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Knock 'Em Dead, Kid

Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

TOMMY LEE
at House of Blues, June 28

With his transformation from heavy metal hellion to rap-rockin' b-boy, his much-talked-about video (s)exploits and that just plain embarrassing episode of MTV Cribs ("Yo yo, check this out!"), Tommy Lee is an easy target. Losing his girl to Kid Rock sure doesn't help. But despite it all, the tattooed tomcat manages to maintain a childlike enthusiasm that makes you wanna root for him. At least that was the case at the second of two packed shows at House of Blues last week.

Brimming with a diametrically diverse blend of bleached Pamela wannabes and homely former heshers who've probably stuck by him since the Motley years, the crowd actually appeared to be digging what the former Crue drummer was dishing. Focusing on material from his new release, Never a Dull Moment, Lee took center stage, all casual in a Fuct logo T-shirt and jeans, strumming his guitar and attempting to croon tunes that recalled Everlast one minute and White Zombie the next. "We love you, Tommy!" screamed two wiggling, jiggling mall rats behind us, in between gyrating to every song, even the slow ones. Interestingly, there were quite a few more languid numbers, such as the weary "Hold Me Down" and the melancholy "Blue" ("About my dad, man"). But just when we thought T-Lee might be mellowing, he stormed out with a raucous rap from his former group Methods of Mayhem and an even older-school rawk attack on "Shout at the Devil."

On the record, Lee is helped out vocally for a couple of numbers (Incubus' Brandon Boyd and Deftones Chino Moreno each guest on a tune), but on this night, no such luck. Some of the songs have real hit potential -- catchy choruses, grungy riffs -- but there's one unfortunate, extremely obvious problem that everyone (including the fans and Tommy himself) seems to have overlooked: The dude can't sing. Of course, that never stopped Vince Neil.

GARY WILSON, RILO KILEY, THE MOVIES at the Knitting Factory, June 29

If elevator music could be punk, it might sound like Rilo Kiley, and that's no backhanded compliment. The Los Angeles band owned tonight's crowd with its spunky mix of guitar heroics, '60s horn bleats and twee keyboards topped off with winner's-circle bonhomie. Guitarist/co­front man Blake Sennett could have called everyone's mom a whore, and they still would've cheered him, while vocalist Jenny Lewis was having way too much fun for a professional. The plucky pixie balanced her bright-eyed 'n' bushy-tailed exuberance with acid parlor wit: "This next one is a cover . . . of a Depeche Mode song, just kidding. Actually, it's a Spin Doctors song . . . just kidding."

While the Movies didn't offer the same level of showmanship, their droney bass-driven bliss-out definitely got under people's skin. There was a palpable sense of something different on the horizon -- mid-'80s art-funk? pop-prog? So that's what they mean by "power trio."

A common misperception is that Gary Wilson is a music-industry victim. In truth, he willingly disappeared, J.D. Salinger­like, after bursting onto the scene in 1977 with a limited poor-quality vinyl pressing of You Think You Really Know Me, and its recent reissue has brought the idiosyncratic performer to answer the call of his clamoring cult fan base. "I cannot believe he is not the headliner," a disgusted college-radio program director sputtered. During his set, the crowd's expressions were a mixture of amusement and uncertainty as a stage extra periodically came out to dash Wilson with flour while the singer writhed on the floor, serenading a pair of mannequins. But Wilson's performance-art weirdness is in striking juxtaposition with the glammy riot of his retro-contempo sound, a seductive mélange of '70s bar-band rock and Roxy Music disco thump, courtesy of a slammin' bass/drums section and interweaving noodle-poodle from three keyboardists, one of whom resembled the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. Wilson oughtta get a lifetime-achievement award for his psychosexual head-fuck of a cabaret, but it was all a bit inpenetrable, and the 50-something enigma uttered not one word of acknowledgment to the audience. After an encore, one neophyte-convert fairly summed up the lingering vibe: "Spoo-keee." (Andrew Lentz)

THE RATTLESNAKES
at the Fold, June 27

These days, when someone tells you that a band is from "out of town," they may just mean Corona, as was the case with the Rattlesnakes' show at the Fold. The band even made do without a tour bus or roadies, amazing for such a long journey from their foreign Inland Empire terrain. They invaded the strange, exotic land of L.A., and kicked more than a little ass.  

The distortion was up and the sweat was flowing. Onstage, the Rattlesnakes seemed more genuinely charismatic and electrifying than most so-called rock & roll combos around. From their unison choral shouts and solid, grooving bass lines to singer Nathan's Tasmanian devil­like stage movements, the band was on fire. While it's certainly possible to say that the Rattlesnakes' music has hints of the solid '70s rock sound currently enjoying a revival, it'd be just as possible to reach further back and say that the honesty the Rattlesnakes bring to their music reminds one of the time when rock & roll was new, threatening and nearly illegal. In a time when many rock bands have dissected music into a cold science with the clear intent of striking it rich, the Rattlesnakes are shakin' the system, raising the volume, and sweating all over you in the process. (Tätiana Simonian)

ABANDONED POOLS
at the Roxy, June 28

Abandoned Pools -- the vehicle for former Eels bassist­turned­front man Tommy Walter -- are either a genius alloy of tasty contemporary influences or a thinly veiled '90s jukebox. When they blur the lines ("Monster," "Fluorescein"), bonding saturated guitars, lurking bass and nagging techno back-chatter beneath Walter's heroic melodic deluge, they offer a truly unique fix, and it's clear why industry types are soaking their panties over them. But when the mask slips, A.P. telegraph their templates: a recurrent so-hip-it's-getting-old Thom Yorke falsetto, Prince's anemic loops and nursery-rhyme refrains ("Ruin Your Life"), and constant borrowing from Billy Corgan's bag of tricks: "L.B.V.D."'s guitar/vocal call-and-response, the pleading whine of "Mercy Kiss" and "Seed"'s shuffling murmurings. Indeed, for much of the set Abandoned Pools resemble a less self-absorbed Smashing Pumpkins, right down to their D'Arcy-from-a-distance bassist.

Stylistic pilfering aside, Walter's an accomplished songsmith (a meaty cover of Björk's "Army of Me" seems almost superfluous), and onstage Abandoned Pools competently re-create his potentially challenging debut album, Humanistic. Walter has gone from being a sideman to hiring some of his own, yet A.P. are a comfortable and cohesive unit following their recent road trek with Garbage. Tonight's full house is half fans converted by the airplay for single "The Remedy" and half guest-list gannets, and, though the band is rapturously received between tunes, even the most chaotic musical moments are met with little more than Hollywood head-nodding.

Walter makes a convincing icon with his Evan Dando/Johnny Reznick demeanor, but might want to keep his mouth shut between songs -- his mumbled banter adds nothing and he crosses the line with a wince-inducing plug for the night's unlikely sponsor, urging us to "go buy stuff at Target" (yes, that Target). But when Walter is doing what he does best -- leading us through his lovingly landscaped sonic garden -- it's easy to suspend any disbelief and embrace an artist who deserves considerably more than his 15 minutes. (Paul Rogers)

RASPUTINA, GEORGE SARAH
at the Knitting Factory, June 29

Rasputina's Cabin Fever is a fraught record, living up to its name, unstable, suffering from seclusion and confinement -- but not confinement in a physical sense. Instead, the shackles the album's held in are the ones Melora Creager has willingly forged for it. Bound by its lack of ambition and its molded resemblance to Rasputina's previous work -- the production is different, more dissonant, more electronic -- this one merely changes the tint, not the shape itself. Worse, lyrical costumes no longer reveal much girl beneath the macabre and the droll. How We Quit the Forest ended with a girl abandoned, staring numbly at her television, saying, "I'm a lucky one/always having fun," and the very mundaneness of this makes it hurt; after the headboards and goblins inundating the record, any admission of normalcy is an admission of moving vulnerability. Cabin Fever, rising from the same gingerbread coffin, ends with suicide as a dare to take, moaning, "All goodness is gone/I've tried too long," but here the darkness is an admission of nothing but contrivance -- beneath the gothic mask not a girl, but the mask of one.

But this is why rock is still sacred, its capacity to be changed utterly live, to be the uncontrollable thing records only describe. From the first savage notes of "Trenchmouth" the pallid girls bending over their cellos aren't just a band, but a rock band, torturing sweetness and fury from every phrase, drums spiking each movement with spastic fury; their force exceeds their structure. Creager seems both confident and nervous and, as if answering some unheard disparagement, throws down both a shit-kicking Led Zeppelin cover and a taut version of Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." When she's done, the sense of bodies being pulled from the saloon floor is palpable -- something's been asked and something's been proved, and perhaps it's simply this: Despite all appearances, Rasputina is less under the thumb of onetime collaborator Marilyn Manson than the ghostly thumb of Kurt Cobain, the man Creager toured with a millennium ago . . . when I wasn't surprised by bands rocking out, because I expected them to.  

Openers George Sarah & String Section made me feel old. Specifically, too old to appreciate my son playing techno and my daughter practicing her violin, each room's noise bleeding into mine as simply that: noise. (Russel Swensen)

MY MORNING JACKET,
GUIDED BY VOICES
at House of Blues, June 19

It seems a bit early to be calling Guided by Voices leader Robert Pollard "Gramps," but given the fact that the 45-year-old one-man Ohioan Invasion sharpmoptop is much closer in age to The Who's Roger Daltrey (age 58) than he is to My Morning Jacket leader Jim James (age 24), and given tonight's show, maybe we should. And that would not be "Gramps" in an affectionate sense, but in a "you're too old to be driving" way.

Just over six years ago I was lucky enough to witness GbV at the Whisky: It was a show the band -- and half the audience -- refused to let finish. It was a show so legendary it was released on video, and Pollard's referred to it onstage at almost every GbV visit to L.A. since. It was scrappy, energetic and rockin', the sight and sound of guys who never thought they'd make it out of their garage improbably playing to the Sunset Strip after releasing half a dozen obscure-in-their-own-hometown albums. Tonight is nothing like that. These men in slimming black are essentially a thoroughly dependable and thoroughly boring GbV tribute band led, strangely enough, by the original singer. Pollard's plainly lost the plot and gained the plod; I stayed for 30 minutes. As the highlights during that period were Pollard's between-song commentary/exposition/comedy, and the lowlights his slavish kick-and-mic-twirl Daltrey imitation (amusing the first time you see it, pathetic from then on), Pollard might want to rethink the live concept, and perhaps segue into his (Spalding) Gray Period.

Especially if he's set on continuing to try and follow opening bands as good -- and as young -- as the brilliant, beautiful and utterly confident Kentucky five-piece My Morning Jacket. They opened their Neil Young­ meets­Allmans­in­space set behind curtains, with James' soaring vocals drenched in reverb, honey and lemon. They closed their set of tasteful, unsappy ballads, longhair soul-rock and roaring unison boogie with white lights stuttering and flickering, as if lightning had blasted through the House of Blues roof and struck the stage in sheets of heavenly acclamation.

Bob, please: You're too old to try and follow that. (Jay Babcock)

JOHN SURMAN
and JACK DeJOHNETTE
at the Conga Room, June 22

"Nice to see you people out," Jack DeJohnette said into the mic matter-of-factly, moments after the two jazz giants of decades' standing (American and Brit divisions) walked onto a stage decked out with his sprawling drum kit and Surman's table of saxophones and electronic keyboard gear. Surman had never played in L.A. before, and despite my having decided back in high school that Surman belonged to a group of half-adventurous, half-mainstream British jazzmen that populated the Ogun label in the '70s, I hadn't heard him in 20 years, and the stripped-down combination of Surman on saxophones with DeJohnette's explosive volatility on drums sounded tantalizing.

As it turned out, some prejudices were confirmed that night, while others promptly flew out the window. The duo's opener, "Mysterium" -- the title track from their new CD on ECM -- started out surprisingly free, with meandering improvised lines from Surman's bass clarinet and DeJohnette's slow cymbal splashing; then -- uh-oh -- came the familiar ECM touch of frosty-cold "beauty" when Surman rolled up the volume on a synth-generated symphonic chord. But DeJohnette -- the veteran of a life playing with everyone from Coltrane and Miles to Lester Bowie and David Murray -- kicked in with a leisurely but very swinging 4/4 that moved on to choppy variations, breaking up time with around-the-world tomtom rolls and explosions of splashing cymbals that drew the first of many whoops from the crowd, while Surman followed a few minutes of the melodious, tropical-island breezy stuff with intricate, echoplexed serpentine lines and squawks on soprano saxophone, endearingly hopping on the balls of his feet all the while. It was comfort music, start to finish. (Tony Mostrom)


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