Sunday, Dec. 15
Fourteen-year-olds crawled the floor of the Cow Palace like mylar-coated army ants -- shiny-faced insects parading uniforms of hair dye and navel rings, wide-legged pants and alien T-shirts. Yes, Live 105's overhyped Green X-mas Concert made this Alternative Nation cynic feel like a Calvinist preacher waiting to rattle off bombastic jeremiads at a Methodist revival. It's not so much that this year's crop of next year's has-beens lack ability or even talent; they're just boring. I often felt removed, though most of the time I felt nothing. In fact, I felt so out of touch from the constituency that I sought counsel from the demographic target itself.
Meet our guest critic, Travis, a 13-year-old from placid Mill Valley. A genuine baggy-jeans-wearing, alternative-music-loving teen-ager with a mouth full of shiny braces. Accompanied by his 36-year-old stepdad, R.J., Travis arrived 2 1/2 hours early, brimming with holiday cheer (he and R.J. wore Santa hats), and a thirst for "The Distance," Cake's big MTV hit. Travis' favorite band is Nine Inch Nails; the last CD he bought was Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire; and his all-time favorite concert was the Stone Temple Pilots in San Jose. Just for kicks, we'll let R.J. sit in on the proceedings. After all, he did buy Travis' ticket.
Travis didn't think much of Fiona Apple, an 18-year-old piano player hyped as a pop prodigy. She immediately sat at a grand and began banging out "Shadowboxer," a brooding torch song more KFOG than Live 105. A few months ago, Time made much ado of Apple's lyrics, saying they "have a sad, cloistered feeling to them." But Apple's second number, which she announced as "a song that I started to write when I was 15," sounded exactly like that. "I got my feet on the ground/ ... You got your head in the clouds," she sang. Deep. Apple gyrated her hips, flaunted her naked navel, and then thank god she was finished. Travis was with me on this one. "Not very exciting," he said. R.J., however, bit like a fish: "I enjoyed it, but I'm a sucker for those women with pianos." I say it was the hips.
Travis liked Failure, a brash quartet from L.A., because they were "fast." R.J. thought they were better than "a clone punk band." The input was extremely valuable, as I'd fallen asleep and missed all four songs.
The Lemonheads' set was so dry, so bereft of any spring or step, that it was difficult to remember what made them intriguing a few years ago. Not even "It's a Shame About Ray" could get heads bouncing. Travis' reaction was decidedly lukewarm.
Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval was the sexiest person onstage, but few could tell. "It was really dark, and I couldn't see what was going on," said Travis. Here's your answer, little buddy: nothing. Mazzy Star must have a rider in its contract that prevents more than one stage-light color from shining at any time. Throughout "Ride It On," Sandoval looked like that blue orb that hovers over witnesses on televised court proceedings. Through opera glasses, she was a clothed CK waif, swaddled in hip-hugging leather pants and graced with long, dark hair. Her looks wouldn't matter if she didn't have the voice to match: It wilts like a relationship with nothing left to salvage but sex. Still, she's a boring frontwoman. R.J. said he "wasn't thrilled with the performance." Who was?
Allen Ginsberg, a man who needs no introduction, needed an introduction. Travis, and by extension half of the audience, had never heard of the poet. And who better to educate them than Live 105's flaccid morning host, Alex Bennett? Greeted by boos, Bennett responded, "If you're going to throw anything, throw Vicodin." Ha! That crack led into a story about a "little book of poems," but before the jock could reach dramatic tension, the crowd erupted, chanting, "Ass-hole."
Ginsberg's first poem, "The Ballad of the Skeletons" -- a long, rambling piece that sets one public figure or group against their political or religious enemies in a point-counterpoint rhyme structure -- was accompanied by a loose jazz band (Ralph Carney on baritone sax) and received swimmingly. But the next two song-poems barely held water with the crowd. The lyric "Everybody's born a little homosexual" prompted boos from the back of the arena. I overheard one girl announce, "This is soooo wack," to her buddy. There's grist for 20 more years of corporate sensitivity training, though our trustworthy teen-crit Travis "thought he was funny."
I'm embarrassed to say that I'd never heard the two English brothers known as Orbital. It's my own loss. Like Travis said, "I liked them a lot because of their techno and the video and the lights." The second series of beats and loops ("song" or "composition"?) began with a voice booming over the PA, "Satan! Satan! Satan!" I watched Travis pump devil horns in the air. Swear.
Republica? I despised Jesus Jones the first time around. I'll bet R.J. did too. "Every once in a while Live 105 finds a band that they push the hell out of and I just don't get it," he said. But both R.J. and I missed something, and that's why we have Travis here, right? Travis liked Republica for the Live 105 hit "Ready to Go," but he couldn't articulate the allure. "I don't know what I like about it, I just like it when I hear it," he said.
Again R.J. and I were of one mind on the Eels. "They were cute, but I doubt I'll remember them after tonight," he said. The three Eels were the first to lay the gimmicks on thick, prancing onstage in nightshirts and pjs. The Eels' big spinner, "Novocaine for the Soul," was catchy as hell, but Travis said he didn't like it because he'd heard it too many times. I haven't, but I still agree. My prediction is that the quirk factor and the shallow lyrics will go the way of the bandmaster's former project, A Man Called E.
Cake have developed a white-boy funk and a pained sincerity that should make them the darlings of the hard-drinking Triangle crowd. They deserve respect for their temerity and their ability to move crowds (their sing-along worked better than Beck's), but it's not my bag. Travis' thirst was sated with "The Distance," a song that coaxes a metaphor about forlorn love out of a racetrack. But Travis didn't give a damn about device; he approved "because it's about race cars."
With the release of Odelay, headliner Beck's story has changed from high school dropout who created the biggest music buzz Los Angeles has seen in a decade to brilliant collage artist who developed great instincts from a weird family. Live, the new party line was evident. Backed by a four-piece band in white suits and yarmulkes, Beck successfully re-created much of what makes him great on record: densely produced clever songs layered with folk, funk, hip hop, and honky-tonk.
Beck, looking something like a Rubber Soul-era Beatle, performed cuts from Odelay ("Novacane," "The New Pollution," "Devil's Haircut," and "Where It's At") with the showmanship of James Brown and moves stolen in equal parts from the Jackson 5 and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. At one point during "Devil's Haircut," he actually took his guitar off, busted a few moves, and then strapped it back on for the next verse.
Beck's genius is that Travis loves "Loser," "Devil's Haircut," and "Where It's At"; meanwhile, too-cool college radio DJs, who usually eschew anything with a major-label imprint, will squeeze a cut from Odelay between Slint and the Mekons. By throwing all of his influences into a big kettle and dousing the whole with gasoline, Beck has successfully bridged underground and mainstream. Few thought that Beck could top Mellow Gold, and now Odelay's got a lot of us saying the same thing. But this time around, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I followed Travis and R.J. out the door after the first 10 minutes of the Chemical Brothers. The giant video screen, club lights, and banks of technology didn't seem much different from what Orbital had pulled off a few hours earlier. Besides, three-quarters of the audience had evaporated after Beck's set. Monday is a school day, after all.