As a child born and bred in the San Fernando Valley, my youthful radio diet consisted almost entirely of KROQ, the Los Angeles radio station for pure, unadulterated commercial rock and roll. My listenership began in the days of The Smashing Pumpkins and Bush, sprinkled with some Oasis for good measure. I’m sure there was a healthy indie rock scene going on in the mid 90s, but with the lack of the internet or my own automobile, I had few options aside from what was spoon fed to me – a grateful part of the masses. My idea of funky and “out there” was The Bloodhound Gang and a singular Bobby Darin song I pulled off of a movie soundtrack.
Every year for as far back as I can remember, KROQ has hosted their concert extravaganza, the Almost Acoustic Christmas. And every year I wanted to go, but for some reason I never did. That is, ironically, until last night – long after my love affair with the station had come to a snobby and high brow close back in 2003.
Yesterday’s lineup consisted of something old (311 and Slightly Stoopid), something borrowed (from the indie scene we have Metric and Cage the Elephant) and something new (Muse and The Bravery). All of this is certainly up for interpretation; I don’t necessarily think that Muse and The Bravery is technically “new” but for the purpose of this crowd, I suppose it is. Crammed in there as well was Vampire Weekend and Phoenix, whose position within this lineup was unclear to me if I had to gauge it by the crowd’s collective enthusiasm.
We arrive right before Phoenix launches into their most viable single right now, boosted largely in part by its egregious abuse in car commercials as of late. I am allowed four minutes of genuine enthusiasm before the circular stage rotates to reveal the next band, Slightly Stoopid, standing in black. In the efficient minute that the lights dim and then come back up again, the pot smokers have used this critical cover of darkness to inhale some illicit but widely available drugs. The lights come back up, revealing lazy plumes of potently cheap pot.
Before this moment, I have been largely sheltered from the musical stylings of Stoopid. Judging from their quasi-Rastafarian, unintelligible White-boy-does-Jamaican vibe, they were most popular during the pre-overdose days of Sublime. I am going to go out on a limb here and imagine that the now thoroughly enthusiastic crowd is grooving on a nostalgia trip right now, because there’s no way people actually produce music like this any more. The lead singer wears an XL football jersey of a team am I ignorant of. The other singer has what I think are tattoos crawling out from his shirt and attempting to get up to his baseball hat. I yawn for a moment and take the time to scan the crowd for my Cougar Conquest, a now high school student that will serve me well in ten years. This is remarkably hard to do as I have to imagine most of these complexions free of acne.
After I’ve finished comparing their passe music to the antiquated views of the Catholic church, I opt to just give in and sway my hips like an island girl. This type of “When in Rome” credo has the innate ability to make any situation vaguely palatable. I have to give the band credit where credit is due: their beach wave riffs make me want to spark up a doobie, sleep in a shack, and bang lifeguards compulsively. I notice that their drink of choice is Natural Ice, a beer (if you can call it that) that I have fond high school memories of – my friend Ben and I had found that the only way to get the stuff down was to take shots of it, chased with a grimace. Sipping the beverage like a fine wine was unimaginable; Natty Ice was notoriously undrinkable.
Slightly Stoopid goes out with a bang. During their last song, a tiny wee man clad in black jeans and a black denim vest takes the stage with vigorous aplomb. He screams things like “F*&k School!” and peppers that with the command “DRINK!” I watch him, debating if his partially bleached, Jew-fro, white trash mullet is real or not. When I think we’ve made eye contact, I avert my gaze so he doesn’t get the wrong idea. Although he would be an interesting date to any family Christmas party.
Soon enough, The Bravery came in, sweeping Stoopid away with a clockwise turn of the stage. They are infinitely more visually appealing, and most definitely today’s definition of a rock band. They are hip and dirty (although probably not actually dirty), with the exception of the guitarist who took the dapper high-road, dressed in a silver two piece suit. Given the general demise of the music video, I rarely watch footage of bands that I like. Thus, seeing them live in concert is always like a blind date. Taking a band in for the first time is a time-consuming and exciting affair, one that leaves me making comparisons like the following: the lead singer looks like what would happen if Rupert Everett and Ian Curtis had a baby who then danced like Scott Wyland. He is skinny and lumbering and towers over the stage. I have little to further to say about their set because I was too busy dancing and pumping my fists in the air – evidence of a show well-played.
In the strangest progression of any lineup I have ever witnessed, 311 comes on next. Earlier in the evening I had mocked their seemingly dated presence on the bill, much to the betrayal of my 17-year old self. Back then I would have liked nothing more than Nick Hexum to stare at me with those piercing blue eyes. Sigh. As a self-professed music snob, however, I am not allowed to admit any fondness for 311 or pretty much any band I liked ten years ago, including Third Eye Blind. Double sigh.
Uncontrollably, all restraint flies out the window almost immediately and I find myself screaming every lyric to “Drug Store Cowgirl” and “All Mixed Up” while dancing like an idiot…just like the people I judged an hour ago toking and jiving to Slightly Stoopid. These are humbling moments, ones when you realize you’re no better than the rest of humanity – everyone with their inexplicable attachments to the things we used to love, without reservation and without need for justification.
The band itself serves an almost time capsule function: the way Nick dances on one foot like he always has, the band’s collective wearing of baggy 90s jeans, the backup singer who bounds around on stage dancing like a chubby Dave Matthews robot. They certainly aren’t cool by today’s standards, but a band is really only a moment in time, defined by a persona and a sound and a look that is for whatever reason, whatever stroke of luck, deemed worthy enough for mass popularity. The music scene shifts and evolves, but the bands are left the same; left in the dust of a medium that is inherently transient.
It must be strange to be a band forced to exist in a world where you are doomed to forever relive your youth – singing songs you wrote when you were new and twenty into perpetuity, lest you fall willingly into irrelevance. All bands have to do it. Elton John, The Rolling Stones. No one is above their responsibility as the bastion of memories for strangers. Entertainers have an obligation to their fans, and as they age, that obligation almost supersedes the band’s own desire to move on, at least on a commercial level. I would imagine that trap to be exhausting.
Muse comes on, obviously the headliner as they singlehandedly manage to revive a tepid Los Angeles crowd. They are loud and grinding. Their music has always struck me as Radiohead for strippers, ones who enjoy a good domestic violence dispute. The singer wears pink slacks and a shoulder padded jacket. His voice alternates from Thom Yorke to Freddy Mercury. The baseline provided by the drums pulses with fatalistic urgency. Songs to Armageddon to…
The band is solid and good and sounds precisely like the album. I am not disappointed. But then again, they’re no 311.