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Still Rockin’ in the Almost Free World 

Thursday, Jun 12 2003
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PEARL JAM at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, June 3

Kurt Cobain, martyr of the “everything sucks” era, famously carped in his diaries that he wished his band would be forever released from its association with Pearl Jam. Cobain, who privately chafed under the punk ethos he publicly championed, wouldn’t have to worry about that were he around today: Comparisons would be even more nonsensical now than they were then.

Pearl Jam has always been too expansive, both sonically and lyrically, to be stuck in punk prison. That’s been an asset. On the other hand, one of Pearl Jam’s liabilities has been its self-consciousness about the coolnoscenti who derided the band in its earlier days for not being punk enough. That self-consciousness (thanks, Kurt?) sometimes caused the band to deny its strengths — big songs for big spaces, be they an amphitheater or the hole in your soul — in order to curry favor with the dons and doyennes of the alt-music world. But even in the early to mid-’90s, when that shit almost had meaning, Pearl Jam was at its best when it was transcending trends, rather than copping to them for credibility’s sake, as they did in their occasional punk nods on Vs. and Vitalogy.

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Happily, Pearl Jam, no longer weighted with the hopes and expectations of a generation, does very little copping these days and a whole lot of good rocking. After a tortured, self-examining trip through the last half of the last decade — during which time it fought with everybody from MTV to Ticketmaster to Rolling Stone, and, especially, with itself — Pearl Jam seems relieved to have put down its dukes and found its way back to its promise as America’s best (and only?) rock & roll band. This, of course, is not news to Pearl Jam’s loyal but diminished fan base — the downloader/bootlegger geeks and sensitive jocks who stayed on the bus when the band didn’t keep releasing Ten or Vs.; the ones who stuck with Pearl Jam as it disappeared from radio, MTV and Billboard charts even as StaindPuddleCreed, using Ten as its playbook, got fat off the beerhounds’ appetites for pale imitation.

Pearl Jam’s ferocious energy and good heart were always admirable, not to mention Eddie Vedder’s ability to write smartly from a woman’s point of view, but as cathartic as they could be, one also had to wonder when they would write the truly great song or masterful album that would put them among the greats and not just the best-sellers. Then former Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons came onboard for the folksy, world-music-tinged No Code, and Pearl Jam started to find its groove, while the masses moved on to KornyBiscuit. That album and 1998’s Yield, with a handful of overlooked, understated songs like “MFC” or “In Hiding,” hinted at what the band could do with the right drummer. Matt Cameron, late of Soundgarden, took over for the ailing Irons in 2000, and the band settled down, opened up, and made its masterpiece, the critically un-acclaimed Binaural, a cohesive, melancholy collection of songcraft about growing older, drifting apart and dying. Of course, relative to its mega-platinum past, Binaural was a flop.

Even less appreciated has been its most recent release, Riot Act, a sure-footed rock album for adults who feel unsettled by the greed and decay of our current cowboy culture. Among its many gems is the wonderful “Love Boat Captain,” clearly the band’s ballsiest song, and possibly the year’s best pop/rock number. Tender, plaintive, romantic and rollicking, the song is bracing in its unabashed desire to let love rule. It’s also the type of song the earthy Vedder was born to sing. Not surprisingly, the song and the album are big in Europe, where homosexual panic isn’t the plague of politics and culture.

Like his idols Pete Townshend and Neil Young, Eddie Vedder has been a seeker looking for truth and deliverance in rock & roll. With the band’s downsized but still sizable following more and more taking on the devotional trappings of a congregation — following the band from show to show, logging the ever-changing set lists — Vedder can assume the role of the Good Reverend that has been played (and played out) by preachers like Bono and Springsteen. The band, for its part, is serving up a fiery, two-and-a-half-hour rock & roll revival tour.

Don’t worry about getting browbeaten. If Tuesday night’s show in Irvine is any indication, P.J.’s (named for Phil Jackson, Vedder teased the Lakers’ coach, who was on his feet and agape in the third row, as if he were seeing Jordan for the first time) method is more Socratic than dogmatic, content to let the music make the converts. Vedder stopped the two and a half hours’ worth of music infrequently, and then mostly to joke with the audience (“We feel like we’ve given birth to twins,” he said of the two-night stand, “and you looked like the ugly one, but you turned out all right”), or to make a gentle public-service announcement against FCC deregulation and for voting and “having kids.”

No, music is not a vengeful god, and the show’s vibe was one of tender mercy, even during the band’s more punishing numbers. The most poignant moment came when Jack Irons took over on drums for an extended version of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Seeing his health-plagued friend having such a good time, Vedder was taken with emotion (and also, perhaps, wine and cigarettes), and he started crying. His back was turned to the audience, so the tears weren’t for theater. Like everything Pearl Jam’s doing these days, it seems, they were for love.

If anything, Pearl Jam has evolved into a perfectly uncool, unabashed band, anti-punk while still maintaining punk’s drive and integrity. Moreover, Tuesday’s concert was an example of what happens when a band like Pearl Jam follows its bliss; a reminder of rock & roll’s still-vast potential to raise the passions — anger, sadness, joy, sex and, mostly, as is Vedder’s preoccupation these days, love. If Kurt Cobain were alive and in attendance, chances are he’d have been dancing.

FUNKSTÖRUNG, DERU at Fais Do-Do, June 6

The crackles, snaps and hisses you associate with laptop jocks Funkstörung were conspicuously absent in their first U.S. performance in four years. At Fais Do-Do, the Munich-based duo of Michael Fakesch and Chris De Luca worked the midpoint between cerebral and crunk, kicking bootylicious algorhythms that got folks twisting themselves into all kinds of unnatural positions. Helping set the tone was Los Angeles’ very own Deru, a former scratch DJ who ditched the Swiss-watch delicateness of his Pushing Air disc to deliver a straight hip-hop set.

Funkstörung’s nerdy precision has always been a paradox. Take any old loop and they’ll atomize it into staggeringly nuanced aural mist. “Glitch” may be the duo’s trademark, but that implies machines gone kaput, and Funkstörung’s silicon lace —— intricate as the facets of a snowflake —— are the result of serious gear pimping. With melodic loveliness wrapping itself around the slack flow of sampled MCs chopped, cropped and re-routed, tonight the mix got deep, especially during “Keep This in Mind,” where the pair simply couldn’t resist the visceral slab of broken-beat bliss.

Even close to 2 a.m., the crowd not only showed no signs of thinning, but the energy visibly jumped a notch when the pair rocked classics like Appetite for Disctruction’s “Sounds Like a Break Record,” its cartoony sproing! coming on like comfort food, and the now-immortalized chirp of Ike Yard on “NCR” and Speedy J’s bad-tripping “Something for Your Mind” (the last two from Vice Versa), which capped the set on a chilling note. No words or encores from the aloof pair, just two hours of digital deconstruction and, like a power surge, they were gone. (Andrew Lentz)

KOFFI OLOMIDÉ AND QUARTIER LATIN at the Hollywood Palladium, June 7

Koffi Olomidé dreams of becoming an international pop star, of winning over American ears and duetting with J. Lo, Whitney or Janet J. While he may sell out African stadiums and major Parisian concert halls, Hollywood will prove a tougher nut to crack. Playing to a healthy but undercapacity crowd at the Palladium, the Congolese heartthrob and his Quartier Latin group put on a classic Kinshasa-style revue, shifting between revved-up sebenes and slowed-down sentimental rumbas. Entertaining at times and overly repetitive at others, Koffi and company showed little to indicate his tcha tcho music has crossover mojo.

While overwrought keyboards, programming and talk-sung banter plague Koffi’s recent albums, his live act was a throwback to 1970s-era Congo/Zaire “new generation” bands like Zaiko Langa Langa. Propelling the groove were four guitars, equal parts chunk, twinkle and zoom, and the drums’ boom-badda-boom-badda-boom-bom-bom shuffle, with not a synth or sax in sight. The sextet of male singers flashed fun-loving dancehall moves, belted out full-throated choruses and took sweet tenor solo turns. Four lithe young “blondes” dispersed additional pheromones with their inimitable Congolese hip grind.

Always the fashion plate, Koffi came onstage just after midnight dressed simply in a see-through black-mesh body shirt, sparkle-adorned black slacks, French movie-star sunglasses and rakish-goofy bowler. The many-nicknamed baritone has opined that “women are God’s best work so far,” thus most of the French-sprinkled Lingala tunes dealt with what he described at one point as “love with a big L.” Koffi’s songwriting chops came through during those down-tempo moments when gorgeous harmony clusters and universal-soul melodies soared. But most dancing fans didn’t want to cozy up cheek to cheek, they preferred to shake major tailfeather all the way to the 2 a.m. curfew, more evidence that we live in beat-heavy times. (Tom Cheyney)

BUZZCOCKS at El Rey, June 6

No time for small talk as Buzzcocks barreled nonstop through more than 20 lovelorn tunes in an hour. Singer-guitarists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle must have had a Saul-type epiphany on the road to ruin a few years ago, because they whip through their sets now in an even more exhilarating Ramones blur. Twined openers “Boredom” and “Fast Cars” flickered with scratchy, faraway riffs that warned of approaching trains, then suddenly slammed into the crossing like tornadoes. After Diggle dedicated “Autonomy” to Joe Strummer, it was back to the montage of fiercely delivered, melodic classics —— “Oh Shit!,” “Harmony in My Head,” “Love You More,” “Noise Annoys,” “Breakdown” and an especially pulverizing, ballroom-tilting “Something’s Gone Wrong Again” —— any one or two of which would justify another punk band’s career. And that’s not counting the literal dozens of other equally wonderful songs, new and old, these should-be-smug-but-instead-seem-grateful bastards could’ve trotted out.

As if to make it clear that their revitalization isn’t concentrated merely on “Nostalgia” (which they didn’t play), the ’Cocks loaded the middle of the set with justifiably confident songs from their new self-titled CD. “This is the time for your wake-up call,” Diggle intoned as Shelley’s lovely skyscraper-climbing lead-guitar line culminated in a trademark police-siren squall. Shelley’s slightly Ray Davies–ish vocals pierced the I’m-sorry-card “Jerk” with typically winning yearning, and morphed hilariously bitchy on an old Howard Devoto collaboration, “Lester Sands” (“. . . is a stupid fucker/and Lester Sands will stay that way”). Buzzcocks encored raucously with “Why She’s a Girl From the Chain Store,” the insidiously plaintive “What Do I Get?,” and “Orgasm Addict,” which boiled up the pit like a shark feeding frenzy. “Ever Fallen in Love”‘s lyrics still packed a sucker punch, but an earlier dash through the epic “I Believe” was the true climax, with Diggle and Shelley throwing down their moaning guitars as Philip Barker furiously racked his kit and Tony Barber’s bass throbbed sullenly underneath. “There is no love in this world anymore!” the kids, young and old, chanted with pent-up “We’re not gonna take it” anger. Stand back. (Falling James)

ATP DOA

As you might’ve heard by now, the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival scheduled for June 20 through 22 at the Hollywood Palladium, the Palace and the Henry Fonda Theater has been postponed to September 26 through 28, due to “poor ticket sales,” as the official press release puts it. (The ATP-sponsored Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show slated for Wednesday, June 18, at the Palladium is still on, as are a number of other ATP events; check the Weekly Calendar section for details.) The June events, under the auspices of UCLA, were curated by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and represented a sterling sampling of progressive new music, including planned performances by Wire, Boredoms, Jah Wobble, Le Tigre, Patti Smith, and a rare reunion of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. The festival organizers hope to regroup with a “more attractive” lineup, which will most likely take place at the previously confirmed venues. Here’s a thought: Perhaps those poor tickets sales can be explained by the impossibility of presenting a “festival” that’s spread out over several locations around L.A., where music fans can choose to hear “listening music” bands such as ATP’s in smaller and/or more acoustically sympathetic venues rather than boomy barns such as the Palace or the Hollywood Palladium. Just a thought . . .

—John Payne

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