By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Ryan Murphy
BEASTIE BOYS at the Universal Amphitheater, September 13
“I went to school with your uncle? That hurts!” groans diminutive Beastie Adrock, bending to catch comments from the front rows. But, yes, it’s been 23 years, over which Beastie Boys have morphed from the most flippant of hip-hop jinglers (once attributing their entire creative output to “smoking pot and playing video games”) to outspoken champions of worthy, worldly causes.
Mix Master Mike whips up the crowd with a display of turntable histrionics that stands as the most flamboyant performance of the night, then the three Beasties jog on in matching, straight-outta-Wal-Mart B.B. sweatshirts and jeans. Their swelling social conscience proves no burden to Adrock and Mike D’s nasal chatter and MCA’s increasingly husky ciphers — smart-ass witty yet rarely revolutionary, resorting to a handful of trademark tricks (a favorite: one B.B. takes a line, and all three unison its final word).
Though the recent To the 5 Boroughs is a largely pedestrian affair, its best material can stand next to the staples in quality if not in audience recognition. “An Open Letter to NYC” is lyrical cheese saved by rhythmic meat, and the Beasties bravely close their set with “Ch-Check It Out,” another newie. But the tone-destroyed, mechanically psychedelic “So Wat’cha Want?,” the rarely performed (and supremely annoying) “Brass Monkey” and the encore signature sample of “Intergalactic” are what animate the faithful. A midset interlude featuring the Boys in tuxes, as three-fifths of a live band, appears as much a “look, we can play actual instruments” reminder as an artistic statement.
Beastie Boys’ show is thick with humor and keg-party appeal, yet despite gaudy big-screen imagery and much to-and-fro prancing, they rarely overwhelm the senses. Perhaps that’s the point of their stripped-down approach: Essentially this is still three friends in their bedroom with a boombox — just louder.
ARETHA FRANKLIN at the Greek Theater, September 18
Aretha Franklin returned to L.A. after 21 years determined to do it all, and naturally she did. Everybody was up and shaking for “Respect,” “Think” and “Freeway of Love” — it could not have been otherwise. The real meat for meditation, though, came from witnessing this woman’s range. Tonight, Franklin claimed title to universality and timelessness; for every artist who lives long enough, that’s the grail.
Always queen of the slow burners, Franklin reached back 30-plus years for “Sweet Bitter Love” and “Ain’t No Way,” squeezing the blood out of our hearts and stretching the latter’s structure until the flow of pleading honesty was almost entirely improvised. She connected that link to the jazz tradition more explicitly with a swooping flight through “Cherokee,” launch pad of choice for saxists from Lester Young and Don Byas onward. And a pair of suggestive duets with the Temptations’ Ali Woodson —
“Hey, I’m over here,” Franklin teased — smoked with the flavor of a 1945 saxophone battle, two masters challenging, intertwining and all-out entertaining. With auxiliary strings and horns, a hard-grooving core band, red-draped backup singers, and a wiggling and flipping crew of hip-hop dancers to spell her when she needed to catch her breath, she threw a spectacle that was pure Vegas (her next tour stop) in scope, while somehow sidestepping the neon cheese. Good trick.
Franklin may have raised the heavens for Jesus on a gospel praise-up augmented by 40 white-robed singers, but we really saw God when she went to the opera, spieling out Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” with all the gravity and soul expression you’d expect. Her pitch-perfect voice was more transparent than in her youth, and she’s added onto the low end what time has subtracted from the upper. “If you don’t hear the high note,” she advised, introducing the song, “imagine it.” When she got to that pinnacle in the melody, she just shut her mouth and pointed to the sky. And we heard it.
DRAG at the Derby, September 16
The correlation between ability and accolades in rock & roll is hazy, and in the musician magnet that is L.A., many wonder bands glisten beneath recognition’s radar. Hence we find the effortlessly gifted Drag performing their serrated, aching Pixies pop to a couple dozen people (albeit at a last-minute show) on a Thursday night.
Three-piece groups can be sonically and vocally two-dimensional, but Drag, who boast both iconic ex-Delphines bassist Dominique Davalos’ fallen-angel inflections and guitarist Kevin Darish’s falsetto-crowned, finely textured timbre (not to mention the spooning cadence of their harmonies), cover great swaths of emotional territory despite the limited crew. While Drag are a convincing visual presence, Darish’s late-night Los Feliz suave and Davalos’ post-make-over riot-grrl allure are but window dressing for their mega-mart of tunes and taste, interpolating turn-of-the-’90s post-punk influences with sufficient melodic adventure and songwriting identity to escape strict retro shackles. The undulating throb of “Poison” offsets a Davalos vocal that flirts with hysteria and hints at the menace laid bare by the stalker-journal lyrics and siren guitars of “Me.” On “Both Ways,” a bouncing Bauhaus bass line floats a sarcastic Siouxsie Sioux verse vocal before being unexpectedly de-gothed by a Q&A chorus of Cheap Trick sensibilities. Throughout, Darish’s guitar is in true conversation with the melodies, both as support and foil, and when he takes the spotlight to sing the delicately obsessive, heavenly-harmonied “Dear,” Drag’s twin stars are blinding. As in all great pop bands, Drag’s spine is economical yet impassioned drumming, Kevin Caetans coming on like a cowboy Clem Burke.