Though the 25th anniversary bill of KROQ’s Un-Acoustic Christmas show (seriously, they should change the name already) at the Forum this past weekend seemed extremely diverse when it was announced, the lineups fell into two very distinct camps: the vigorous, guitar-driven stomps of night one (Rise Against, Incubus, Linkin Park and System of a Down, to name a few) and the grand, pop-friendly romps of night two. Both nights featured just a couple of newbies alongside seasoned KROQ bands, but for our money, night two seemed a more digestible, less dated and altogether stronger bill, even without U2 headlining as originally scheduled.
Though KROQ was once an alternative radio innovator, breaking bands from the U.K. with funny haircuts and novel, synth-driven sonic sensibilities, these days they play a slightly more rockin' form of pop music, stuff that usually goes on to be heard on more mainstream stations like KIIS FM. (The funny haircuts are still a thing, though.)
No Doubt’s closing set punctuated this point. Not only were Gwen Stefani and the boys formidable replacements for U2 — as a local band who first got airplay on KROQ, in many ways they made more sense.
Dressed in bedazzled holiday garb and rocking a pink-dipped new wave 'do, Stefani commanded the stage like the pop diva she has become, plowing through the band’s catchiest hits (“Hella Good” “Sunday Morning,” “Spider Web,” “Underneath It All”) and inspiring sing-alongs of “Simple Kind of Life” (dedicated to hubby Gavin Rossdale, whom she met at a KROQ Xmas show) and the band’s breakthrough, “I’m Just a Girl.” She implored the gals — and strangely, the guys — in the crowd to sing along to the mega-hit in groups, after noting that she was the only female singer on the two-night bill.
We noticed the lack of female acts and frontwomen this year, too (which would've been even worse, if U2 hadn't canceled), and we were hoping Stefani would offer some inspirational words to would-be girl-rockers in the crowd, and issue a direct challenge to KROQ to do a better job of showcasing female artists. Instead, her statement came off as being about all about her and a little arrogant. It was The Voice judge’s only misstep.
There were some smaller estrogen-powered moments on stage Sunday, by the way. Following early evening openers Vance Joy, Alt-J and Interpol, Modest Mouse showcased a great female violinist — even if their set was, on the whole, uneven. As fans of their infectious “Float On,” we found the rest of their material less buoyant.
The big flashback band of the night, Tears For Fears, had a female backup singer who helped out on the choruses, though singers Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith didn’t really need any help; their vocals are as emotive as ever. They did exactly what a band from the '80s at big holiday show should do: played all the beloved old hits to pretty much near perfection, even adding an inspired cover, Radiohead’s “Creep.”
Weezer also delivered all the goods — a tight arsenal of hits, starting with the driving “Hashpipe” and “Pork and Beans,” closing with their older faves including “Undone – The Sweater Song” and “Buddy Holly.” They also played a new one from their latest album called “Go Away,” a duet that had Rivers Cuomo bring out the only other fronting female of the eve, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. As usual for a Weezer show, “W” hand-signs filled the air and a giddy energy took hold, filling the entirety of the huge, high-teched-out new Forum.
Smashing Pumpkins followed, and though they’ve played their share of huge stadiums, they didn’t engage in nearly the same way. Billy Corgan may have been the deepest, most prolific artist on the bill Saturday, but his set, though scorching and jam-tastic at times, still came off self-indulgent. It’s actually what we expected, especially after his recent comments comparing his songwriting talents to Kurt Cobain, a claim we don’t necessarily dispute. Corgan’s never been one for false modesty and he doesn’t seem to need a crowd’s validation. Still, we were hoping for the ethereal seduction of any track off Gish. At least we got “Silverfuck” off Siamese Dream and a beefy rendition of “Tonight, Tonight” embedded within the band’s short set of mostly newer numbers.
We arrived skeptical of Imagine Dragons and their mainstream-y rock, but they offered one of the most entertaining, interactive (“Radioactive”?) sets of the entire night. Their excitement was contagious. Singer Dan Reynolds expressed his joy repeatedly, and proved it with in-the-crowd sing-alongs and high energy during the band’s signature big drum riots.
The Dragons also brought the most holiday spirit, with a “Jingle Bells” interlude and lots of jumping and merriment their whole time onstage. They may have been the biggest contemporary pop act there, but they clearly dug playing with the KROQ “cool kids,” and it was a gift they tried to to give back.
Random Notebook Dump: Bizarre No Doubt intro! All the KROQ jocks came on stage to take bows, and Bean (of the Kevin & Bean morning show) fell off the stage. (He's OK, apparently.) Then Jed the Fish totally stole Rodney Bingenheimer's No Doubt intro, rudely speaking over the DJ legend as he started talking. Rodney's not the loudest, but he was first to play the band and he should have been given his moment.
Personal Bias: As an L.A. native, I've been to and/or written about KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas since almost the beginning of its 25-year run. The swanky new Forum is nice new home for the holiday fest, but I don't think anything will ever compare to its heyday at the Universal Amphitheatre.