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POP MUSIC REVIEW : L.A. Rockers Show Solidarity in Benefit

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever since the nascent Los Angeles punk community banded together in a series of 1978 benefit concerts to save a beleaguered Hollywood club called the Masque, the city’s rock bands have employed their power to unite and inspire their audience behind a cause--be it a social issue, a colleague in need or a political movement.

In that atmosphere, pure careerism has always been viewed with contempt by the torchbearers--though a good run at the brass ring is part of the fun, and respect isn’t necessarily the price of success. So when the Go-Go’s, the L.A. scene’s top commercial group, merged with X, its most critically acclaimed and morally commanding group, on Wednesday at the Palace, all the circuits seemed to be complete.

Singer Exene Cervenka’s teaming with the four women of the Go-Go’s (she stepped in for Belinda Carlisle) was the emotional high point of a concert staged to raise funds for musician and journalist Craig Lee, who is battling AIDS.

Cervenka applied her countrified punk wail to the Go-Go’s’ bittersweet municipal anthem “This Town,” and the players got back to their punk origins when they turned to one of X’s early signature songs, “We’re Desperate.” They closed their set with an extended, trance-like vamp on Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s “Lust for Life.”

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That both X (which is on extended hiatus) and the Go-Go’s (whose reunion last year hasn’t restored the band’s earlier fortunes) are in a state of uncertainty reflects the currently splintered, leaderless state of the once cohesive L.A. scene.

Accordingly, Wednesday’s performers seemed eager to transcend the immediate fund-raising issue, embracing the occasion as an opportunity to reassert that old solidarity and purpose. “We should do this more often,” said Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, whose palpable, forcefully expressed emotion and periodic cameo appearances with other bands made her one of the evening’s most compelling, passionate figures.

And overall, they succeeded, recapturing the idealism and recapitulating 15 years of musical and cultural ferment. With more than 20 acts performing for about 15 minutes each over six hours, no single performer had a chance to develop a set of much depth. Instead, each condensed its power and contributed to a kaleidoscopic panorama of L.A. rock.

Not everyone on the bill had a major link with the evening’s honoree, but all had at least indirectly benefited from his zealous support of the rock community, and from the standards of passion and imagination he has espoused.

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Participants included first-generation colleagues from the ‘70s punk upheaval: Blackbird’s Chip and Tony Kinman were the Dils back then, and the Zeros, reunited for the occasion, were one of the first to release independent singles.

The lineup was designed to sell tickets as well as make a statement about L.A.'s music, so it offered such star graduates of the grass-roots circuit as Concrete Blonde and Jane’s Addiction (three-fourths, anyway--singer Perry Farrell, guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Steve Perkins offering an absorbing, acoustic run through three of their staples).

The Circle Jerks, hard-core punk survivors and standard bearers, drew a large contingent eager to see a favorite that hasn’t played in eight months. (The sold-out event raised $21,000 for Lee, a spokesman for the promoter said Thursday.)

No unscheduled surprises popped up, but some special combinations added to the show’s luster: Go-Go Charlotte Caffey joined Redd Kross, some of the Ringling Sisters sang with Concrete Blonde, and members of the feisty young female band L7 (whose earlier set was a striking demonstration of the endurance of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit), pranced and sang behind folk singer Phranc’s closing “Life Lover.”

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Phranc, whose idealism has made her a major moral force on the scene over the years, offered that touch of optimism as a final note to the evening’s prevailing mood of celebration amid sadness (a mood enhanced by Lee, who was unable to attend the concert but who sent a message to the crowd that began, “Hello suckers, thanks for the down payment on my trip to Nice”).

But just as the punk era’s Masque concerts had a political subtext--a demand for freedom of expression--there were enough pointed, political comments to lend the evening some edge.

Concert co-organizer Jim Fouratt offered a fiery call to arms in a brief speech, and Firehose’s Mike Watt was one of several to excoriate President Bush for what they called the government’s indifference to AIDS.


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