole recipe, customs often waft between nostalgic comfort and forced ritual. Saturday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre was no different, as the Universal CityWalk venue bore witness to the six-hour rock ’n’ roll hand-me-down that is the radio station festival.
Now in year 21, the holiday gathering that is the Almost Acoustic Christmas, presented annually by KROQ-FM, is carefully divided into formats. To seemingly guarantee as little challenge as possible to the audience, Sunday night boasted a lineup for the hip, featuring the likes of Parisian pop breakouts Phoenix and the soulful eccentricity of Florence + the Machine, and Saturday’s roster may as well have been curated by the Ghost of Christmas Past, with the current incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins and the likes of Social Distortion and Bad Religion on the bill.
It’s an almost stubborn denial of the free-for-all genre mash-up that is the modern era. Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, one of the rare bands that can meld rock theatrics with humor and hooks, poked fun at the perfunctory feel of the evening. “How many of you ... bought a ticket tonight?” he asked the crowd midset. Met with tepid applause, Way deadpanned, “That’s like 20% of the audience.”
Even when a dash of musical diversity was mixed in, it was done so with a nod to yesteryear. The beach-volleyball reggae-rock of Huntington Beach’s Dirty Heads was little more than pandering, a set marked by a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” that bordered on novelty, and lyrical references to heroes Sublime.
But when there’s aural pain, it doesn’t last long. The Acoustic Christmas is nothing if not an efficiently run affair, as artists perform and load-up simultaneously on a rotating stage, one cozily outfitted with pinwheels, fake snow and holiday nights. The effect is like watching a band perform in a life-size Christmas window at Macy’s.
The acts that held their own were the ones that focused on rock ’n’ roll durability rather than tenets of the alt-rock-era, be it grunge-lite earnestness (Switchfoot) or ironic detachment (Cake). Bad Religion, whose Greg Graffin was on loan from the evolutionary biology department at UCLA, has survived 31 years on punk rock directness, avoiding clichés by attacking social commentary with speed, authority and melodic harmonies.
Credit Bad Religion for dipping early into its most recent effort, “The Dissent of Man,” and if the mixture of heartache and war imagery in “Cyanide” doesn’t always gel, the brevity of the riffs and the newfound fondness for rootsy soloing make it forgivable. Likewise, local label Epitaph Records had another of its veteran warhorses on the bill in Social Distortion, whose set was less about punk continuity that reasserting dominance.
Although the band had never stopped performing, a lack of new material had turned timeless tales of hard livin’ “Story of My Life” and “Ball & Chain” into near classic rock. But the sentiment is simple, the storytelling detailed and singer Mike Ness, performing in suspenders and work pants, never takes a live performance for granted. Though more from the upcoming album “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes” would have been nice, new cut “Still Alive” was like a trusty old hot rod roaring back to life.
The excessive rock of My Chemical Romance was the closest the evening got to anything approaching modern relevance, and the band today is a better facsimile of the Smashing Pumpkins than Billy Corgan’s latest incarnation of the Pumpkins. New tracks such as “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” and “Sing” were an old-fashioned celebration of arena bombast.
Falling somewhere between Broadway grandiosity and a Johnny Rotten snarl (see “Teenagers”), My Chemical Romance didn’t hide its go-big-or-bust ambitions. “Shut up and let me see your jazz hands,” Way demanded in “Na Na Na,” and one never really knew if Way was giving the audience an order or poking fun his band’s mixture of hair metal cheese, punky venom, “Glee”-worthy choruses and the occasional piano ballad about a terminal illness.
There was, however, no brevity in the headlining set by Corgan and his band comprising three little-knowns whom he insists upon branding the Smashing Pumpkins. Even a midset attempt at a joke, when Corgan introduced the crowd to a masked child he claimed was his son, fell awkwardly flat, with the boy sporting a Chicago Bulls mascot and declaring Corgan the “worst” father in the world.
Moving right along, Corgan brought out Australian pop sisters the Veronicas for a dash of nondescript backing harmonies and gave lifeless renditions of Pumpkins hits such as “Today” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”
As one of the ’90s’ most adventurous rock stars, Corgan has perhaps earned his right to be grandfathered in as headliner, and to be fair, he hasn’t lost his ambition. Newer track “Freak” eschews the instant accessibility of his Pumpkins work for an impressive mix of prog-rock detours and guitar atmospherics. Had this set been identified as a Corgan solo project in a smaller venue, it would likely find a more appreciative audience than the one that largely stayed seated during the Saturday night set.
Or perhaps just consider it KROQ’s way of reminding the crowd that reliving past glories and holding onto long-outdated traditions is sometimes little more than a spectacle of melancholy and infinite sadness.
- Todd Martens
Top photo: Ray Toro, guitarist for My Chemical Romance, performs during KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas. Credit: Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times.
Bottom photo: Mike Ness of Social Distortion at Almost Acoustic Christmas. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.