Words: Mike Pearl
Photos: Matt Fisher
Saturday was the big day at the Sunset Strip Music Festival, when that troublesome street closure would finally pay off for those of us in the mood for some rock. The auspicious name and location of the festival evoke visions of bedazzled, shirtless lead singers flinging blonde hair across the dingy stages of The Whiskey a Go Go and its ilk. To some degree glam rock lives on at the festival, but Saturday was less a celebration of the Strip’s rock legacy, as an opportunity for the a varied and eclectic L.A. music community to sweat together as we waited for, and reveled in, the work of a group of artists nearly everyone in attendance couldn’t help but agree on.
But headliners like Common, Slash and The Smashing Pumpkins would be a welcome close to a long day of musical discovery. “The 50+” bands advertised by the festival amounted to more like 60 by my count, thanks in large part to the get-the-hell-on-stage-okay-now-get-the-hell-off structure being practiced at the Cat and Key Clubs respectively. The Cat Club alone boasted a daunting 20-band lineup, featuring humbler, sometimes unsigned groups like The White Arrows (who also are featured in the latest episode of “Entourage.”)
Their sound and demeanor reminded me, more than anyone else of Hot Hot Heat, and they started their set of high-energy indie rock at the challenging hour of 2:40 p.m. when the actual heat outside was debilitating. After a somewhat confusing opening, with little indication that anyone other than the press (including the sound tech) was even paying attention, they powered through, stayed positive, and won over the rest of crowd halfway through their set, finishing on a high note, which is always the challenge at festivals.
To a large degree, the indoor clubs remained packed with customers all day, even as bands went in-and-out. Glossy, bottle-blonde women in stilettos, and their correspondingly glossy male counterparts, who were probably fixtures of the West Hollywood bar scene, stayed put seemingly all day, perhaps shielding themselves from weather that wouldn’t be kind to their makeup. And for all their fear of the sun they were rewarded generously with acts like The White Arrows, and at the Key Club, Vanaprasta.
Vanaprasta may look like they’re going to put you to sleep with a verbose, Fleet Foxes-inspired “Beard Rock” acoustic number, but their actual plan is to pair the sounds of (bear with me) Travis, and Kings of Leon and set them ablaze in an oddly electrifying, unexpectedly badass live spectacle.
But step outside, and you’re treated to a rare, traffic-less Sunset Strip, bursting with bigger acts like setting-appropriate Steel Panther, the novelty hair-metal band whose songs about boners and fat girls made me rock out, even while I cringed.
Another of my favorite outdoor discoveries was Neon Trees, a flamboyant, androgynous rock act that’s hard to pin down genre-wise (What genre was Head Automatica? What if I sprinkled in a little bit of The Killers?), but extremely entertaining to watch. Their lead singer had a lot to say about the rock and roll dream, and how he started his struggle in The Inland Empire (much like your humble narrator). I see a man who emerged a beautiful, mohawked, cross-dressing butterfly. The size of their crowd tells me they’re already more popular than my total ignorance of their music belies.
Slash took the stage early, and did all the posing and guitar wailing it took to give the audience more than their money’s worth. I’ll admit the hits from Slash’s oeuvre kept my attention, but Myles Kennedy, the singer of Slash’s current band didn’t strike the right tone for the occasion. “You like that shit, don’t you?” he asked the crowd. A fair question, which he followed with the remark, “It’s all about the rock and roll.” I disagreed, and promptly ventured to the opposite stage to watch Common perform.
Common’s performance faced serious adversity from the start, with some kind of technical problem requiring precious minutes of set time to solve. The crowd, however, managed to avoid ugliness and hostility, maybe thanks in part to the pretty orange light the setting sun behind us was starting to cast. When Common himself took the stage, after a warning that the quality of performance was being called into question by a lack of functioning monitors, he immediately got the place jumping. Looking casual and almost Gym-ready, but never lacking in class, he fought bad sound, and smiled all through a high-energy performance, stopping to pay homage to a Los Angeles resident, the late, great producer J-Dilla. Near the end of his set he slowed things down to let his keyboardist improvise an oddly Coldplay-centric piano medley, a choice that seemed to visibly disappoint the still-present members of Neon Trees most of all. The rest of the crowd seemed to groove on it.
After that it was night, and some who had been seeking refuge in the nightclubs, were free to come out of hiding without fear of melting. Those cramped bars were getting smelly anyway. When they stepped out, they mixed with some of my favorite festival denizens, like a man dressed like a post-apocalyptic Dog The Bounty Hunter, towing his wife who wore a Nazi SS helmet; the woman who wore a pumpkin-shaped halloween candy bucket on her head for reasons unknown (perhaps for the Smashing Pumpkins); the Japanese girl in the pink princess “cosplay” dress; and a man in his sixties who wielded a pair of drumsticks, and distributed blank, white t-shirts to members of the crowd for no discernible reason.
They were all out just in time for Kid Cudi, who attracted a gargantuan crowd to the smaller of the two outdoor stages, and they still had enough energy to turn pockets of the crowd into a dance floor. The Kid saw fit to grace us with a couple of new jams from his upcoming album both because A) he wanted to see our reaction, and B) “because fuck it.” The first new song, called “Ghost,” didn’t seem to resonate, and in fact seemed off key, and unpolished. Cudi followed it with a somewhat defensive speech about his integrity, but I, for one, had not questioned his integrity. I just wanted to hear his hits, and yearned for someone to shout out the hip hop version of the axiom “less talk more rock.”
The climax of the night was Billy Corgan starring in the latest manifestation of The Smashing Pumpkins. And while we were ordered to eat our vegetables in the form of some dreaded new songs, they played some of the familiar tunes that were so critical in my formative years. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” seemed rushed at first, and I worried that Corgan had tired of it, but he relished the audience’s familiarity, even stopping before a chorus to ask us if we thought we were “too cool to sing.” We certainly weren’t. He was enthusiastic in his praise of the event itself, and paused to thank a laundry list of Southern California bands that made him want to play music. Van Halen, The Doors, Ratt and Black Flag were all I managed to scribble down. The speech had the tone of the acceptance of a much deserved rock and roll lifetime achievement award.
Keeping his tribute alive, Corgan played with all the flourish of the glam and punk acts he mentioned in his list. He thrilled the audience, slinging his guitars this way and that, playing with his teeth, using a corner of the stage as a slide, and just generally showing that combination of skill and disregard for equipment that distinguishes a great, time-tested showman.
Thankfully, The Pumpkins wrapped up the set (and for most people, the festival) with “Zero,” one of the best songs of its era. At the iconic line “emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is godliness and god is empty just like you,” I watched a woman pass out cold from a hard day of rocking out. It was time to go home, and the mass exodus began with a cheerful “See ya!” from Corgan. But for the hardcore who stuck around, there was music to drink by right up until drinks could no longer be served.
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