Phoenix, Arcade Fire, Lorde Prove Alternative Is Alive and Well at KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas: Concert Review
(Sunday, Dec. 8)
Among the surprises on night two of the radio fest: an unexpected cover of Kanye West by Lorde and an appearance by Tears for Fears' Curt Smith.
If the first night of KROQ's 24th annual Almost Acoustic Christmas was centered on the guitar-driven rock that makes up the foundation of the channel's lineup, the second almost fully eschewed the genre's traditionalism. From Bastille's complete lack of guitars to Lorde's trip-hop beats to Capital Cities' buoyant dance party, the evening embraced the outliers of the alternative format, much in the same way program directors have done throughout this year.
Bastille, in particular, who followed an opening performance by Atlas Genius, create grandiose alternative songs that are performed -- and recorded -- sans guitar. The group played several such tracks off their recent debut, Bad Blood, including the title track, the evocatively pensive "Things We Lost in the Fire" and breakout single "Pompeii," which continues to rise on both the alternative and top 40 charts. In fact much of the second night's lineup reflected crossover potential -- it's hard to see Saturday night's MVPs Queens of the Stone working on another format, but the majority of Sunday's lineup can and has forayed into the pop world.
Both Capital Cities and Fitz & The Tantrums embraced throwback soul, the two sets almost halves of the same massive dance-funk party. From Capital Cities' boisterous songs like "Kangaroo Court," off this year's In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, to Fitz's "The Walker," the mood in the Shrine Auditorium was lively, even during times when the audience wasn't familiar with all the artists' songs. Capital Cities transformed their hit single "Safe and Sound" into a massive finale, dumping their instruments on the stage floor and dancing around wildly to a playing remix of the track. The band encouraged audience members to join in, asking everyone to remove one item of clothing and spin it around their head in celebration.
Portugal. The Man, one of the evening's highlights (as they generally are in a live setting), completely ignored the premise of a radio promo show, almost refusing to play anything that could be remotely construed as a single. Accompanied by a string section and horn players, the band used their 30-minute set to delve into a layered psychedelic jam, opening with the title track to their latest album, Evil Friends. For PTM, the single came at the end -- although it was not their single. The band brought out Tears for Fears singer Curt Smith for an impressively entertaining rendition of the group's timeless song "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."
The Neighbourhood's set, featuring hits "Sweater Weather" and "Afraid," was also solid, but for some, served essentially as a moody opener for the much-buzzed-about Lorde. The 17-year-old New Zealander, who is genuinely the strangest live performer perhaps ever, was clearly the most anticipated of all 18 artists to perform over the course of the weekend, and, in many ways, she delivered. Dressed in a long black dress and hidden somewhat by a mass of hair, Lorde looked like an extra from The Craft, her hands continuously twitching like claws as she sang. She entranced the crowd almost immediately, segueing from openers "Bravado" to "Tennis Court" and new single "Team." The highlight, strangely, was a cover of Kanye West's "Hold My Liquor," off Yeezus, which Lorde transformed into lilting ambience, effectively changing the significance of the song's frequent use of the word "bitch." Although Lorde performed "Royals," she refused to end the set with it as expected, instead leaving on the more introspective tone of "400 Lux."
The show closed with sets from Phoenix, Sunday night's MVP, and Arcade Fire, who was the only band in two nights to cause a delay in the rotating stage's continual delivery of music. The difference between the two artists was notable: Phoenix, unaccompanied by costumes or additional players, joyously breezed through their hits. Songs like "1901" and recent singles "Entertainment" and "Trying to Be Cool" felt exciting, unpretentious and effortless. Arcade Fire, still fresh off a year of promotional stunts for their new album Reflektor, needed the glitter, loudly patterned suits and pom-poms. Or, rather, they think they do.
The most disappointing moment of the entire weekend came when Arcade Fire paused their music and singer Win Butler strode to the front of the stage and began singing "My Body Is a Cage," arguably the band's best song. He sang two lines before the group rolled into new single "Afterlife." Why couldn't they play the entire song? The band didn't solely focus on Reflektor, either, offering up past hits like "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" and "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)." Arcade Fire's set was boisterous and fun, the product of 10 musicians bouncing around the stage practically in unison. Butler was especially jovial, telling the audience, "We come from a very cold place. I know you think this is cold but it's the warmest day in August." The singer later DJed the show's afterparty at Dirty Laundry in Hollywood, apt to keep the celebratory mood lingering.
If KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas, now in its 24th year, reflects the state of alternative radio then there has clearly been progress made. The bands on this year's bill are largely interesting acts, many innovative in their approach to playing music. When a guitar-less band like Bastille or a strange, twitching teenager like Lorde have hits on the radio, is certainly bodes well for the future of the alternative platform.