Concert Review: KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas

KROQ - Florence Welch - 2010
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
From hard rock vets to indie darlings, KROQ's all-star Christmas concert is schizophrenic in the best way.   

Florence and the Machine and Phoenix flutter, while My Chemical Romance and Bad Religion pounce ... just another day in KROQ's fragmented alt-rock psyche.

Los Angeles rock station KROQ has long suffered from somewhat of an identity crisis. On one hand, the end-of-the-dial staple appeals to a distinctly SoCal crowd, raised on a steady diet of Social Distortion and Bad Religion, both of whom appeared on the sludgier Night 1 of KROQ’s annual Almost Acoustic Christmas concert. On the other tethered ligament, you have the East Siders: budding (or veteran) indie rock fans looking for their fix of Florence and the Machine (pictured) or Phoenix, who headlined Night 2. More Rodney than Stryker, the second night’s lineup boasting the likes of Vampire Weekend and Black Keys looked more promising at a glance, and while both provided plenty of punch for listeners young and old, one didn’t meet expectations where the other exceeded. 

But let’s start with the fact that 2010 marked the 21st year for this all-star concert, which is a feat in and of itself. It’s not easy cramming 10 bands into six hours, even with a super-tight, non-negotiable time slot and a revolving stage to speed things along. Equally impressive? That Social D played the first-ever Acoustic Christmas, which happens to be very much electric, back in 1990. Then, they joined an equally schizophrenic bill with Dramarama, Chris Isaak and The Posies, but somehow sound just as relevant today. 

In a way, that’s the beauty of the KROQ programming brain: It hits all the key rock spots, providing a sense of nostalgia and a reason to jump out of your proverbial seat. Such was certainly the case on Night 1, when perennials The Smashing Pumpkins headlined, playing a slew of hits during their hour-plus-long set. Frontman Billy Corgan was very much in charge of what’s turned out to be a stellar backing band made even more complete with the addition of female bassist Nicole Fiorentino. The only feature that didn’t jibe with the arena-rock vibe? The stage décor, a low-rent collection of foamy snow, twinkling palm trees and a giant gold ribbon, which looked like it could have been bought at a local Michael’s Crafts store. 

With that in mind, it’s a good thing the show featured punk stalwarts like Bad Religion, who are all rock, no gimmicks, while the quirky Cake, newcomers Anberlin and the buzzing A Day to Remember, whose latest single "All I Want" just broke the Top 20 Modern Rock Tracks, proved to be fine warm-up acts. But it was the one-two punch of Jimmy Eat World followed by My Chemical Romance that turned out to be the highlight of the night. The former rolled out their biggest hits, including "The Middle," while leaving much of the pomp and circumstance to MCR, who launched into "Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)" with gusto. 

MCR frontman Gerard Way, who excels at playing the role of the reluctant rock star, had little trouble motivating the diverse crowd, even if he did chide 80% of the room for not actually buying their tickets. (It’s a barely kept secret that most of the attendees are friends and celebrities with close ties to the station -- spotted backstage: Jimmy Kimmel, Anna Paquin and Aaron Paul -- and while KROQ touts that the shows sold out in minutes, it’s believed that the tally accounts for only 3,000 seats per night). Then again, he was admittedly feeling sullen, telling the crowd, "I miss my wife," before launching into the band’s heartbreaker ballad "Cancer." "I want it to look like outer space," said Way while encouraging all the Angelenos in the house to reach for their beloved cell phones, then taking comfort in a swirl of synthetic light. That moment alone was worth the price of admission for Night 1. 

Traditionally, the second night of KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas has been a more-solidly mellow affair than the first, a collection of generally critically acclaimed bands that fall somewhere in the indie-rock sphere showcasing the songs that vaulted them into mainstream consciousness, without the aggression of many on the first. So it is said, so it shall be written: This year's Night 2 was a Coachella-ready orgy of quirk, from the all-as-one folksiness of openers Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes to the keyboard-laced sheen of headliners Phoenix.

But a lineup that seemed impenetrable on paper showed its actual weakness over the course of the night, as many of these artists proved that -- at least to an audience full of radio listeners -- the hits are what matter; none of the acts on the bill had a wide-enough breadth of music (or a long-enough career in the mainstream) to hold the audience's attention for more than a song or two.

Two disparate acts nearly disproved that notion: Australia's Temper Trap and New York's amazingly still-ascending Vampire Weekend, both through high-energy sets that proved their consistency as live acts, rather than one-hit wonders. Temper Trap's psychedelic-laced rock held the audience rapt, even though a pummeling, lengthy instrumental number; though the inescapable "Sweet Disposition" still closed out the set, they'd won over new fans well earlier. The preppy, peppy Vampire Weekend took the alternate route, opening with their current hit "Holiday" and then bouncing all over the stage though "Cousins" and "Giving Up the Gun," from this year's fantastic "Contra," dropping loosey-goosey leg twists while executing their songs with maximum tightness.

That's not to say the rest of the bill was unimpressive: Phoenix's victory-lap set was tastefully grandiose, as was Florence and the Machine's harp-laden largess. Neon Trees may suffer from bad haircuts, but "Animal" still set off the youngsters; The Black Keys had sound-problems though their opener, "Tighten Up," but redeemed themselves with grittiness and attitude; The Killers' Brandon Flowers conjured both Springsteen and Duran Duran, though he still managed to be somewhat boring, especially through a turgid revision of his main band's own "Mr. Brightside." And if at the end it wasn't as memorable a night as it looked on paper, that's to be expected: After all, every one of its highlights could be heard -- on KROQ and in heavy rotation -- on the drive home.