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Usually, a year-end radio station concert is only as good as that year’s playlists. Current-leaning stations want to highlight the latest and greatest, not necessarily last year’s or worse yet, the pervious decade’s stars for fearing of appearing dated.
This year, however, was different for longtime alternative rock station KROQ. For the second night of the 25th Annual Almost Acoustic Christmas, the station wisely mixed in some acts from the previous decades along with a crop of rising stars, so fans got Tears For Fears from the station’s “ROQ of the ’80s” heyday, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer from the ’90s and 2000s; Interpol and Modest Mouse from the 2000s, along with current acts Alt-J, Imagine Dragons and Vance Joy. Even Tears For Fears’ cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” and No Doubt’s take on Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life” paid unintentional tribute to other acts that have played into the station’s legacy.
Initially, KROQ scored a coup by landing U2 to headline the second date of this year’s fest, but that was derailed when singer Bono was seriously injured in late last month in a Central Park bike accident, leading some fans to return their tickets for a refund. Those fans made a mistake. Sure, there was no U2, but there were several bands delivering hit-filled sets, while a few others challenged the audience with new and interesting music that may have been unfamiliar, but stayed true to the station’s reputation of occasionally venturing out of the box to promote music on the cutting edge.
A rotating stage led to little downtime between acts and the short sets, running 25-minutes-to-to an hour, meant fans got to sample a lot of music in a night that ran just under six hours. A move to the larger, remodeled Forum after years at the now defunct Gibson Amphitheatre and a one-year stopover at the Shrine Auditorium, meant the show was slightly less intimate, but the bill was certainly arena-worthy. As for the bands, most seemed to enjoy playing for the crowd and giving back to the station that has supported them, but a few threw half-joking hints into their songs about compromising their artistic integrity. During their cover of “Creep,” Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal sang, “What the hell am I doing here at Acoustic Christmas? I don’t belong here,” while Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan sang “Can you fake it, for one more KROQ show?,” during “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”
The Smashing Pumpkins, Photo by: Chris Godley
While the “Almost Acoustic” title has sort of become a joke over the years, the tag did work for Australian newcomer Vance Joy, who opened the show backed by his three-piece band, playing acoustic guitar, but switched to ukulele for his current hit “Riptide.” Washington state indie-rock troop Modest Mouse began and ended the glorious “The World at Large” with an acoustic guitar, while No Doubt’s Tom Dumont pulled off brilliant flamenco-styled solo on an acoustic in the ballad “Don’t Speak,” but for the most part, the night was all electric and eclectic.
Following Joy was alt-J, a rising British quartet, who are covering some of the same ground Iceland’s Sigur Ros and Radiohead have explored, with a mix of guitar, bass snare-heavy drums and monster synthesizer riffs. Singer/guitarist Joe Newman’s vocals, which sometimes sound like an demonic version of Dave Matthews, aren’t for everyone, but on songs like “Fitzpleasure” the showed they’re definitely a band to watch.
New York’s Interpol proved it has weathered the departure of bassist Carlos Dengler and early comparisons to Joy Division to develop into an act that have potential to headline arenas on its own. With singer Paul Banks throaty vocals and matinee-idol good looks, as well as guitarist Daniel Kessler‘s flash moves, the band was particularly potent on “Evil,” with its throbbing bass lines. On “All the Rage Back Home” it worked up enough steam to sound like a jet liner taking off.
Modest Mouse’s ensemble, which at one point featured eight players — including two drummers, a fiddle and a trumpet — played its radio hits “Dashboard” and “Float On,” the latter powered with chicken-scratch funk guitar, but also offered some edgier material, including the new song “Shit in Your Cut,” highlighted by singer/guitarist Isaac Brock‘s angsty vocals, as well as its new single “Lampshades on Fire.”
Imagine Dragons, Photo by: Chris Godley
Las Vegas’ Imagine Dragons were the hottest band on the bill as far as current hits go and wasted no time getting to them, opening with their 2012 smash “It’s Time.” Singer Dan Reynolds also immediately began working the crowd. He was the first performer of the night to venture onto the L-shaped stage extension and soon thereafter ventured into the crowd, filling the role of the absent Bono. The band threw in some nice holiday themed touches, such as guitarist Wayne Sermon‘s “Greensleeves” riffing at the beginning of “Tiptoe” and a bit of “Jingle Bells” during “On Top of the World.” Yet its material sometimes seems overly familiar, with the aforementioned song sounding like a rewrite of “Under the Sea” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, “Demons” like a Coldplay hit, and its new single, “I Bet My Life,” like a car commercial (it’s currently heard in a Jeep ad). While the band’s now trademark of bashing various drums set up around the stage is a crowd-pleaser, it tries too hard to win your approval, like an acquaintance desperately trying to be your BFF after a few brief meetings.
Tears for Fears, on the other hand, were like the return of an old trusted friend. The station even had one-time KROQ on-air fixture Jed the Fish, who left the station in 2012 to resurface on public radio KCSN, on hand for the intro. At last year’s event, Curt Smith turned up as a surprise guest to perform “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” with Portugal. The Man. This year, he was officially on the bill with old mate Roland Orzabel under the Tears for Fears banner. Playing an eight-song set of hits such as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Mad World,” the duo backed by three instrumentalists and a female singer, were well received by a crowd, many of whom weren’t alive to experience the band during its heyday. Both Smith and Orzabel were strong in voice, backing each other, and taking turns singing lead, and put more of a guitar-oriented spin on old synth-pop favorites, such as “Shout.”
Weezer, Photo by: Chris Godley
Locals Weezer showed its mix of ’60s-influenced pop and ’70s arena rock has aged well, cranking out hits such as “Hash Pipe,” “Beverly Hills” and “Say It Ain’t So.” A guest shot by Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, who duetted with frontman Rivers Cuomo on “Go Away” from the band’s new album, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, added a welcome female presence to the mix.
The latest incarnation of Billy Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins came out with guitars blazing, but Corgan challenged the audience with two new tracks, “One and All (We Are)” and “Being Beige” for their new album, Monuments to an Elegy, before launching into the hit “Tonight, Tonight.” Another new track from the new album, “Drum + Fife,” which Corgan dedicated to returning servicemen, showed that his still has some interesting ideas and his passion exhibited during “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and the set-closing guitar workout “Silverf—k” proved that he hasn’t given up the fight to regain his ’90s rock glory.
Filling the headline spot for the absent U2, No Doubt delivered a typically solid set. Nearly 30 years into its career, the band has transcended early influences (and one-time KROQ artists) such as new wavers Missing Persons and second wave British ska acts the Specials and Madness to develop its own mix of reggae and funk-inspired dance tracks and haunting ballads.
Although these days she’s splitting her time between motherhood, serving as coach on The Voice and launching her third solo album, Gwen Stefani hasn’t lost a step. She also seemed to take particular pride in appearing again at the event, dedicating the ballad “Simple Kind of Life ” to her husband, Bush singer Gavin Rossdale, who she noted she met an Acoustic Christmas show years ago and now have three kids together.
No Doubt, Photo by: Chris Godley
Stefani also took note that she was the only female to front an act on the bill, which she noted with a sense of pride, but is something the station should seek to change with a whole slew of interesting female artists — ranging from Lana Del Rey, Banks, FKA Twigs and Jenny Lewis — worthy of their support.
During the set-closing “Spiderwebs,” Stefani led the audience in a chant of “get well Bono” to the ailing U2 frontman. While it would have certainly been a treat to see that band preview their spring tour Sunday night, truth be told, they were hardly missed.
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