For one of the last hurrahs of the summer, the Hollywood Bowl presented a mini-festival of nervy rock from a pastiche of traditionalists, visionaries and, most successfully, those acts that combine both impulses.
With five bands on the bill Sunday, Bowlchella was a night designed for those who’d rather brave a hipster occupation of Highland Avenue, marching with their canteens of Trader Joe’s Merlot, than a drunken army of them loose in the desert where a secret economy based on traded American Spirit cigarettes and after-party details thrives.
Once a crowd of fedora-wearing women and slinky men in black jeans were in place, the two first acts were dispensed with, offering no sentimental lingering. Chicago’s glam revivalists Smith Westerns played for 20 minutes, and then the local quartet Warpaint took to the stage for only five minutes longer, looking like the long-lost sisters of Jane’s Addiction circa 1995.
Working their occult chemistry, the ladies treated the audience to swirls of darkly sweet guitar bolstered by Stella Mozgawa’s tribal drums hit with mallets. They played a fine, if unremarkable, version of “Undertow” and then bowed out on a rotating stage with lacy flourishes stitched on to the end of “Elephant.”
The intensity picked up with Panda Bear and his knob-pushing sideman Sonic Boom, from the defunct psychedelic outfit Spaceman 3. Known to his parents as Noah Lennox, Panda Bear takes harmonies and vocal lines out of the Beach Boys scrapbook but then envelops them in dense thatches of electronic soundscaping that oscillates from tense to lulling. Think Brian Wilson riding the sine waves.
Playing disembodied cuts from his latest album, “Tomboy,” Panda Bear is the lone woodsman, but instead of his gorgeous vocal calls coming from an isolated forest, it’s the cry from where two vectors meet at the end of a video-game grid, unmapped and unexplored. Technology is the new rugged terrain and Panda Bear is one of its most restless pioneers, pushing forward but always with one eye cast back.
Making an abrupt but enticing left turn, the Arctic Monkeys walked out to the strains of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing,” with little else but guitars and other instruments played by their forefathers in the British Invasion. Whereas Panda Bear and Sonic Boom blazed trails with some reverb gizmo dubbed the Ekdahl Moisturizer, the Arctic Monkeys wielded primitive tools but with timeless wit.
With the blue lights on his determined face, front-Monkey Alex Turner, in a pompadour fit for “West Side Story,” ticked through meters of insouciant lyrics that bounced off of the band’s pliant riffing. A history lesson of Western rock was touched upon; shadow licks from the Smiths, Metallica, the Pretenders and David Bowie were referenced and then broken down, smoothly recalibrated into something lively and unique to the band.
The contrast between Panda Bear and the Arctic Monkeys created an ideal vacuum for New York’s TV on the Radio to slip into. Once heralded as the progenitors of a new edgy future, the art-rockers have now stepped into a comfortable position as respected statesmen. The start of their set, dipping into older material, sounded a bit muddy and lax but once TVOTR dug into their latest album, “Nine Types of Light,” the energy and focus intensified.
TV’s music often carries an exciting tension between song momentum and experimental atmospherics, but in moments, that once-brooding undertow can seem predictable. One spirited stunt can help make it feel fresh again. Frontman Tunde Adebimpe asked the crowd, “Has anyone here ever felt overwhelmed by the darkness?” Then he paced the stage, demanding that the house lights fire up again and again, the drums thundering behind him. It’s easy to imagine TV on the Radio kicking through the darkness and finding the new light.
-- Margaret Wappler
Photo: Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys performing at England's V Music Festival in August, 2011. Credit: Joel Ryan / Associated Press