at Cal State Long Beach, July 11

A worthwhile experiment would be to blindfold an attendee of the ’03 Vans Warped Tour and walk the test subject from stage to stage during performances: He or she might well think it was the same band playing. Whether you’re talking M.E.S.T. or the Unseen, Slick Shoes or Matchbox Romance, Simple Plan or Never Heard of It, too many of these pop-punkers were formulaic to the point of being interchangeable.

That’s not to say the trek down south didn’t pay off. Long Island’s Glassjaw were as explosive as ever. Elder statesmen Pennywise gave 110 percent, especially on “Fuck Authority”: “Let’s see those middle fingers up in the air,” screamed singer Jim Lindberg. In the past, Warped has made token stabs at hip-hop, but it went all out this year, netting Talib Kweli. Nostalgic for the old country? Even though Dropkick Murphys made the usual show of Celtic pride, the a cappella free verse of Authority Zero singer Jason DeVore spawned a ceilidh dance that made Dropkick look like wannabe Fenians. No surprise, Rancid was still the main event in terms of sweaty bodies per square foot, especially on hits like “Ruby Soho,” regardless of third-wave ska’s quaintness. Without a doubt, the heaviest, most technically accomplished, ass-kickingly pleasantest surprise was Avenged Sevenfold — could it be that imposing singer M. Shadows thought this was Ozzfest?

You’d think CSLB’s spacious campus would have been a pastoral idyll compared to the urban isolation of USC, the host of last year’s festival. Dream on. The athletic field was as sardine-packed as a high school hallway after the bell rings, and what with the Brian and Teal stages a mere 20 yards apart, facing the same direction, bands’ performances at times bled into each other despite efforts to stagger them. Still, many of the day’s gems could be found underneath the tiny tents on the fringes, like France’s Munshy. Their funk-metal may have been dated, but the ensuing pit was très énergique.

at the Knitting Factory, July 7

“High anxiety, it’s —in’ up my days,” runs the self-censoring refrain of one of the Eternals’ new songs; indie-rock audiences are doing the same for MC/keyboardist Damon Locks’ nights. The sparse Sunday-evening crowd could have been at a chess match, despite the below-the-neck potential of the trio’s dub (and even dancehall) rhythms. A few numbers employed programmed backing, but the deepest grooves were the sparsest, with bassist Wayne Montana and Tortoise drummer John “Machine” Herndon laying down a muscular, inescapable “one.” Locks’ own couplet-heavy rhyming style is dated, by current rap standards; even so, he shouldn’t have been the only one dancing.

Originally a solo-guitar outlet for Doug McCombs (also of Tortoise), Brokeback has grown into something more orchestrated and ambitious, though still focused on the leader’s heavily tremeloed guitar. His present band’s musicianship is flawless, and a rearrangement of “The Wilson Avenue Bridge at the Chicago River, 1953” was mesmerizing, with McCombs draping his Morricone-isms over percussive keyboards, splash cymbal and Noel Kuppersmith’s bowed double bass. But other performances flaunted their avant credentials too eagerly; drummer Tim Mulvenna often seemed less concerned with serving the music than with proving he could “do” both John Convertino and Han Bennink.

Closing out this Thrill Jockey road show, Califone’s double-length set was like the Tennessee Valley before and after FDR — first rural, then electrified. The common elements: Tim Rutili’s bluesy slur (often lost in the mix) and the two-drummer back-line of Joe Adamik and Ben Massarella. Extending even quieter songs from Quicksand/Cradlesnakes into percussive workouts, the band allowed more grit into their gears than most of their Chicago brethren. Still, the warm response accorded their art-damaged rewrites of Southern field hollers made one wonder why the same 40 people had seemed bamboozled by the presence of an actual African-American (Locks) on the same stage two hours earlier. (Franklin Bruno)

at the Wiltern, July 10

“When I came to Los Angeles about four or five years ago, no one knew me or my music,” Colombian rockero Juanes reminisced one hour into his set at the Wiltern. There was no need to finish the thought. Proof of his triumph over obscurity swooned before him this muggy evening — a sold-out throng that had also filled every aisle the previous two nights to ensure Juanes didn’t feel lonely during his three-day residency in the city.

The adoration seemed to have corrupted Juanes’ handsome head by tour’s end, however, as he spent most of tonight’s concert feigning the antics of arena-rock gods. He’d skip across the stage to scrape off jagged notes from his Colombian-flag-colored guitar for whichever section of the crowd cheered loudest. After that lost its novelty, Juanes would then join in circle-jerk solos with two other axmen, their faces portraits in masturbatory excess. On the cheesily pulsing “Es por Ti,” Juanes crouched to let supple ladies caress his holy thighs as he crooned about how femininity was the pacemaker supporting his fluttering heart. He even did a scissors-kick hop complete with power chord!


But Juanes is a humble deity, and he thanked his adherents profusely after every song via Colombian slang to the delight of the majority-Colombian crowd. And he’s talented, too — shining through the overwhelming light show better suited to Journey circa 1979 was Latin alternative’s messianic hope to convert heathen americanos to the rock en español dogma. Juanes’ ratcheting rock licks led his band’s restless percussioning and airy synthesizer smiles through radio-friendly but furious hits; best were the cynical cumbia “Mala Gente,” a seething “La Historia de Juan” and the concluding multiplatinum pop prayer, “A Diós le Pido.” (Gustavo Arellano)

at the Troubadour, July 10

Riverside’s Alien Ant Farm are in a precarious position that perhaps personifies the music industry’s current malady: Though their 2001 major-label debut, ANThology, was a platinum seller, this offers few future guarantees in a business plagued by ADD. Also, ANThology was propelled by AAF’s endearing treatment of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” which inadvertently overshadowed their own nimble prog-pop compositions.

Still, tonight there’s a palpable sense of appreciation from the band (who survived a nasty tour-bus wreck last year) and a hearty hug from a heaving Troubadour. On the kickoff “1000 Days” from new album truANT, bottom-heavy acoustics immediately take their toll, bass pulses detonating like concussion devices. Dryden Mitchell’s voice is a surprise: In woolly hat and tinted shades, he emits a beguiling, vibrato-striped croon from a curious hunch, his timbre more fruity and emotive than the band’s recordings allow. “1000 Days” encapsulates AAF’s bipolar signature of churning, distorted riffage framing a yearning melody and bounce-along chorus.

Alien Ant Farm wisely concentrate on cuts from the charmingly versatile ANThology: the choppy opening of “Movies” sprouting arms aloft, “Attitude” revisiting intricately sculpted, head-in-hands regrets. Yet even in moments of lilting, harmony-stroked grace, the band retain a comic veneer, with ludicrously talented bassist Tye Zamora tirelessly gurning through his undulating lines. Cover tunes are a malleable joy to AAF, and the expansive syllables of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” allow Mitchell to roll out still more vocal colors, before “Smooth Criminal”’s taut, nervous grooves satiate the cynical.

At once humble and triumphant, Alien Ant Farm are a contemporary oddity: a band that favor musicality over lifestyle, expression over genre. Yet, in an industry that struggles to market anything more complex than musical cartoons, they’ll probably get little thanks for it. AAF fall somewhere between Ozzfest and the Warped Tour, which, commercially, is an uncomfortable place to be. (Paul Rogers)

at the Ibiza Theater, July 6

Any festival where you can quaff, leak and lounge is a good festival; any festival where you can’t must surely blow, regardless of who’s on the damn boards. Thanks to a great venue (an old-time Whittier ballroom complex), this was a good festival, even if the sounds encouraged more malt than mosh. But then, there were about 20 bands, and I only saw 12.

The Bay Area’s Death Machine had both the best music and the worst look; seal your peepers and you could absorb the syncopated blast driven by a truly wizardly drummer, instead of cringe at the bass wimp’s nonfunny devil-in-knickers regalia. They also had an unlistenable/unwatchable yellman, but 66.6 percent of the marquee could say the same. Colporter’s bassist-singer at least was a fetching blond, though a dump truck of reverb couldn’t make her spooky ’stead of squeaky, their dirges lacked rot, and she was way too nice for metal. Epicedium’s bushy-maned singer-guitarist: charismatic; their thrash: monochromatic.

A wide selection of metals was on tap. Three Sixes did that bounce & groove thing real well, though the genre is currently post-novel and pre-classic. When we scoped keyboards and six-string bass we divined that prog-metal lurked on the horizon, and Prymary fulfilled our prognostications with manly yet sexless wails and complicated structures featuring the sacred harmonic intervals of progressive music. (They said they’d be opening for Fates Warning, yup.) Krome also strove mightily in the Unintentional Cover Band competition (subcategory Alice in Chains). And hard-rock die-hards Wood were the clear winners in Bad-Ass Attitude and Visual Presentation (sword mike stand, smoking elf head) but, despite their piratical garb, fell short in the Hook division (sorry, Captain).

A half-hour drum check signaled the coming of Cage. These San Diegans have been around for a million years; deglammed these days, they delivered an excellent set of dynamic, finely crafted melody metal and strode offstage into the stench-hole of Tecate flatulence, victorious. (Greg Burk)


at the Key Club, July 12

There’s no disputing the premise of the zine Puppet Terror, the brainchild of Shawna Kenney and Weekly contributor Pleasant Gehman. Anthropomorphic toys — puppets, dummies, dolls — are fascinating, disturbing things, whether lying there lifelessly or, as in imaginative fiction from Yiddish golem tales to William Goldman’s Magic, animated without willed assistance. The zine itself is a witty mess of clip art, abuse-survivor-style testimonials, and personal ads from the likes of Lady Elaine and Mr. Moose.

But this launch party/variety show was overlong, ill-paced and less often creepy than merely sleazy, closer in ambiance to Jumbo’s Clown Room than Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater. It all began cleverly enough, with a videotaped message from “Osama Bin Wooden,” vowing on “Kukla, Fran and Allah” to sever his ties from human masters, and a klezmerized cover of “Master of Puppets” from flesh-and-blood house band the Mortimer Snerd Experience. Unfortunately, they were joined by two unchoreographed strip-club rejects in clown makeup, setting the boringly “transgressive” tone for the next three hours. The nadir: an interview with Lambchop, re-conceived as an oversexed talk-show has-been à la Shelley Winters, complaining about Howdy Doody’s penis size. (One hopes Shari Lewis’ estate lawyers weren’t around.)

The best acts combined vivid satire with puppetry’s inherent, inhuman grace. Duncan Trussel’s Li’l Hobo played on evil-dummy clichés with existential worries (“Do I have a soul?”) and wicked anti-Semitism (“If I say ‘Heil Hitler,’ you’ll get in trouble!”), while Los Niños displayed real marionette-handling chops via a sickeningly cute My Twinn doll. The most unclassifiable entry came from Reverend Jim Hill and Puppet2Puppet Productions. In the troupe’s 9/11-themed playlet Heaven Needs Firemen, a Bible-toting mom explains to the kids that their fireman daddy’s not coming home because Jesus needs him to put out the flames at the edge of heaven. Jaw-droppingly offensive parody or sincere Christian ideology? Hill’s mild, Ned Flanders–ish demeanor offered no clues. (Franklin Bruno)

Benny Carter, 1907–2003

Looking at a list of Benny Carter’s accomplishments could scare you — the exact opposite of what happened when you heard his jazz, which always seemed like the most comfortable, natural thing in the world. His tone on alto sax was clean yet warm; his improvisations painted vivid vignettes with simple elegance. Carter was a genius, but not the tortured or showy kind. He’d blow sax for a while, then you’d notice he had picked up the trumpet and was playing it just as beautifully. Oh, you’d think, the tunes are mostly his, too. And he arranged for many big bands including Fletcher Henderson’s and Duke Ellington’s, and for singers from Billie Holiday to Ray Charles, since . . . when? The ’20s? Musicians from swing to bop and beyond, knowing how much they’d learn, wore out their knees praying to be in his ensembles, and the prayers of talents such as Sid Catlett, Miles Davis and Max Roach were answered. He worked extensively in film. Worked in television early, when everyone else in the game was white. Taught. A UCLA tribute was planned for August 24 to celebrate his 96th birthday; it will now be a memorial. Born in New York, Benny Carter lived in Los Angeles.

—Greg Burk

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