Photo by Kosh

at House of Blues, July 17

It’s understandable that a lot of jokers (including fans) still don’t figure Blackie Lawless for a serious artist — something to do with the bombs and props and shit. Well, now he smears less makeup, and doesn’t shoot fireworks from his crotch or saw women or spray ground meat. And still all the mob wants from WASP is “Fuck Like a Beast.”

Which he’s glad to ram through ’em like a rusty cutlass, along with “Wild Child” and “On Your Knees” and the rest of his jagged rock arsenal, even though his repeated past forays into concept operas and political/social commentary scream that Lawless wants you to know he’s a deep motherslasher. WASP’s new The Neon God: Part I — The Rise is his most fully realized theme piece yet, and Lawless clearly woulda loved to have staged the whole damned thing instead of just sprinkling a few selections. But the crowd’s puzzlement over the unfamiliar stuff showed that emphasizing the hits was the popular choice.

After Neon God’s magnificently stirring “Overture” (pre-recorded; why didn’t they just play it?), the traditionally black-leather-and-studs-garbed WASP entered and murdered. Draped in a black “81” jersey (the number of both football’s Tim Brown and hockey’s Miroslav Satan, if you please), Lawless mounted his newly elaborated skeleton microphone perch to do his dark business. About the time the sound man got a decent mix, not coincidentally, the set hit an early pinnacle with a slamming “L.O.V.E. Machine,” and then banged further heights: an anguished vocal from a black-lighted Lawless and a noise-drenched guitar solo from an ever more confident Darrell Roberts on “My Tortured Eyes”; Stet Howland’s double-kick thrum and manual drumskin slapping on “I Wanna Be Somebody”; Lawless’ virtuosic high notes on “Sleeping in the Fire” during a sensitive-solo-balladeer (!) segment. Bassist-singer Mike Duda, by the way, should get some kind of MVP award. Anyway, fans: The recent material rules, so suck it up.

at Spaceland, July 6

Former Hole and Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur slapped cynics’ faces with her recent debut album, Auf Der Maur — a gorgeously expansive, escapist opus that finds melody and personality amid a labyrinth of multiguitar arrangements. Auf Der Maur (also her band’s name) is dated in the worst possible way — it’s just out of date, recalling late-’90s alt-rock, which has yet to enjoy a revival — but the songs and conviction transcend era and genre.

Spaceland’s a natural home for a gal who’s an indie darling despite her stint with the big boys, but while her compositions hold up, a destructive mix and distracted bandmates leave tonight resembling an extended sound check. Though Melissa and infectiously enthused drummer Jordon Zadorozny are convincingly immersed, guitarist Kim Pryor — a huge part of ADM’s sound with her tasty tangent textures and understated backing vocals — repeatedly breaks the spell with her Spinal Tap griping (“I need more high hat in my monitor”). As Melissa’s material is all about being overwhelmed by, and lost in, soaring vocals and overlapping waves of strings, this is like watching an epic movie with a constant “none of this is real” subtitle.

Melissa’s Björk-on-Atkins charms and affable demeanor equate to star quality by KROQ standards, and she commands attention with her china-doll aura and similarly porcelain vocals, even if she’s more magnetic as a totem at the microphone than when trotting out her bedroom-mirror rocker moves. There’s no denying the slightly mystical majesty of “Followed the Waves,” “Head Unbound” and “Real a Lie,” and tonight doesn’t do them justice; without the technical gremlins and onstage grumblings, Auf Der Maur would rival Melissa’s former outfits. (Paul Rogers)

at Wilshire Ebell Theater, July 17

“How to be an audience: Don’t cover the first funny lines of the song with applause.” So ordered Fields-marshal Stephin Merritt, interrupting his vocal-ukulele rendition of “The Book of Love.” Earlier, he reminded the seated crowd of his “negative request” policy, which mandates that shouted-out songs be stricken from the set list. The recital-hall manners extended to John Woo (guitar/banjo) and Sam Davol (cello), both affectless to the point of invisibility. Pianist/second vocalist Claudia Gonson (behind an imperfectly tuned upright) tried to draw Merritt into ingratiating banter, though their discussion of Myrna Loy’s career overstayed its welcome.

With such anti-showmanship on display, it’s a good thing Merritt’s got his songs. Bookended by “I Was Born” and “I Die,” the set focused on the brand-new I, with 1995’s “With Whom To Dance” the sole pre–69 Love Songs chestnut. Davol’s plucking gave “I’m Tongue-Tied” a semblance of swing, and Gonson’s vocal turns were strong, but too many stretches hovered at a low energy level, even given the drumless, all-acoustic setting. You could admire Merritt’s writing and precise arrangements throughout, but only from afar. Just a few songs felt like much of anything at all: the dyingly sad “I Looked All Over Town,” the faux-country “Papa Was a Rodeo” and a giddy “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!,” which found Gonson falling off her piano bench while Merritt stood atop a stool, shaking his hips. Even cabaret-pop auteurs work the crowd once in a while.

Handpicked opener Darren Hanlon, an unheralded Australian, was a defter-than-usual guitarist who held the headliners’ literate fan base from his first number, which compared love to “an eight-letter word on a triple-word score.” The bulk of his songs tottered between the charmingly slight and the utterly trivial, as in one about an underrated sport: “There’s not enough songs about squash.” No: There’s one too many. (Franklin Bruno)

LA Weekly