The Go-Go's, Girl in a Coma
The Greek Theatre
Better Than . . . Falling 20 feet from a cliff while hiking in Northern California.
You've got to hand it to the Go-Go's. At a time in their career when they could be touring with some predictable '80s new-wave oldies act, they instead decide to hit the road with a young, stirringly adventurous opening band like Girl in a Coma. Although they're both all-female punk-influenced combos, the two groups wouldn't seem to be an obvious match on paper. Prodigal homegirls the Go-Go's write compact, giddily exuberant (at least on the surface) pop songs with traditional structures, while San Antonio's Girl in a Coma construct intense, expansive post-punk workouts that are closer to grunge than bubblegum.
And yet the contrast in styles worked, with many of the early-arriving Go-Go's fans appreciating the way GIAC shifted dynamics dramatically from sweet and dreamy idylls into suddenly stormy hard-rock passages. Singer-guitarist Nina Diaz has a simply majestic voice that soars exhilaratingly over the tangled wreckage of broken hearts that her drummer-sister, Phanie Diaz, and bassist Jenn Alva slam together. Nina can take a song like David Bowie's "As the World Falls Down" and turn it into her own personal romantic confession, cooing with a seductively languid intimacy before giving away to those passionate eruptions of free-flowing guitar.
It's difficult to determine how much Girl in a Coma's propulsive set might have inspired the headliners to try harder, because the Go-Go's' annual concerts at the Greek over the past decade -- in what has become a local summertime tradition -- are already such a supreme sugar rush, with the quintet usually appearing extra motivated to play in their old hometown. They intended to break up after last year's summer tour, which had to be canceled when guitarist Jane Wiedlin injured herself while hiking. In a refreshing twist, the Go-Go's realized they missed performing and got back together for this Ladies Gone Wild Tour, which marks the 30th anniversary of the release of their first album, Beauty and the Beat.
Letting the near-capacity crowd know they meant business, the Go-Go's strutted out onstage to the pre-recorded accompaniment of Foreigner's brain-dead classic-rock lust anthem "Hot Blooded." For some reason, it was a perfect and absurdly brilliant way to set the tone. The Go-Go's launched right into "Vacation," which might seem at first like a fizzy and yearningly escapist ode to summer, but, like so many Go-Go's tunes, hints at a wounded heart beneath it all.
They haven't released a new album since 2001's God Bless the Go-Go's, but the concert didn't feel like a typical oldies revue. Instead, the band mixed hits like "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat" with overlooked obscurities and even a swinging and groovy version of the Rolling Stones' notorious diss of middle-class domesticity, "Mother's Little Helper." Now former wild child (and early Germs drummer!) Belinda Carlisle and lead guitarist Charlotte Caffey are old enough to be mothers of teenagers, but the band seems to be at ease with the whole aging concept.
"Sometimes when you get old, you get a star on Hollywood Boulevard," Wiedlin announced modestly after the Stones cover.
It also didn't hurt that they all looked great. Carlisle, Caffey and Wiedlin harmonized seamlessly, while bassist Kathy Valentine and hard-hitting drummer Gina Schock delivered the songs with aplomb. The normally cheery Wiedlin -- now blonde and dressed all in white like a Clockwork Orange droogie with a New Romantic ruffle to her skirt -- appeared unhappy at first. She didn't skip around the stage as much as usual, but she came to life later with a perky, peppy rendition of her Sparks collaboration "Cool Places." The Go-Go's set list was similarly open enough to encompass a version of Carlisle's first solo single, "Mad About You," an affecting tune co-written by former Giant Sand member Paula Jean Brown.
With its robotic rhythm and almost eerie midtempo pace, "Automatic" has always stood out from other Go-Go's songs. In recent years, it's segued into a really cool medley with Wiedlin giving Lou Reed's "All Tomorrow's Parties" a charmingly ethereal spin. Tonight, the medley seemed shorter, but it was still mesmerizing, with Wiedlin churning out an appropriately Velvety and blurry drone on her Gibson SG.
Celebrating her birthday, a barefoot Carlisle looked like a movie star in a glittery silver blouse over dark blue slacks, spinning in dreamy circles and banging on a tambourine. She invited fans onstage to dance and make fools of themselves during a boisterous cover of the Capitols' R&B classic "Cool Jerk."
The group's bittersweet homage to Hollywood glamour, "This Town," was relatively ominous, with Caffey's sinister surf riffs lurking in the shadows of the verses. You could make a case that Caffey is the real brains behind the group. She plays most of the lead-guitar and keyboard parts, chimes in on backup vocals and writes (often along with Wiedlin) the majority of the band's songs. Decked out in black boots and a dark short skirt, Caffey looked naturally fantastic. She practically beamed while singing her backups and carving out those iconic solos.
A cake was wheeled out before the encore for birthday girl Belinda. Gina Schock came out from behind the drums to introduce everyone, revealing again that she might be the funniest person in the band. Schock was completely comfortable with a mic in her hands, and her suave confidence served to remind that she transformed the Go-Go's from sloppy punks into a legitimate live force when she joined in 1979, a year after the band started.
People sometimes forget that there were really two different Go-Go's. There is the beloved 1980s pop/new wave band from MTV, of course, but there was also the wilder, rawer incarnation in the late-1970s Hollywood punk scene. The first two songs of the encore reflected the Go-Go's early days, when they played twice as fast as they would later on the albums. With its catchy handclaps and festive yeah-yeahs, "Beatnik Beach" was a sizzling slice of surf-rock roots, while Wiedlin's S&M tease "Fun With Ropes" was played with flat-out Ramones power chords, a brief glimpse of the way things were at the Starwood and the old Hong Kong Café. "Head Over Heels" was an emphatic close to the evening, with Wiedlin (now inexplicably wearing a wig of giant white dreadlocks) punching out the staccato chords and Caffey hammering the madcap piano licks.
Will we ever see them again? Well, they didn't cover the Stones' "The Last Time," but you never know. Does it even matter? Oh yeah. Making music this ebulliently frothy and heartbreakingly cathartic sound timeless is no easy trick. The world needs the Go-Go's. I hope they still need us.
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Personal Bias: I learned how to play lead guitar in high school by attending so many Go-Go's shows, I eventually memorized all of the notes Caffey played on the guitar solo to "We Got the Beat."
The Crowd: Surprisingly passionate as they ignored the bouncers and surged down the aisles, standing for the entire show.
Overheard in the Crowd: Drunk girl, approaching merch booth after the show: "Do you have any more stickers left?" Bored merch guy: "We never had stickers."
Random Notebook Dump: I was seriously disappointed that a food fight didn't break out when Belinda's cake arrived onstage.