Almost Acoustic Christmas is a gauge of rock's past, future
Jane's Addiction is a parody of itself, while Black Keys and Mumford & Sons wipe out pretenses; Florence + the Machine and Foster the People are embraced.
Guys with guitars roamed freely Sunday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre, where bands including Jane's Addiction, the Black Keys and Death Cab for Cutie took part in KROQ-FM's annual Almost Acoustic Christmas concert. But throughout this sold-out six-hour marathon — the second of two presented by the influential modern-rock station, after Saturday's bill with Blink-182, Social Distortion and others — those durable guitar heroes were shadowed by another musical figure. Witness the rise of the resourceful tech-head, hunched over a keyboard or sampler, tapping out newfangled sounds with near-scientific precision.
Some groups at the show had room for guitar wizards and computer geeks in their lineups; others staged a production around one or the other. Taken as a whole, though, Almost Acoustic Christmas felt like an investigation of where rock is today, what it's made of and what it should do.
One firm conclusion among the many more half-answers: Jane's Addiction has finally turned into the parody act it's been threatening to become for years. Headlining Sunday's show (albeit to a significantly thinned-out crowd), this on-again/off-again L.A. outfit interspersed hits from its original late-'80s incarnation with material from this fall's “The Great Escape Artist,” Jane's Addiction's first studio album since 2003. Yet it all sounded equally terrible, Perry Farrell's adenoidal vocals meandering aimlessly atop Dave Navarro's bludgeoning power chords. Worse still were Farrell's clownish between-song ramblings about Christmas in the era of Occupy Wall Street, which made the presumably unintentional argument that the once-ubiquitous character of the preening rock god has lost all but his comedic value.
You could see the result of that retrenchment in the Black Keys and Mumford & Sons, a pair of hugely popular roots-oriented bands with schlumpy Everydude types for frontmen. Each group uses its anti-image for its own purposes: The Black Keys want to shock you with the force of their garage-blues attack; Mumford & Sons want you to see yourself in their folk-inspired project. (When Marcus Mumford broke several guitar strings Sunday, he made a point of telling the audience.) Yet both bands succeeded Sunday in representing an old-fashioned tradition of music played by hand, and they did it without succumbing to the pedantry or the self-aggrandizement that often bogs down such an endeavor. They made history feel useful.
In contrast, the past seemed of little interest to Foster the People or the Naked and Famous, two young electro-rock outfits with sleek dance rhythms underpinning their grungy guitars. Playing the final scheduled gig of what singer Mark Foster called “one of the most fun years of [their] lives,” L.A.-based Foster the People received the night's warmest reception, and it capitalized on that goodwill by liberally tweaking the crafty arrangements from “Torches,” the band's surprise-hit debut. It boosted the funk in “Call It What You Want” and stretched “Pumped Up Kicks” into a squelchy indie-disco jam.
That hybridized approach reached its fullest potential with Florence Welch, the redheaded English woman at the helm of Florence + the Machine, which on Sunday numbered no fewer than nine musicians, including a harpist, a keyboardist and a pair of backup vocalists. As on the band's two albums — 2009's “Lungs” and the just-released “Ceremonials” — Welch was drawing unexpected lines between vintage American soul and futuristic British pop; “Dog Days Are Over,” her avant-gospel breakout single, sounded just as novel as it did when U.S. radio first made it a hit here last year.
But Welch's real talent is for performance: the way she uses her eyes to express ideas about faith; the effortlessness with which she twirls across the stage; the remarkable projection of her sharp, clear voice. At the Gibson she made those elements work together, summoning a star-centered spectacle that seemed out of step with — or maybe just out of reach of — the show's other acts.
-- Mikael Wood
Images: Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine and Mark Foster of Foster the People. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times