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Pop music review: Epicenter festival

September 26, 2010 |  5:48 pm

Right in the middle of Eminem’s first official West Coast performance since 2005, the rapper paused to ask: “Did you miss me?”

EPICENTER_PHOTOS_140 Eminem has a knack for tapping into the drama or comedy of a moment, and the huge cheers he got in response at the Epicenter festival in Fontana on Saturday were a measure of how uncharacteristically quiet he’s been during those years, until the release of 2009’s “Relapse” and this summer’s “Recovery.”

As he paced the stage in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, it was near the end of a blazing-hot day on the blacktop at Auto Club Speedway. He was sharing a diverse bill with the rock acts Kiss, Bush and Papa Roach and with fellow hip-hop artists Big Boi and House of Pain. (Day 2 of the fest Sunday was more focused on straight ahead punk-pop, headlined by Blink-182.)

With stacks of crushed cars as décor to evoke the wreckage of Detroit, Eminem crept across the stage during a chilling “3 a.m.,” as gore splashed on the big video screen behind him, followed by “Kill You,” another song of playful bloodshed. His new album is a step away from rhymes of violence and the more cartoonish side of his persona, but during Saturday’s set he toyed with the range of his multiple selves.

That energy contributed to a too-fast reading of “Stan” but otherwise fueled an excited examination of his first decade as an artist both daring and self-obsessed, as victim and avenger, superman and drug casualty. He was spooky and confident on “The Way I Am,” then dedicated the introspective “I Love the Way You Lie” to any women in the audience “if you’ve ever been in a dysfunctional relationship.”

There was real camaraderie with his friends in D12 as they performed “My Band,” and as Eminem began “No Love,” he chanted “Free Lil Wayne!” — his original collaborator on the song, now serving a year at Rikers Island on a weapons charge. And after a medley of rhymes from his first albums came an inspirational, confessional “Not Afraid” as Eminem rapped alone to a beat of renewed confidence and purpose.

Eminem fans left in droves after his 90-minute set was over, leaving a crowd half the size it had been an hour earlier, and just as headliner Kiss was about to hit the stage. Kiss can easily fill sports arenas on its own, and what exiting hip-hop fans missed was a uniquely flamboyant rock show of pure, intentional overkill.

It wasn’t the usual Kiss audience, with only a few fans in the band’s kabuki makeup. And opening the set with the new song “Modern Day Delilah” — rather than one of Kiss’ hits from the ’70s — might not have held the attention of the uninitiated, but there were enough explosions and fireballs to distract almost anyone.

Last year’s “Sonic Boom” was the band’s first new studio album in 11 years and is its most popular release in decades because it intentionally reignites Kiss’ ’70s sound. Still, the old hits remained the highlights at Epicenter. “Detroit Rock City” was loud, hook-filled excitement, while “Crazy Nights” delivered softer, melodic bubblegum rock.

During “Firehouse,” singer-bassist Gene Simmons brought out his flaming sword and spit fire before sending the blade into the stage. And singer-guitarist Paul Stanley soared above the crowd on a cable during “I Was Made for Loving You,” an impressive feat for anyone, especially a hard-rocker in platform heels pushing 60.

“The music you hear tonight is made by the four people up here,” Stanley declared. “There are no phony tapes…. This is rock ’n’ roll, and we’re a rock ’n’ roll band!”

Earlier on the big stage was Bush, like Eminem another platinum-selling act making a return to live performing after a period of inaction. The reunited quartet opened with “Machinehead,” one of the band’s most recognizable hits, stretching out the opening riff before singer Gavin Rossdale began the harried lyrics: “Breathe in, breathe out….”

In 2010, Bush’s big, crisp grunge riffs are an unexpected novelty, in contrast to the ’90s, when Bush was sometimes lambasted for aping the sounds of Nirvana and others of the era. The band was a dependable hit-maker for much of that decade and later this year will return with a new album, “Everything Always Now.”

With his hair pulled back into a Samaria bun and three strips of orange reflective tape on the wrist of his strumming arm, Rossdale was at times explosive and at times reserved, shouting, “There’s no sex in your violence” during “Everything Zen.”

“It’s difficult to not play the new songs,” Rossdale said during a set built mostly of the familiar. But just as the band was to begin the grinding melody of its new single, “Afterlife,” the singer left the stage to walk along the edge of the barricade, reaching out to fans to get up-close and reacquainted.

-- Steve Appleford

Photo: Gavin Rossdale of Bush goes into the crowd of fans at the Epicenter festival. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times