2013 was the year indie finally conquered KROQ-FM.
At the station's annual day-long Weenie Roast festival in Irvine on Saturday, almost every headliner evoked a certain scrappy outsiderdom -- even if those bands had radio hits hiding in their plaid shirts and adorably green-dyed hair.
From the Black Keys’ retro road-dogging to Of Monsters and Men’s precious folk-pop and Vampire Weekend’s class-conscious quirk, Weenie Roast’s main acts subverted KROQ’s reputation as a home for brawny bro-downs and '90s survivalists.
OK, so surprise guests Stone Temple Pilots performed with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington on vocals. But STP was the exception on a day that showed the softer side of KROQ (106.7).
It’s hard to know why this year’s Weenie Roast went so predominantly indie. Maybe, as in hip-hop, rock fans are finally losing their need for machismo. Or perhaps a decade of Coachella culture has simply broadened the definition of a mainstream KROQ band. Saturday’s Weenie Roast looked more like a weekend in Indio than any KROQ event in years.
Local new wave soulsters Fitz & the Tantrums played early in the afternoon, but its booking here signaled that the band’s turn from sleek Stax affections to a synth-heavy sound was intentional and paying dividends. That band got its start on the local indie Dangerbird Records but followed its founder Jeff Castelaz to a major, Elektra.
Don’t be surprised if fellow Dangerbird vets Silversun Pickups, which played a fiery set a bit later Saturday, pulled a similar move soon.
The latter has been meat-and-potatoes KROQ fare for years, but the combination of those two acts (alongside the rising vibey locals the Neighbourhood) suggests that KROQ still values its role as the leg-up for ambitious L.A. rock bands.
The Arizona emo quartet Jimmy Eat World saw this convergence coming over a decade ago with its 2001 album “Bleed American” (later self-titled after 9/11). The band's mix of guileless sensitivity and perfectly produced punk-pop remains today’s soundtrack of adolescence (well, for teens not totally devoted to raving). The band's Weenie Roast set proved its sound’s prescience and endurance.
Of Monsters and Men was the day’s big surprise. At a station showcase built on skateboard-able power chords, here was a band of Icelandic twee-folk artists dressed in shirttails and playing with band-camp eagerness. Singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir was one of very few women on the main stage, but she was its star (and the bearer of that green hair). Peppy singles such as “Little Talks” would have been unimaginable on KROQ five years ago; on Saturday, they got the whole crowd shimmying in the aisles.
The same could be said for Vampire Weekend. In 2006, the traditional KROQ audience might have taken a band of guys wearing Oxford shirts and singing about punctuation and Cape Cod and stuffed them in a locker. But now, especially after the Vamps’ thoughtful and image-defying third album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” they’ve turned their Lonely Planet prep-pop into something you can play at pep rallies.
Only two of the headliners challenged this triumph of the indie. The night’s unbilled guest, an impromptu supergroup of Clinton-era stadium rockers Stone Temple Pilots and Linkin Park, resurrected an older idea of what a rock band should do -- knuckle down with ferocious riffs and lechery. The slithery menace of “Sex Type Thing” and new single "Out of Time" were nice palate cleansers, and Bennington was a perfect fit. Whatever the Pilots’ embattled singer Scott Weiland was doing Saturday night -- Kombucha and Netflix streaming, we hope -- he must have been put on notice.
Jared Leto’s Thirty Seconds to Mars went the other way, using electronics, taiko drums and an enviable video budget to make its culty cosmic-utopianism feel gigantic. It was the day’s most divisive act. Its fans were devoted, and Leto’s trio had a bigger imagination than any other band on the bill. But a little precision and clarity in the songwriting would have helped too (the band's new Damien Hirst-covered album is titled “Love Lust Faith + Dreams,” which just about sums it up).
The Black Keys’ neo-blues boogie came the closest to what today’s KROQ aspires to -- a band with Led Zeppelin debts and cool-kid cachet, with big-enough choruses to sell out Staples Center. Singles such as “Howlin’ for You” and "Lonely Boy” made them megastars and Grammy winners, but Guitar Center lurkers could still pore over Dan Auerbach’s fretwork and Patrick Carney’s stylish drum crunch.
For 50 years, rock was the default setting for mainstream music. Now that it isn’t, Saturday’s Weenie Roast embraced -- in its KROQ way -- the genre’s outsidery qualities again. Good for them.
[CORRECTED 4:35 p.m. Sunday, May 19]: The artist whose work appears on the cover of Thirty Seconds to Mars' new album is Damien Hirst, not Jeff Koons.
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