Los Angeles radio station KROQ held their last Christmas party of the decade, last weekend. And it was heartening to partake of a live radio event as dependable as this one, with some of the era’s best—Beck, Cage The Elephant, the Raconteurs, The 1975 and Twenty One Pilots. Particularly, at a time when social media is awash with shameless shares of streaming figures and self-proclaimed artists of the decade. As the industry continues the struggle to figure out how artists can remain viable, and commercial radio relevant in an age of digital streaming singles, it’s comforting to attend KROQ’s annual shindig with a station that has been there from the very beginning.
Some of indie rock’s best from Interpol to No Doubt, Garbage to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Davie Bowie to Bush have been on their bill for the last 30 years. Surprise appearances have even included Kanye West and The Killers. As warm-blooded DJ’s such as Stryker and Nicole Alvarez have greeted audiences, every Christmas, introducing the year’s best acts as the revolving stage turns, we are reminded how in the algorithm of everything right now, it’s the human touch that matters. Being in an big arena with thousands as keen on songs as you are, singing in unison at the top of their lungs.
Billed as KROQ Absolut Almost Acoustic Christmas, this year’s installment again benefitted Para Los Ninos and the Al Wooten Jr, Heritage Center. After 5 years at The Forum, the event which took place Dec 7 and 8 was held at a new venue, The Honda Center in Anaheim.
Night one highlights included Young The Giant performing favorite “Cough Syrup,” The Head & The Heart doing their anthemic hit “All We Ever Knew” and Jimmy Eat World’s great singalong “The Middle” and their spirited cover of Wham’s “Last Christmas.”
In a year in which women dominated the charts, perhaps our only complaint is, where were they? Especially on night one where there was a complete absence of women on stage.
Night two fared better with The Interrupter’s Aimee Allen aka Aimee Interrupter, proving a formidable female lead in the Los Angeles-ska band, doing favorites such as “She’s Kerosene” and “Take Back The Power,” as well as a cover of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy.” Meanwhile, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, from Icelandic band Of Monsters & Men’s rocked a Pat Benatar look – wearing leather and her hair, a dark, modern mullet. She employed sweetness and grit in equal measures on the group’s best loved hits “Dirty Paws,” “Little Talks” and off their most recent synth-led album, “Alligator.”
Night two headliners, Twenty-One Pilots fresh off their Bandito Tour, supporting their fifth studio album was one of the most anticipate set of the weekend. They’ve landed on Billboard’s top-grossing lists for 2019 and sold out both the Honda Center and The Staples Center a month earlier. There had the theatricality of the burnt-out car center-stage, the intimacy of Tyler Joseph’s earnest chats with the audience about his wife, mom and Christmas presents, and played all their hits—but their set still left a little something to be desired.
In terms of sheer force and energy, four bands held our attention from start to end. Their sets were visceral, their creative output innovative and when it comes to the boundaries of their craft, they are ever-evolving. As long as artists like these continue to put out music, radio airwaves will have a home for them, and we shouldn’t have to doubt the need for radio stations in the next decade and beyond.
Beck’s No Loser Baby
Beck kicked the party into high gear from the moment he stepped on stage in his trademark hat with a grey suit, flashing a red satin shirt and the unforgettable opening line: “In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey.” It sent the whole auditorium wild with excitement. People got up their seats, folks on the floor broke out in dance and absolutely everyone sang in unison to the “Loser” chorus.
“This is our last show of the decade,” said Beck before “Up All Night.” Then he shed his grey blazer for “Girl,” the LA-Summer themed song from 2005’s Guero. The pop-art and comic book exuberance of “Wow, from the Grammy-winning Colors followed – illustrating how Beck’s magpie approach to songwriting has not waned, in a career that now spans three decades.
Next came “Saw Lightning,” a track co-written by Pharrell Williams, for Hyperspace, Beck’s 11th studio album. From that album, he also performed “Uneventful Days” offering a change of pace, with the darker, quieter track. But it didn’t last long as another favorite “The New Pollution,” off 1996’s “Odelay” followed. The big, heavy rock riffs of “E-Pro,” co-produced with The Dust Brothers in 2005 felt just as relevant today.
“Where It’s At?” another clear favorite, proved Beck the consummate entertainer. Using electronics – sampling and trigger pads – in step with tight performances from guitarist, Jason Faulkner and drummer Chris Coleman (who’s worked with Chaka Khan and Patti Labelle), Beck managed to recreate the different sounds and textures from his deep and diverse catalogue for the KROQ audience.
He then talked about “Night Running” the song he wrote with his recent tour mates, Cage The Elephant. They might have been expecting Cage frontman, Matt Schultz to perform the song together but then got word, “Oh, he’s not coming?” said Beck. Unperturbed and without missing a beat, “we’re doing it anyway,” he said and delivered a great rendition complete with a call and response, and harmonica solo.
Before his set ended, he thanked KROQ for introducing him to music in his formative years, then supporting him from the very beginning of his career. When the stage didn’t revolve to take them off, Beck sat on one of the blowup concert balls and said he would just stay and talk to the audience. “I was in Vegas last night. Doing karaoke with Anderson Paak and staying up too late,” he shared. And when the stage still remained stagnant, he joked: “ Funny, we were excited about getting off with the Lazy Susan—Ok guys we have to walk, we’re going analogue.” Entertaining till the end.
The 1975: Good for any decade
“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” Matty Healy from UK”s The 1975 shrieked as he took his entrance on Night two’s stage. “It’s Monday morning and we’ve only got 100 of them left,”—punkier that ever, referencing the nihilism of progenitors such as The Damned and an urgency like that of LA band The Germs. But its politics also codifies what the band is now about and signals the direction of Healy’s songwriting for their anticipated new album, Notes On A Conditional Form, expected in Jan 2020.
Already the band have gone to Sweden and recorded with teen, climate activist Greta Thunberg—Healy has said he wanted her manifesto to be more than just a tweet, wanting it to have longevity as a song. Her words are delivered over a sparse piano melody, titled simply “The 1975”.
Spotting a t-shirt emblazoned with “God Is Awesome” no doubt a yet unknown reference to the new album, Healy and his twin dancers, all wore faded blue jeans with a Nineties aesthetic, that was already a throwback to the seventies. Fitting for a band that is hard to pin down when it comes to genres.
Their bass lines slap and their guitars hark back to the sound of Prince, while Healy has something of The Cure’s Robert Smith about the way he enunciates. Or is it Michael Jackson? And those wild notes – is that David Bryne? Who can tell? He operates on many different levels. And likes to cross-reference in his music videos and songs with the art of others like Easter eggs in a video game.
He is the thinking man/woman’s pop star millennial but that doesn’t stop the young girls going crazy. The many “I Love You Matt,” cries that punctuated the end of songs like “Give Yourself A Try” and the insanely infectious “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” from the band’s pink phase—of 2018 album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships belies the fervor of the band’s fandom. When he performed fan favorite “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)”—a song about the heroine addiction that he kicked, the claps, whistles and “I Love You’s” were almost deafening.
More hits such as “Girls,” “Somebody Else,” “Chocolate” and “Sex” followed. Towards the end of their set, Healy corralled the arena: “Everybody, I don’t care if you’re hear to see Mumford & Sons and you don’t know who we are, I want everybody to jump.” And they did! We know, it’s hard to resist Healy’s charms.
Cage The Elephant: Matt employs butoh to break out of his cage
It’s never a dull moment when the boys from Bowling Green, Kentucky, hit a KROQ stage and they’ve been a draw at Almost Acoustic Christmas several times over the decade. They picked up where Beck left off: Matt Schultz dressed in some kind of sporting get-up with what looked like fishnets pulled over a hockey helmet.
“Broken Boy” a raging anthem from latest album, the darker themed Social Cues, written as Schultz’s marriage broke down, did not take long to make an impression. “I was born on the wrong side of the train tracks/ I was raised with the strap across my back … I was burnt by the cold kiss of a vampire/ I was bit by the whisper of a soft liar/ Any good friend of yours, Is a good friend of mine. Around the same time, he also lost three friends, set him down a bout of depression that proved delibetating.
He’s admitted to using butoh, the Japanese experimental dance (a style of dance also known as ankoku butoh — “the dance of utter darkness”) to help cope with it all. Throughout the night, we saw evidence of this as Schultz contorted his body as he moved slowly across the stage, where once he would have swung on a pole or flung himself from one end to the other. Tonight, he sometimes slurred his speech right down but he’s still the kind of frontman you can’t take your eyes off.
For “Cold Cold Cold” he peeled off his black trousers to reveal red leggings underneath. And for “Ready To Let Go” — a song about a trip to Pompeii when he could not deny how far his relationship had disintegrated — he took off his red fleece to reveal tight matching thermals.
Schultz often looked distracted by these costumes changes which he kept in a red drawstring bag like Santas, pulling ballet pumps, assorted headgear, then shoving his disrobed pieces back in. Yet when singing a song like “Cigarette Daydreams” remembered for not only its beautiful words but also the music video featuring his ex — the distraction seemed more calculated, serving some higher purpose.
After an old favorite “Ain’t No Rest Wicked” which saw his older brother, Brad Schultz mingling with the fans in the moshpit, “You write these songs and they take on a whole new perspective,” the younger Schultz seemed to say with gratitude.
In the midst of “Trouble,” Beck appeared next to Matt Schultz onstage. When Beck put his arms around him and pulled him closer, we collectively felt we had Schultz in our embrace too.
“Don’t give up hope,” he called outs. “Who believes in love?” he yelled repeatedly before launching into “Shake Me Down,” a song about resilience. They closed the night with “Teeth” as Schultz indulged in crowd surfing. Several times he fell off or sunk head first into the pit of bodies unable to keep him up. Yet, again and again he rose up. The hands of his fans delivered him safely to security and the stage where his brother and bandmates awaited.
The Raconteurs: Still rocking and steady as ever
After more than a decade, The Raconteurs, Jack White’s band with fellow singer/songwriter and friend, Brendan Benson make a welcomed return with one of the year’s best rock albums—Help Me Stranger. And of course the quartet, which also includes Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence (aka Little Jack)—and joined by touring member, Dean Fertita from Queens Of The Stone Age—were in fine form.
They kicked off with “Consoler Of The Lonely” and “Salute The Solution” from 2008’s sophomore album, which followed their Grammy-nominated debut Broken Boy Soldiers two years earlier. It’s all bluesy-rock with big Led Zeppelin-riff.
Benson then led the vocals for torch song “Now That You’re Gone,” accompanied by amazing guitar solos from White who transported himself to another plain of existence as he played. But as a Pied Piper, White never goes too far as Benson’s grounding vocals leads you back in a safe place. It’s probably the best combination of vocals in the various bands that White has sat at the center of.
“Help Me Stranger” then begun with an almost old-timey murder ballad intro, sung by bassist Little Jack, who is believed to have crooned the song in the studio and the band recorded his vocals unbeknowst to him.
Before “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying),” Benson gushed and thanked the audience and Hermosa Beach, home of Black Flag. Unfortunately, the Honda Center is located miles away in Anaheim. White added that the song was written somewhere between Venice and Hermosa Beach. Benson earnest lyrics and heartfelt delivery juxtaposed nicely against White’s heaviest riffs which the guitar virtuoso also colors with some of the most delicate and delicious guitar licks . After the song, Benson apologized for his error in geography but perhaps now they should consider playing at next year’s Beachlife Festival, only steps away from Hermosa Beach.
Next came the guitar and synthesizer-led “Only Child,” another one off Help Me Stranger. White has nothing but glowing praise for Benson who wrote the song, calling the line “Only child/ prodigal son/ has come back home again/ To get his laundry done,”—“the best in the whole album.” It is good so let’s hope we don’t have to wait another whole decade for their next.
See photos from Almost Acoustic Christmas 2019 below.