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Pop Music Reviews : Lenny Kravitz, How Retro Can You Go? : The clothes, hair and fans all made a statement. One looks--in vain--for any hint of irony in the posturing.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Outside UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night, the crowds being searched for contraband looked as if they were assembling for a “Dazed and Confused II” casting call.

And it was clear who the queues took their cues from. Once inside, they cheered on Lenny Kravitz and band, who themselves looked--as one observer said--as if they might be auditioning for “The Grand Funk Story.”

Both Kravitz’s drummer and guitarist appeared to have scalped Don Brewer circa 23 years ago with their out-to- here frizzy fright-wig hairdos. Dreadlocked Kravitz himself was a little more the modern rock stud, in skintight--except around the ankles, of course--white.

The whole scene was so self-consciously redolent of the specific era intended that, when Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash joined Kravitz’s band for a guest solo spot on “Mama Said,” it almost threw the whole psychic balance off. It was unsettling, watching someone so late-'80s stepping into such an early-'70s scenario--like seeing Sonny Crockett do a walk-on during a late-night rerun of “Mannix.”

Perhaps it’s not fair to concentrate on appearances, except that Kravitz goes so exaggeratedly out of his way to invite costume-party correlations, and the look is an outgrowth of his pointedly untouched-by-modernism sound. One looks for any hint of irony in Kravitz’s posturing, and looks in vain, as every shred of evidence points painfully to the contrary.

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But what place in the post-mod pantheon do you assign a fellow who’s as talented as he is humorless, who has an ear that just won’t quit to go with a wit that just won’t start, who’s as gifted a self-producer as he is a poseur? Do you dismiss him as a faux naif or laud him as an idiot savant?

Is it possible to recognize the consuming emptiness of this enterprise and still embrace Kravitz’s considerable craft? Probably, though you may well hate yourself in the morning, or the ‘90s, whichever comes first.

The most remarkable--and nearly redeeming--thing about Kravitz is the way he makes his affectations sound firsthand, not studied. The crowds that come to come hear his power-riffing also get exposed to some first-rate soul balladry. He failed to perform his 1991 hit “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” but did do the lesser-heard “My Precious Love,” which also sounds as if it could’ve come straight from the canon. And some of his best rockers, like the back-to-back “Mr. Cab Driver” and “Flower Child,” did bring a sense of contemporary energy to the nostalgia-mongering.

But energy was what this set was often surprisingly short on, at least in the second half, which made it a comedown from Kravitz’s more solid appearances at the Variety Arts Center two years back. The show peaked too early around Slash’s cameo, and the sold-out crowd’s ample enthusiasm flagged when Kravitz trotted out “Sister,” an overindulgent snoozer from his most recent album.

He recovered, but still demonstrated an apparent lack of faith in his own ability to garner encores by delaying his latest and biggest hit, “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” until the second callback. Solos here tended to replicate the recordings note for note, and surprises in song choices were nil.

Still, every note Kravitz played was pure godhead compared to the instrumental aimlessness of opening act Blind Melon, whose minor charms on record are completely lost live, where the slacker-rock tends to sound like bad Jane’s Addiction at its best, and bad Grateful Dead at its worst.


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