Silversun Pickups Bring Dynamic Alt-Rock Power to Oakland

Photo: Claire Marie Vogel (Courtesy of artist)

There just aren't that many bands with a sound worthy of being compared to the classic alt-rock/grunge era of the early '90s, so the Silversun Pickups remain one of the 21st century's finest purveyors of the art form just as when they hit the national scene a decade ago.

It's a beautiful Sunday evening in uptown Oakland with the entire Bay Area receiving some blissful Indian Summer weather throughout the weekend to help residents try to forget the recent air quality issues from the apocalyptic fires in Sonoma and Napa counties that plagued the region earlier in the month. Rock 'n' roll is always a strong antidote here and so alternative rock fans gather at the Fox Theater for some vibrational healing with the Silversun Pickups.

The band is back on the road for what has been billed as a final run of dates supporting 2015's Better Nature LP before the group starts working on the next album cycle. The tour will include a benefit show in Los Angeles for the victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico on November 25, with all proceeds going to the Unidos hurricane relief fund. That demonstrates an admirable effort to use rock 'n' roll as a positive force for change in this crazy world, something the United States could probably use a lot more of in the foul Trump era. Tonight, the Silversun Pickups will merely crank it up to provide Bay Area music fans with a sonic lift.

Better Nature found the band experimenting with their sound and dynamics in an exploratory fashion utilizing more electronic elements, yet still staying true to their roots as an alt-rock powerhouse. "This album is like its own quantum universe," singer/guitarist Brian Aubert said on the band's website in 2015. "It's kind of unstable." Those unstable kinetic qualities make the songs ripe for exploration in the live setting, as quickly became apparent when the band launched the 2015 tour. But the common denominator remains the guitar-driven alt-rock sound that makes it feel like the Silversun Pickups could have formed in 1990 rather in 2000.

Many fans couldn't help but compare the Silversun Pickups favorably with the Smashing Pumpkins when they hit the scene due to similarities including Aubert's grungey guitar work, Christopher Guanlao's powerful drumming, and a dynamic female bassist in Nikki Monninger. Keyboardist Joe Lester adds another element though, and the band seems to be incorporating more of his creative palette in recent years.

The fact remains however that there just aren't that many bands with a sound worthy of being compared to the classic alt-rock/grunge era of the early '90s, so the Silversun Pickups remain one of the 21st century's finest purveyors of the art form just as when they hit the national scene a decade ago. A "Nightlight" opener from the latest release finds the audience still settling in to some degree, but everyone is ready to rock when the band follows up with the incendiary "Well Thought Out Twinkles" from their 2006 breakthrough debut LP Carnavas. "Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)" finds the band employing some more sonic spacing to draw the audience in deeper as Guanlao lays down a basic yet strong beat, with the band using sparser melodies to create an infectious effect including some skillfully arranged backing vocals from Monninger.

Lester leads the way on "The Pit" from 2012's Neck of the Woods with some trippy synthesizer lines backed by a high-tempo breakbeat from Guanlao for a danceable effect, while Aubert and Monninger add darker melodies to create a sonic landscape that is uniquely Silversun Pickups. "Little Lover's So Polite" finds the band delivering an older mid-tempo gem based around Aubert's inventive guitar work. Lester leads again on the newer "Friendly Fires" with some cinematic synth work on a spacey tune that provides a bit of a breather from the high energy set. "Latchkey Kids" finds the energy soaring again with an up-tempo groove, Lester's inventive synths, and Aubert's urgent vocals.

The furious rock of "Panic Switch" launches the set to new heights with its rich guitar harmonics and dynamic bassline, accompanied by dazzling strobe lights that sync with the rhythms to create a multi-dimensional peak experience. The band's breakthrough smash rocker "Lazy Eye" closes the set in climactic fashion with a blast of dynamic high energy rock, a masterpiece of alt-rock psychedelia that gets the whole theater-going at maximum intensity. The set has only been 12 songs, and it's pretty similar to the setlists they were playing in 2015, but the songs still seem malleable and open for further exploration if the band ever wants to stretch the jams out a bit more. They've made each song count though, and they've got a multi-dimensional sound that still stands out here in 2017.

The quartet delivers a superb encore sequence starting with "Kissing Families", as they artfully build the song from a subtle intro into an energetic layered rocker with Monninger adding some extra color by trading vocals with Aubert. The guitar solo features some deep psychedelia as Aubert makes each note count with some vintage effects, conjuring that vibrant alt-rock psychedelia that makes the Silversun Pickups stand out from the indie rock pack. "Dots and Dashes" keeps the energy flowing with an infectious groove that doesn't have the same kind of guitar crunch as "Panic Switch" and "Lazy Eye", but still grooves out nicely with more sonic spacing.

The band's less is more approach hits ultimate paydirt on the final song and Better Nature closer, "The Wild Kind". The song is like a thrill ride going through different twists and turns as group rocks across a dazzling sonic landscape to conclude the evening in sensational style. If the Better Nature closer exemplifies the direction the band is going in, the next album could be an instant classic.

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