Conventional wisdom says that when the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade comes to an end, the vast majority of the American public is stuffed with yams and leaking meat sweat, and Santa shows his jolly face at the tail end, the Christmas season has well and truly begun. From now (and not before) is it appropriate to listen to Christmas music, watch Christmas movies, bust out the tree and battery-operated snowman, and wear those ugly sweaters that seem to be the thing nowadays.
That said, there’s something about KROQ’s annual Almost Acoustic Christmas shows at the start of December that truly ring in the season to be merry. For most, it’s the first Christmas party of the year. The first time we see grown adults dressed in Santa/elf/etc.-themed clothes in public. All of that fun stuff. Yep, when two handfuls of alternative bands say it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas.
This year, as ever, the highlights were plentiful. Tim Armstrong of Rancid getting up onstage for a rowdy run through “Time Bomb” with L.A. ska-punks The Interrupters was the first on Saturday night, and the entire AFI set was the next. Davey Havok’s dark punks put out EP The Missing Man this month, preceded by the “Get Dark” single, and the band aired new tunes alongside crowd faves from their breakthrough Sing the Sorrow album.
Earlier in the week, Havok admitted to us that he feels envious when Almost Acoustic Christmas is taking place and he isn’t involved, saying, “I don’t know how many we’ve played but we’re honored to be welcomed into the KROQ family over and over again since our first shows with them around the time of the release of the big Sing the Sorrow record. To be honest, when we’re off-cycle and it’s happening without us, there’s a bit of pining in me.”
Bad Religion were simply superb. The local band that helped usher in a new wave of punk in the ’90s are untouchable when on this sort of form, and songs like “21st Century Digital Boy” and “Sorrow” are as relevant today as the day they were recorded. America needs Bad Religion.
Greta Van Fleet weren’t quite able to generate the same feverish crowd reaction as they did at Coachella earlier in the year, but it was still enthusiastic. And it’s impressive that a band of young musicians playing ’70s (yes, Zeppelin-ish) rock are able to capture the imagination of the youth in any way, shape or form. Don’t be fooled by the detractors — GVF fans are not, for the most part, classic rock–loving geezers desperate for something familiar in the face of a hip-hop–heavy musical climate. No, it's the kids that are making this happen. The hip, young, Coachella-attending kids. This Michigan band are learning their trade in public, and evolution will be essential. But for now, the fans will ensure that they stick around for the immediate future at least, and no scathing Pitchfork reviews can change that.
Third Eye Blind were unspectacular, although “Semi-Charmed Life” is always good for a sing-along. Meanwhile, the crowd seemed to love Jared Leto’s Thirty Seconds to Mars as the cape-adorned actor span around the stage, milking his moment. A couple of tunes, including the epic “The Kill,” are good fun but, for the most part, the material falls flat, at least to these ears. Not that Leto cares, and his fans certainly don’t.
Perhaps predictably, Smashing Pumpkins ruled Saturday. The reformed band (minus the much-missed D’arcy Wretzky) seem to have benefited massively from their time apart. The chemistry between Billy Corgan and James Iha in particular is arguably healthier than ever, and all of that was reflected in a crowd-pleasing set that included “Today,” “Zero,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and a cover of The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” (Iha taking the vocals).
The most poignant moment came when Corgan brought out Bowie keysman Mike Garson, who recently lost his home in the fires, for a gorgeous take on “Disarm.” It was a flawless set from a band that seems to have found itself again.
“You see a lot of younger fans being really attracted to alternative rock again, because the vapid promise of pop ultimately runs out,” Corgan recently told us. “And they start looking for, ‘Hey, how come I’m way more attracted to The Ramones than this pop person who I realize doesn’t really care about me and is more interested in selling perfume?’ That’s always the promise of alternative music. You’re looking at people who are more real, playing more real music.”
That was certainly true at the Forum this weekend.
Besides the headliner, the highlight of Sunday came in the form of Scottish synth-pop troupe Chvrches. We learned that vocalist Lauren Mayberry didn't have as much time to do laundry earlier in the day as she had thought, so she was onstage in soaking wet clothes. Still, that didn’t hamper the performance, which was brimming with atmospheric beats, catchy tunes and tons of ’tude. Fantastic.
Irvine alt-rockers Young the Giant had enough indie anthems to keep the crowd happy, as did Death Cab for Cutie later on. It’s still hard to believe that local pop singer-songwriter Billie Eilish is only 16, so mature and knowing are her lyrics. Watching this artist mature and develop her craft will be a treat, considering the fact that she’s this good now.
“I think it's interesting because it's a whole different audience, so it's just different in general,” she said of Almost Acoustic Christmas the previous week. “It's cool to mix shit up. I'm definitely going to try to make the crowd go crazy. I don't know what the hell to expect from this type of crowd.”
She didn’t have to worry — the crowd loved her. They really loved Brit band Bastille, who closed with a solid “Pompeii.” Some tears were shed during Mike Shinoda’s set, the former Linkin Park man clearly moved throughout. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel the emotion in the room when Shinoda played LP’s “In the End,” and the crowd sang Chester Bennington’s parts. A truly special moment.
Again, though, the best was saved for last. Florence + the Machine's Florence Welch danced around the Forum stage in a white slip and ballet slippers, with childlike enthusiasm. That’s the wonderful thing about Welch — she performs at arenas as if she’s in her bedroom, which leads to the feeling that we’re watching something genuinely honest and personal. Maybe that’s why she encourages everyone to put their phones away at one point. Welch feels a real connection with her audience, and she wants us to feel it, too. Most people complied.
New songs from the High as Hope album, such as “Patricia” (for Patti Smith), sound great alongside those beloved gems from Lungs. But still, it’s hard to top the majestic “Dog Days Are Over.”
And with that, much like those dog days, it was all over for another year. Watching Santa hanging out in the downstairs Forum Club, though, reminds us that the main man will be working hard for the next few weeks. He’ll be doing it with the voices of Florence Welch and Billy Corgan ringing in his ears.