The Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Foster the People at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Xmas: Concert Review

Chris Godley
Alt-rock lite is alive and well.

Here’s how you can tell you are at a radio show: The crowd only rises from their seats when the artist onstage plays a single. This is a surefire tactic, at least according to last evening’s second night of KROQ Almost Acoustic Xmas. Universal City’s Gibson Amphitheatre, packed up to the top of its balcony with radio listeners, became a boisterous setting for performances by eleven artists often featured on KROQ, the overtly drunken crowd surging with enthusiasm for bands like The Black Keys, Foster the People and Mumford & Sons. Certainly these were true music fans, but one question still lingers: Do music fans who find tunes on the radio ever make it past an artist’s single?

In many ways, the evening was presented in the radio aesthetic -- a shot-fire experience of as much music as possible with few lulls and brief interjections by the station’s DJs (including Dr. Drew). The stage revolved, flipping between each set to prevent any pauses in the musical experience -- a technique you may have seen before at the Hollywood Bowl. The artists’ sets were terse, expanding beyond 30 or 40 minutes only for two “headliners,” The Black Keys and Jane’s Addiction. The abbreviate sets meant one of two things for each artist—either they followed the prescripted (although we assume unofficial) radio show guidelines and bookend a few album cuts with singles or they eschew any sense of obligation to this format and just play.

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For the most part, the bands last night, a notably more nuanced collection of artists than Almost Acoustic Xmas’s first night (Blink-182, Chevelle, et al), stuck with the former tactic, although that doesn’t necessarily mean their sets weren’t as potent. The Naked and Famous, whose “Young Blood” is currently No. 1 on KROQ, appeared early in the evening, following a quick opening performance by Los Angeles’s own Grouplove. The Naked and Famous, who fall somewhere in between Blonde Redhead and MGMT, don’t seem like a group who might produce a No. 1 radio hit. And, although singles “Punching In a Dream” and “Girls Like You” joined “Young Blood” in the set list, it was the presence of “Frayed” (from last year’s debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You) that revealed the layered gradations in the band’s skillful psychedelic pop sound.

Other notable sets included Florence and the Machine, probably the most popular performance of the night, which married hits like “Dog Days Are Over” and new singles “Shake It Out” and “What the Water Gave Me” with cuts from new disc Ceremonials like “Never Let Me Go” and “No Light, No Light.” What did the crowd clamor out of their seats for? Hint: It wasn’t the achingly lovely rendition of “No Light, No Light.”

Same deal for Mumford & Sons, who performed several brand new tracks (to a subdued audience). “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man” drew the grandest responses (was this the first time anyone in the crowd had heard the latter without a radio edit?), but it was the haunting croon of new song, “Ghosts That We Knew,” that truly resonated as frontman Marcus Mumford howled, “I will hold on with all of my might/just promise me we’ll be alright.”

On the other end of the spectrum was Death Cab For Cutie, who treated this radio show like they would a headlining slot at The Greek. The foursome, led by a bearded and notably gaunt Ben Gibbard, leaned heavily on new disc Codes and Keys. But while single “You Are A Tourist” did appear (as did “Soul Meets Body”) the group used its 40 minutes are a rock-heavy jam session, giving expansive, urgent voice to tracks like “Doors Unlocked And Open.” This was, unfortunately, when most of the intoxicated crowd went to the bathroom.

What does it say about music fans when they dance wildly for “Tighten Up” but won’t budge for “Milk and Honey,” a brand new number from The Black Keys’ El Camino? What does it reveal about an artist when an audience shrieks at the opening chords of “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back In Anger” but sigh with apathy for Noel Gallagher’s current (and remarkably compelling) musical endeavor? Perhaps it means that the radio industry can still dictate musical taste. Maybe no one has the patience to sink deeply into an entire album, or maybe we assume the single is as good as an artist is going to get. Still, though, when tracks like “Young Blood” and “Shake It Out” can top the rock radio charts, hope remains.