Hits and misses populate KROQ's annual Almost Acoustic Christmas gig

Review: The hits just kept on coming at KROQ's 25th annual Almost Acoustic Christmas concert Sunday

The hits just kept on coming, in many shades of distortion: Soft rock, indie rock, pop rock, arena rock, grunge rock, synth rock, ska rock, all merged into a mess of fist-pumping anthems with shout-along choruses.

On Sunday, the second night of commercial rock radio powerhouse KROQ's 25th annual Almost Acoustic Christmas concert, which featured sets by Tears for Fears, No Doubt, Alt-J, Vance Joy, Interpol and more, the choruses were echoed en masse by a capacity crowd at the Forum.

"Shout, shout, let it all out / These are the things I can do without," sang Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal with great enthusiasm during the night’s most illuminating throwback set. Within a memorable version of “Mad World," co-founder Curt Smith dwelled in his nightmares, and most at the venue inhabited them with him: “I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad, the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had,” he sang woefully.

Billy Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins offered wickedness during "Bullet with Butterfly Wings": "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage," he hissed as part of a furiously distorted half hour -- albeit one greeted with notable ambivalence by an otherwise explosive crowd. During one strange, almost mystical excursion, Corgan and band quoted guitar melodies by both Jimi Hendrix and the Cult. It was the evening’s most chaotic and admirably unpredictable moment.

More choruses came: "Do you really love me, underneath it all," wondered Gwen Stefani during No Doubt's night-ending hit parade. She had a right to seem insecure. The band was filling in for an absent U2, forced to cancel after Bono got into a bike crash. She needn’t have worried. Los Angeles loves its No Doubt.

The 25th installment of the station's banner charity event was a seamless, if artistically safe, program. Timed to the minute courtesy of a rotating stage that allowed for multi-act set-up and hosted with witty banter from on-air personalities, the concert presented artists from the station's playlist performing old and current hits. The broadcaster's legion of longtime admirers, many of whom had won tickets during the station’s relentless promotional roll-up, got to see nine acts in one fell swoop.

Many scream-along refrains have come and gone in that quarter-century of Almost Acoustics, one alluded to when Dr. Drew Pinsky, the host of the station’s long-running "Loveline" call-in show, noted between sets, “I remember when the Almost Acoustic Christmas was actually acoustic.” 

In fact, the lineups over the years confirm the range of both influential and near-miss names: The inspired early years saw sets by David Bowie, Radiohead, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Alanis Morissette, Sunny Day Real Estate, Oasis and Dinosaur Jr. and outliers such as Michael Penn, the Soup Dragons and Wesley Willis.

The grim nu-metal years of the early and mid '00s brought the station Korn, Creed, Audioslave and the like. Last year’s big acts included Grouplove, Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age, Lorde, Phoenix and Arcade Fire.

The radio gigs have since become a seasonal rite of passage, part of a year-end circuit that hits major markets across America. Almost Acoustic Christmas set the template.

Through it all, the station has offered notable variety while aiding the success of too many bands to ignore. Many on the roster for both Saturday (which featured System of a Down, Incubus, Fall Out Boy, Bush and others) and Sunday earned early KROQ spins and slots before breaking through to the mainstream. Once there, the lyrics and melodies have left indelible marks.

Such as: "It took a life span with no cellmate," as Interpol’s Paul Banks offered mysteriously while the band moved with rigidly funky, lock-step urgency. It was one of the evening’s standout performances. Amid a slate that too often offered hits minus any true rock menace, Interpol drove a Motorik beat that moved with industrial strength energy.

“Welcome to the new age, to the new age” sang Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds in his band’s bombastic arena rock anthem, "Radioactive." Part of a predictable, safe run-through of the band’s recent big rock hits “Radioactive,” “Demons” and “On Top of the World,” the set was heavy on furrow-browed declarations, but not much on uninhibited urgency.

Also undangerous, but surprisingly enjoyable, were could-be breakouts Vance Joy, who offered a smooth set of Shins-style soft rock, and Alt-J, which offered synthetic dance rock.

Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo sounded more barbed than the Dragons' odes to the apocalypse, even if he was merely offering a bit of clothing advice: "If you want to destroy my sweater, hold this thread as I walk away," he sang during “Undone (The Sweater Song),” filled with enthusiasm for a work he and his band have played hundreds of times.

Weezer invited Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast to duet on the jumpy "Go Away," but since the station hasn't pushed Best Coast, it fell on mostly flat ears. The fans were more thrilled by "Beverly Hills," Weezer's ode to tony Los Angeles: “Beverly Hills -- That’s where I want to be!”

Thanks in part to KROQ’s enduring influence, Cuomo can afford to make his dream come true  -- and have the fans echo his choruses. That is, if he ever decides to abandon his beloved Santa Monica. 

Twitter: @liledit

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