[photo by Marc Goldstein]
Making a classic SoCal newcomer mistake, I only gave myself 45 minutes to drive from Costa Mesa to Universal City's Gibson Amphitheatre, where influential public radio station KCRW was holding its sixth annual Sounds Eclectic concert; this year proceeds go to help convert its vast music library into digital form.
After a stressful 100 minutes in my car (last time I take Mapquest's estimates at face value), I dashed out of the monstrous parking garage and through the Universal City Walk tourist traps to Gibson, only to discover I'd missed Bitter:Sweet and Breakestra. I'm most bummed about not seeing the latter, who blew me away at least year's Bumbershoot fest in Seattle with their tight-as-hell resuscitations of vintage funk and soul.
I arrive in time to catch Cold War Kids doing a stormy, passionate blues-rock song with slashing, caustic guitars. The singer looks like a young Greg Dulli while the music evokes U2 crossed with Gang of Four. CWK invest this familiar-sounding steez with youthful vigor and swagger. Judging by the OC group's effortful performance during this and the half dozen tunes that ensue, they seem to be rising to the occasion, leaving the stage aslosh with their sweat.
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Acoustic-guitar-toting Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela (pictured above) shocked the hell out of me. I was expecting polite renditions of native folk songs perhaps interspersed with some well-known cover versions of Anglo-rock and pop chestnuts, para los gabachos. Instead, the seated couple astounded with their flamboyant picking and percussive techniques and ferocious speed and attack. "We play crazy music inspired by thrash metal," Gabriela explained at one point. Indeed. Tearing through a series of rousing yet refined folk-blues numbers and pell-mell rambles that consisted of countless ravishing flourishes, R stoked the full house into participatory clapping and stomping and multiple standing O's (more orgasm than ovation). They closed with a gorgeously oblique cover of "Stairway to Heaven." How do you say "phenomenal" in Spanish?
Pity whoever had to follow R&G. Turns out that task would be handled by tonight's "surprise guest." When Morning Becomes Eclectic host Nic Harcourt introduced Travis, you could feel a draft as half the audience went to relieve or nourish themselves. Having Travis as your SURPRISE GUEST!!! is like a restaurant offering a mayo on white Wonderbread sandwich as its special of the day. Travis' middlingly mediocre alt rock for stocky, short-haired dads and the vanilla women who love them possesses a feeble presence and sonic repertoire that are more suitable for a hinterlands pub than a spectacular venue like Gibson.
Giggly English songbird Lily Allen followed and lifted spirits during her brief, buoyant set. Opening with surefire crowd-pleaser "LDN," Allen sashayed in a short, flouncy magenta dress while her five-piece band (three horn player who always moved in synch, a badass bassist, and a synthesist/beat programmer) generated lilting pop reggae, bubbly dub funk, wistful ballads, and that irresistibly rollicking track that samples Professor Longhair's "Big Chief" ("Knock Em Out"). Allen's Plain Jane diva appeal is apparent, but it seems a lil' Lily goes a long way—ending with the ridiculously corny show tune "Alfie" rammed home this point.
Headliners the Shins started with "Sleeping Lessons," whose eerie, suspenseful intro accelerates dramatically, accruing artful coils of guitar feedback as it goes. It's the best song on their new album, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop), and an odd choice with which to begin a prestigious concert like this. Several more clever, literate songs follow, their Smithsy melodic contours (that neat "uplifting melancholy" trick) and boyish, earnest vocals unfailingly earning them adulation. The Portland band have become wildly popular, and I wonder why the Shins have rocketed to fame instead of dozens of other similar archetypal American indie-rock bands? Why these five average-looking white dudes of modest demeanor strumming familiar, jangly chords and using common vocal tics ("la la la," "oh way oh" etc.) with fey finesse? The Shins play quotidian, earthbound music that has zero sex appeal; in fact, it's downright eunuchy (forgive the clunky neologism). Could their massive popularity all be down to the infamous scene in Zach Braff's Garden State in which the Natalie Portman character says, "This [Shins] song will change your life"? Possibly. But to this observer, the Shins create perfectly adequate indie rock. Perfectly adequate, however, is the new awesome—especially if you consider Zach Braff to be an oracle. Here's another axiom regarding the Shins, from somebody with considerably less cultural clout than Zach Braff: Nothing surprising will ever happen during a Shins set. They will always be perfectly adequate.