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No Ashes Left

Photo by Wild Don Lewis

DAVID BOWIE, THE POLYPHONIC SPREE
at the Greek Theater, April 22

The cultlike Texan troupe the Polyphonic Spree’s cascades of Beach Boys–vs.–Wicker Man rapture are well-suited to this balmy setting, and the two dozen robed ones gleefully gather converts tonight. It’ll take an inspired producer to capture P.S.’s spirit on disc, but live they’re a singular phenomenon whose borderline mass hysteria restores music’s therapeutic and communal essence.

The epitome of graceful aging, a blond, beaming David Bowie is casually in control, trim in black jeans and butler’s jacket against a marbled stage set and big screens. Bowie lends the stomping opener, “Rebel Rebel,” a clipped caress recalling Bryan Ferry, then leads his lean six-piece band through a carefully paced set of hits, oddities and dips into last year’s patchy Reality collection. Part of Bowie’s enduring allure is an aura at once ordinary-bloke and otherworldly, his self-deprecating spoken segues and distracted demeanor linking moments of gasp-inducing vocal prowess and menace-tinged melody. At his best — “Ashes to Ashes”’s desolate transmissions, “Quicksand”’s wistful wondering, “Under Pressure”’s pleading bridge and Morse-code bass line — Bowie levitates us to an elegant and dramatic plane distant from our everyday existence, while exploring the self-doubt and alienation that haunt our earthly passage.

MORRISSEY
at the Wiltern, April 23

Morrissey’s You Are the Quarry (the monster spawns in May) took up most of this second of five Wiltern nights. And though we would’ve gone vegetarian cold turkey for even one more Smiths tune, we’ve taken a quick liking to his latest record, especially the softly strummed, flute-adorned “I’m Not Sorry,” the new hooligan “First of the Gang To Die,” and the hook-laden encore, “Irish Blood, English Heart,” during which the traditional tossing of the Morrissey shirt took place. (But oh to have caught the strategically placed flower that grew from his crotch.)

The whole band looked like a Dior Homme ad come to life. But the real fun of a Morrissey gig is the fashion frenzy in front of the stage. So props to that one rather angular, watch-where-you-point-that pompadour blocking many a short girl’s view. The obligatory set-list gripe: Why did our night have to be denied “The Headmaster Ritual”? We were ready to do the “military two-step,” man, but you didn’t lead the troops. We’ll always stretch out and wait for “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” There’s nothing like a pair of extended hands in front of a back-combed head of pomade beckoning Armageddon. (Siran Babayan)

SYSTEM OF A DOWN
at the Greek Theater, April 24

Here are the true sons and heirs of L.A. rock, and the -ians/yans ending their surnames have nothing to do with it. Tonight, however, System of a Down reminded us of why and how they got to that Greek stage — on the backs of ancestors who died and suffered during the Armenian Genocide. This benefit show raised nearly $100,000 for various human-rights organizations including the Armenian National Committee of America, as well as awareness about the slaughter of 1.5 million people by the Turkish government that’s gone unacknowledged for nearly 90 years. Sermonizing, though, was forgone for the sake of playing what seemed like System’s entire discography, from “P.L.U.C.K.” (off their eponymous debut) to “Chic ’n’ Stu” (off 2002’s Steal This Album!).

Guitarist Daron Malakian dug a mighty hole through “Soil,” easily his best work from that first album, and when singer Serj Tankian asked, “Don’t you/Realize/That evil/Lives in the motherfuckin’ skin?,” so did we. Shoot, the whole House of Pies down the hill must’ve heard the chorus of “I-E-A-I-A-I-O,” which, for three minutes, made the night sound like a 6,000-strong powpow. It all culminated in Malakian’s take on “Sardarabad,” a sort of unofficial Armenian national anthem — one of those hand-over-heart moments we hope becomes a tradition every time, everywhere. (Siran Babayan)

GOV’T MULE
at the Wilshire Theater, April 17

When Warren Haynes, playing with the Allman Brothers Band in 1996, flashed that he outsang Gregg Allman, outguitared Richard Betts and outwrote both, it was natural that he would take bassist Allen Woody along and saddle up his own Gov’t Mule. The big bellower still plows some rows with the Allmans, but those who thirst for fresh blues rock that’s heavier than Heidegger and harder than a president’s head have crowned the Mule beast of choice since 1997.

Though Gov’t Mule is incapable of sub-excellence, a number of factors rendered this sold-out event less than ideal. One: It was the band’s 1,001st show, the 1,000th having been a marathon blowout in Frisco the previous eve, so weariness was a consideration. Two: The Mule can drag when their special guests don’t cut the jam, tonight’s examples being simplistic, amorphous hauls with Ben Harper (lap steel), Hook Herrera (harmonica) and former Black Crowe Marc Ford (guitar). Three: Lanky Andy Hess (another ex-Crowe), tabbed as the permanent replacement for the late Woody, is a solid boomer but not a muleskinner.

Still, greatness triumphed. Haynes’ voice poured out the sufferin’ soul on “Banks of the Deep End” — a crowd-stroking marriage of “Ohio” and “Hotel California” — and milked a miraculous range of tonal shadings from his Gibson palette, with the Firebird an especially unearthly howlmaker. Drummer Matt Abts flogged the butt of the beat with clean, deep power. And Danny Louis’ densely distilled keyboards really spiked the punch. By the time they slammed into the chopped-chicken riff and speedball jam of “Mule,” their hair was on fire, there was wiggling in the aisles, and the bars were drunk dry. (Greg Burk)


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