Live in LA

Photos by Don Lewis

TSAR at Spaceland, July 8

No power ballads! We like that. Instead, a lotta very, very tuff yet heart-tugging true-rock glitter & grime, showing no mercy and steeding swift like the clock does tick. Tsar — Great Rock Hopes five years ago/lost their major-label deal/didn’t puss out/etc. — are now pumped ’n’ primed to be the Genuine Rock Stars they were born to be. Witness this Comeback Special, where they came on All Young Dudes/Banana Splits/sassy funny fun rock smack in the middle of saggy Silver Lake, a Tsar of wild, wild youth and unchained melody. Fun, yet Tsar have a lot at stake — you can hear it in the dark depth of their tunes and the wry passion of their performance.

So, runny mascara, big puffy lips, hands on hips, billowing fog and a Kiss-my-cheese flashing logo: Tsar mainman Jeff Whalen enters the stage draped in American flag like a cape, nice snotty bit of symbolism for this, yes, great rock unit brimming with actual triffic melodic (no BS) songs and a mind-blowing technical facility (tight!) for bringing the real goods back for a generation in true need, like a rocket fulla glammy-punky Captain Americas high on pop clichés and smart enough to have alchemized the juice.

Daniel, my brother, you area stoic lead-guitar buddy.

As Whalen puffs his cigs and twitches and roars and preens and cajoles and tears his hair and rips his lungs & heart out, and his comparatively stoic lead-guitar buddy Daniel Kern applies the sonic sizzle (along with the warhorse-not-drayhorse new rhythm section of Chuck Byler, drums, and Derrick Forget, bass & vocals & pouts), the band just plain blows through a nonstop, hi-hi-NRG set of things mostly taken from the ace new Band–Girls–Money, and it’s — okay, it’s like the Archies meet the Ramones, or ELO humping BTO, and a grand finale of Buzzcocks briefing BOC. Whalen’s songcraft is such seriously persuasive stuff, each song’s an overture ensconcing every classic pop-punk experience you ever had, and fooling you into figuring you never heard it before.

They think ambitious, yet they aren’t pretench-ish. Watching them smoke these tunes onstage was exhilarating, inspiring and, most important, very, very funny.

—John Payne

ESTHERO at the Avalon, July 9 Half the battle is walking into a joint like you own it. “I’m the baddest bitch to ever hit this town!” Esthero yowled along with the Cotton Club tom-toms of “Wikked Lil’ Grrrls,” the title bump from her long-delayed second album (follow-up to 1998’s fresh-sounding debut, Breath From Another). Even if she can’t claim to own our environs, Esthero certainly earned the right to drop by anytime.

Considering all Wikked’s genres, producers, studio flourishes and guest stars (including André 3000, Sean Lennon and Cee-Lo), the question was whether she’d hold the line live. Yes, ma’am. With nine instrumentalists and two backup singers arrayed behind her — each one a mofo and all swinging together — hell, she could’ve stayed home. But then we would have missed that rip-tearing voice, which somehow both supercharged and massaged every syllable. She was an eyeful, too, a bony little redhead skanking wild and shimmying so adroitly that she was able to yank her black bustier back up to decency level and make it look like a dance move.

The crowd, divided between fanatics and the curious, would’ve signed the deed over to Esthero after the big riddims, salsa breakdown and sweet-hot flute solo of “O.G. Bitch”; the power-packed R&B sluttery of “If tha Mood” had them ready to lick her toes. But her eclecticism does have its perils, and anyone unwilling to experience “Bad Boy Clyde” (Rickie Lee Jones meets Laura Nyro) and “Gone” (Brazilian soul balladry) as jazz might have wondered where the hooks went. Esthero launched her encore with an acoustic “We R in Need of a Musical Revolution,” reaping enthusiastic agreement — though no second encore, so she never tapped some of her most lip-smackin’ stuff. Anyway, an hour and a half slipped by like a dream.

—Greg Burk

BUILT TO SPILL, Sick Bees at the House of Blues, July 8

Raise your hand if you’ve been wondering what Built To Spill have been up to for the past four years. The nerdy kid in the back: I’m looking at you. Besides a folky/bluesy solo album from front man Doug Martsch in 2002 and the occasional tour, it’s hard to say. Word is they’re working on a new album. But judging from this appearance, one thing they’ve definitely been doing is honing their live show to a knife-edge. (Side note: Why do BTS seem to play HoB every time they come to L.A. these days? Twenty bucks for parking is almost enough to keep you home.)

The band that might be the indie-rock Crazy Horse put on a mighty guitar-fest for an adoring crowd. After an impressive opening set from Up Records residents Sick Bees, a two-person band full of dissonant pop wisdom and snot-punk attitude, Built To Spill calmly took the stage. They look more like a bunch of soccer dads than post-slacker indie kings, but Martsch’s chops will drop more jaws than your favorite tight-pants ’80s-throwback band. While their sound is rooted in classic rock, healthy doses of punk and K Records twee-pop delicately enhance their formula — a three-guitar approach based on lovingly crafted layers of feedback, delicate picking and power chords. The band dipped deep into their substantial catalog, even performing what Martsch introduced as their “theme song” (“Built To Spill,” duh) early on. The one new offering, “Going Against Your Mind,” was cause for moist lips, its almost dancy riff accented by pounding drums and screeching guitars. As the 90-minute set wore down to its last guitar solo, the future seemed bright for whatever their next release might be. The nerdy kid and I will be waiting.

—Jonah Flicker


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