When a rock band's live album sounds as rich and as precisely sung and played as Oingo Boingo's new one, "Boingo Alive," it's natural to wonder whether any studio trickery went into producing such a supposedly pure aural treat.
The fact that Oingo Boingo made the album, a lavish career retrospective, under controlled conditions in a rehearsal studio instead of under fire in concert also raises the question. If there was any sneaky business involved, it figured to be unmasked Friday night in the first of Oingo Boingo's two Halloween weekend shows at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
As it turned out, Boingo does use a number of taped rhythm embellishments and echo effects on stage--a sort of pine tar for rockers. Some (following the reasoning of Jay Howell, the Dodger pitcher who got nabbed for gumming up his glove in the playoffs) would say that this isn't cheating but a mere accessory that doesn't affect the actual play--and besides, lots of people use it. Others will argue that it distorts the purity of the game.
In Boingo's case, an obvious abundance of snap, skill and group craftsmanship confirmed the Los Angles band as a first-rate live act, with or without artificial sonic additives. At least for the first two-thirds of a 2 1/2-hour show that could have used substantial editing, leader Danny Elfman and the seven other Boingos had a party going that was unflaggingly catchy and danceable.
Before it was over, Oingo Boingo had run through all 28 songs on the extended CD version of "Boingo Alive," and then some. Some of the highlights worked because of compelling rhythm, as on "Gratitude" and "Pain." Others connected with strong melodic hooks.
Stylistically, Oingo Boingo is much more of a borrower than an innovator. Many of Elfman's best songs call other bands to mind: the stormy, guitar-powered "Just Another Day" echoes U2; "Stay" recalls the Cars' sleek pop-rock, while "We Close Our Eyes" and "Not My Slave" are reminiscent of Squeeze's pop-R&B; approach. "My Life" was a near dead-ringer for one of Simple Minds' techno-rock anthems.
That range of borrowing, along with dips into ska, pure funk and galloping country beats, enabled Oingo Boingo to mix it up nicely through the first 90 minutes. More important, Boingo has a personality of its own that allows it to borrow without being slavish.
With his strong, supple voice, a talent for mime and an expressive face, Elfman could make his way in Broadway musicals if he wanted to (in fact, Oingo Boingo had its beginnings as a musical theater troupe). Without overdoing the theatrics, he gave Boingo a consistently interesting focal point.
Drummer Johnny Hernandez, who looks like the Three Stooges' Curly, but with a Mohawk haircut, and John Avila, a skittering elf of a bassist, were exceptional players and lively performers. Add a sharp guitarist, Steve Bartek; a precision, three-man horn section; crisp multipart backing vocals; fast pacing, and such oddities as a marimba duet between Elfman and Avila, and you have no lack of entertaining goings-on.
For the MTV generation--and for the folks in the upper reaches of a sold-out amphitheater--a screen hanging from the stage canopy carried the video version of the show, complete with close-ups, slow motion effects, image distortion and comically macabre animations.
As long as Oingo Boingo kept the show catchy and varied, it was a pleasure. Unfortunately, the band's early-'80s material, delivered by Elfman in an arch, half-spoken manner, is neither catchy nor varied. It's merely frenzied, hyperactive and emotionally chilly.
A few well-placed oldies might have worked. Instead, Oingo Boingo strung a bunch of them together over the final hour or so. This ceaseless freneticism made for a tiresome ending to an otherwise buoyant concert.