SUNSET JUNCTION, AUGUST 24-25
Sunset Junction has morphed from a pokey arts-and-crafts fair to a major musical happening, this year booking A-listers from Sonic Youth to Mudhoney to DJ Colette and Chaka Khan. Throw in tasty, reasonably priced grub, kiddie rides and enough gewgaws to preoccupy the flea-market/antiquing set -- all for just six bucks -- and you've got a summer soiree nonpareil. Even if you didn't find something to like this weekend, rest assured no sleazy promoter got rich off the Junction.
In a strictly musical sense, Saturday was just eight-hour foreplay culminating in Sonic Youth. The vibe was silly, in a high-school-sophomore kinda way, moments before the NYC art-rockers hit the stage -- "Quit pushing," "Excuse you?," "Bro, you elbow me once more," like an urban version of My So-Called Life. Once the area reached overcapacity, a phalanx of LAPD strutted toward the stage to mad-dog the rowdier ones and generally look hard. But even the heavy police presence couldn't dim the band's saintly aura. Sonic Youth have been around since '79, and the fact that, in the early twilight of their career, they still command a rabid fan base in folks 15 to 50 is a testament to their importance -- even if they did play heavily from their latest release, Murray Street, a conservative retrenchment into the commercial salad days of their Goo/Dirty period. Like the Stones, they'll still be selling out shows 20 years from now.
If Saturday was hobbled with adolescent self-consciousness, then Sunday's cosmopolitan tolerance of the "other" was for adults only. You had buppies lip-synching to Chaka Khan; cholos rolling to the Sanborn Stage's breakbeats; Gold's Gym ho's showcasing their cut torsos; and the summer's definitive drag-queen/king contest, Ms. Sunset Junction (congrats, Leslie Carlos). The dizzying diversity was marked even within music genres, like the punk/alt-rock offerings on the Bates Stage. Take Pansy Division, for instance. These two-chord clowns wear their orientation on their sleeves, nay, reduce it to a cuddly über-homo shtick that serves as comic release for gays and is non-threatening to breeders. The tunes ranged from inspired gay-porn ditties ("He Whooped My Ass in Tennis, So I Fucked His Ass in Bed") to tongue-in-cheek ballads like "What's All This Talk About Love (Sex, Sex, Sex)?"
Then it got serious. Sleater-Kinney, once lazily lumped into the queercore thing, have long since transcended the identity ghetto. The Portland trio is, quite simply, one of the finest rock bands of the last half-decade. "Don't they have a bass player?" a newly minted fan blurted out. "They sound so big for just three people." Guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker conjure palpable synergy, their roles differentiated only in that Brownstein is more lead guitar/sometimes-vocals while Tucker six-strings and mostly sings. Her opera-caliber tremolo is unsurpassed in guitar-based pop, probably all pop -- you could almost see her uvula jiggling. "I live a block away and I could hear her from my porch," said the fan. The girls burned through choice tunes like "One Beat," the title track from their new release (they're still on Kill Rock Stars, God bless 'em) and riot-grrrl ditties as far back as '94's Call the Doctor (Chainsaw). An obnoxious Mohawked kid screamed, "Pussy lickers!" but, sadly, there was no pink mafia around to stomp him into the ground.
CHRIS ROBINSON at El Rey, August 19
"You can hoot and holler all ya want," said Chris Robinson to the overzealous fans who never stopped screaming for the former Black Crowes singer during his otherwise serene set at El Rey. Billed as "An Evening With Chris Robinson," the show was a mellow sit-down affair, with chairs placed throughout the floor and Robinson and collaborator Paul Stacey in their own seats onstage, playing only acoustic guitars.
Robinson's groupies may not have minded that he's cut off his sexy long locks and grown a full beard, but the new look showed the singer's shift away from rock-star pinup and growth toward a more serious, stripped-down performer. Belting out the material from his upcoming solo release, New Earth Mud (Redline), a collection of bluesy ballads and lazy psychedelic ditties, Robinson was most affecting when he pushed the range of his voice and embellished each verse with the kind of impassioned intonations that made Crowes tunes so soulful.
Unfortunately, not much of his new material allowed him to reach those kinds of heights. Exceptions included the funky "Safe in the Arms of Love" and the twangy "Untangle My Mind," which, like a lot of his new stuff, seemed to be inspired by his marriage to Kate Hudson and his tumultuous time in the Crowes (who are officially "on hiatus"). His inspired selection of covers, in fact, showed Robinson's vocal gifts best. Ranging from the uproarious (Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman") to the obvious (the Stones' "No Expectations") to the curious (the Carpenters' "Close to You"), Robinson made each song his own, and kept the set from feeling too coffeehouse folk-rock.