Photos by Wild Don Lewis

at the Long Beach Arena, August 4

Seldom have the words “my cock is much bigger than yours” been uttered with
such sensitivity as tonight, during the stripped-down intro to System of a Down’s
otherwise frantic “Cigaro” — a song that embodies SOAD’s penchant for cramming
lifetimes of stimuli and sensation into mutant, shouldn’t-work pop structures.
SOAD mix the familiar with the exotic, juxtaposing post-thrash riffage and galloping
Iron Maiden grooves with old-world carnival rhythms, mournful Middle Eastern
harmonies, and Serj Tankian’s call-to-prayer wail. Drawing on their four-album
catalog and the forthcoming Hypnotize (due this fall), System deliver
dense selections of eccentric, crushing-yet-clever assaults and disarmingly
delicate interludes. Elfin guitarist Daron Malakian sings more lately, his waifish
timbre offsetting Tankian’s from-beyond roars, whispers and beseeching fireside
sustain. Malakian’s multitrack mind has conceived this haunted circus of sound,
and an amazingly subtle mix lets it breathe — John Dolmayan’s restless beats;
the spinal bass lines of the skipping Shavo Odadjian; and, crucially, the comitragic
melodies and messages. Amidst weighty sonic and lyrical matter, and before a
sold-out arena, SOAD still huddle round the drums like a grinning teenage garage
band and perform with the unfettered glee of bedroom air-guitarists.

that funky
math-rock, rat boy

With a real sense of perversity, openers the Mars Volta delve ever more deeply
into a sonic salad of convulsive jazz, headphone soundscapes, Latin percussion
and drum & bass. Their twin arachnoids — guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez and
singer Cedric Bixler Zavala — shuffle the stage, Rodriguez Lopez straight outta
Haight Ashbury, Bixler Zavala from some Parisian sidewalk café. Now an eight-piece,
the Mars Volta flaunt flute, sax and maracas amid ludicrously elongated arrangements.
But when they shudder into actual songs, Bixler’s lonesome, effeminate
wail transforms buried emotions into cinematic, ravishing incantations.

—Paul Rogers

at the Hollywood Bowl, August 3

Midway through “My Funny Valentine” — which she’d dedicated, with a tousle of
her bushy mane, to “Everybody in love with… whatever” — Chaka Khan
threw her head back and let loose three gleaming, brassy blasts of sound. In
their extraordinary force and tonal precision, they were light-years from mere
human vocalizing: This was some next-level shit, the spine-tingling demonstration
of a jazz artist’s mastery of her formidable instrument. The big spenders near
the stage only responded to chart hits — “I’m Every Woman,” “I Feel for You,”
“Ain’t Nobody.” But devoted fans in the nosebleeds sang along to “Everlasting
Love” and almost everything else La Khan sang, voices pouring down the hill.
The only trouble: In a set filled with humor and artfully slurred phrasing —
flipping a bird to the concept of conventional melody — Chaka reduced her lung-blasting
signature to a gimmick by doling it out too often. A highlight: Out of character,
she went straight-gospel at the end of “Through the Fire,” falling to her knees
and testifying with an intensity that lifted the song from its romantic origins
to a declaration of strength and spiritual resilience.

Gladys Knight, warmth personified, hit the stage running and never let up. Though
some of her arrangements were a little too Vegas-style cluttered, that amazing/soothing/wrenching
voice at the center of it all rolled out one highlight after another — “Every
Beat of My Heart,” “On and On,” “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” No
one conveys heartbreak and its fracturing effects — or the hope found amongst
the ruins — quite like Gladys. She joked that when she first sang “If I Were
Your Woman,” she had no idea what the lyrics really meant, but that life taught
her. It was life in all its bruised wisdom that radiated through her show-stopping
“Neither One of Us,” which brought the crowd to its feet for a five-minute ovation
— which, in turn, brought Gladys to tears.

—Ernest Hardy

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