[16 April 2009]
A few years ago, a little video game came out that promised to let even the least talented of music fans unleash their inner rock god. Guitar Hero, as well as subsequent offshoot/competitor Rock Band, lets folks of all ages power through some hard-rockin’ riffs without having to sweat the small stuff like, say, learning to play an instrument. Perhaps this is what has led to the sudden resurgence in late-‘80s Sunset Strip debauchery. The fashion and the swagger made famous by the likes of Mötley Crüe and Axl Rose are almost hip again, thanks largely to the animated stylings of Guitar Hero’s cast of caricatures. While some might argue that these neo-glam rock stars—with their penchant for eschewing originality in favor of orgies and drug overdoses—were little more than a nuisance necessary to prep the world for Kurt Cobain and Radiohead, the legions of 1989 transplants strutting their acid-washed stuff in front of the Roxy on a Saturday night might beg to differ. And wouldn’t you know it? A few of them are even pretty decent musicians.
Case in point, the bass-less Hollywood trio Nico Vega, who took the stage to the drunken woops and hollers of a crowd straight out of a Rock of Love reunion show. Front-vixen Aja Volkman pranced awkwardly across the stage without a trace of the mystery surrounding her Steely Dan namesake, her raven-hair and labouredly edgy style looking more at home as one of the Veronicas. Nevertheless, she engaged the crowd with ease, spitting out her innocuous lyrics with just enough Cat Power-esque breathy charm to keep her from being completely irritating. The riffs were catchy and flowed nicely from one song to the next, but though the band members were clearly enjoying themselves the music itself was generally tired, unified only by a recurring metal influence and the lingering sensation that it was only a matter of time before “star power” kicked in. The major highlight was the extended rock-gasm of a guitar solo, churned out by a Russell Brand look-a-like in a shredded T-shirt and punctuated by Volkman’s mesmerizing Burning Man style dancing. They were definitely living the rock ‘n’ roll dream, though they might have been the only ones aware of that.
Then it was the Von Bondies’ turn to kick out the jams, and in fair tribute to fellow Detroiters the MC5 there was no shortage of garage rock swank. Fitting, then, that they opened their hit-and-miss set with old fan-favorite “Been Swank”, from their 2004 major-label debut, Pawn Shoppe Heart. It was a smart lead-in to a set thankfully devoid of the polish that unfortunately taints their new album, the over-produced Love, Hate, and Then There’s You. The new material is regrettably missing the one-two punch that characterized their older material, but the live show proves that they haven’t changed completely. With the force of nature that is drummer Don Blum, they’ve held onto the driving rhythms of their indie days; this was hinted at with their surprising set choice of “Going Down”, a selection from the little known gem Lack of Communication (one of the best albums of 2002, whether frontman Jason Stollsteimer will admit it or not). The real weak link lay in the females. Recent replacements Leann Banks and Christy Hunt, on bass and guitar respectively, certainly looked the part of the rock and roll wet dream, but their tone-deaf vocals were overused and paled in comparison to Stollsteimer’s unbridled crooning. But they held their own, adding an unassuming charm to the witty “Not That Social” (“You’re not that social / Just a good drinker”). Only a year into the new lineup, they’ve got some work ahead of them before they recapture the magic that made them so buzz-worthy in the past, but they thankfully have enough charisma left over to hopefully make that happen sooner rather than later.
The general consensus was a positive one. It was a good night for rock, though only by certain standards. But who’s to fault anyone for having fun? And fun it most certainly was, not at all unlike a rousing game of drunken Guitar Hero. Life-altering it wasn’t, but it didn’t really need to be. If we learned anything from the late-‘80s it was that sometimes a good time is more than enough, especially on a Saturday night in Los Angeles.