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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : A Potent ‘Rock for Choice’ at Palace

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Rock for Choice,” the four-band underground summit at the Palace on Friday, was a benefit for the Feminist Majority organization, so it was fitting that the gals out-rocked the guys.

But it was close.

Hardly anyone these days can out-rock Nirvana, whose first major-label album, “Nevermind,” appears to be making it the big breakthrough band of this season. The Seattle trio’s explosive, show-closing set was fittingly celebratory and enraged, sparked by musical indictments of rape and apathy and by spoken exhortations to political action.

Like such other Replacements progeny as Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana was originally charged by punk-rock but eventually acquired melody, articulation and dynamics.

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With no loss of that essential energy, the band can now shape a shifting series of emotional signals that offers much more depth than the basic slam soundtrack.

Affirming rock’s ability to elicit new revelations from the simplest forms, Nirvana coaxed a melancholy sweetness from its roar on Friday, and singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain’s scratchy croon was forceful without being forced. It seemed to float like a haze above the din.

While the melodic hooks provided approachability and definition, the sheer force of the attack was Nirvana’s bracing essence. Setting things up with taut, tension-building unison throbs straight out of the early Who’s master plan, then releasing it in monumental blasts, Nirvana had the crowd literally leaping as one.

Nirvana was the only one of the four bands Friday to speak extensively about the central and attendant issues of the show’s legalized abortion theme. Bassist Chris Novoselic gave a couple of speeches that ranged from half-baked rebel cliches to inspiring calls to arms.

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But the evening’s first two bands inevitably embodied elements of the feminist spirit in ways a male group never could.

Hole, a three-quarters female band, opened the sold-out concert with singer Courtney Love spilling her guts without inhibition or apology.

With her blond ringlets and little-girl dress, she looked like a tortured 5-year-old as she yowled and ranted with primal fury while the band provided a pounding, basic backdrop. The results were reminiscent of early Patti Smith, or maybe a cruder, more anguished Concrete Blonde.

L.A.'s reigning female band, L7, followed with a set whose power and precision yielded unbridled rock ‘n’ roll exuberance. No gimmicks, no posturing, just good songs and a brand of hard-driving, hair-flinging guitar-rock whose invigoration defies analysis.

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It might have something to do with its inevitability--the way the four women seem driven to make this music--and its underlying message of unpretentious release.

After that formidable one-two punch, and with Nirvana lying ahead, San Francisco-based Sister Double Happiness came on as the swing vote in this battle of the sexes. But the quintet seemed miscast on this night of unaffected expression.

Despite punk credentials in its background, SDH is a blues-rock band, with only a couple of arty, quirky twists to give it an “alternative” tinge.

Singer Gary Floyd, looking like a burly trucker in his shades and denims, performed with the showy gestures of an arena-rocker, and most of the audience stood motionless during the whole set, as if trying to apprehend some irony that never came.

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