"Hey, you guys hear about the rumor that STP got a new singer?" Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland asked the crowd during the band's Monday concert at the Universal Amphitheatre--its first formal show after a forced six-month hiatus while Weiland underwent court-ordered drug addiction treatment.
The question was meant to underscore that he was indeed back, after a layoff that was rife with reports that his three bandmates had sought to replace him.
Of course, it's possible to interpret the question in a metaphorical way: STP does have a new singer. Sober and healthy, quietly contrite and even looking a bit scared in his natty, gangster-style pinstripes, the Weiland on stage Monday contrasted sharply with the sometimes belligerent, unfocused figure who fronted the band in the past.
Weiland wisely didn't overdo the "new man" routine. There were no apologies, no tears of appreciation. It seemed enough for him to concentrate on the task at hand.
The ensuing performance can hardly be called an unqualified triumph--first-night problems were apparent in the pacing (a few stretches of sludgy tempos), performances (some ragged vocals, especially on the slower numbers) and early-show tentativeness on Weiland's part.
But it was strong enough to reaffirm something that was somewhat lost in the hubbub last spring when the band had to cancel touring plans, virtually killing the momentum of its new third album, "Tiny Music . . . Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop," before it really got rolling: This is a band that is finally coming into its own artistically.
While the show was structured around the STP hits of the first two albums--from the sardonic "Sex Type Thing" to the roiling "Vasoline" to the modal-tinged "Pretty Penny"--it was the newer songs that brought the band out of the shadows of its obvious influences (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath) and its more groundbreaking contemporaries (Pearl Jam, Nirvana).
Combining matured and often imaginative music (mostly written by guitarist Dean DeLeo and his bassist brother Robert) with Weiland's sarcastic yet earnest lyrics of pop-star pitfalls, "Pop's Love Suicide," the melodic "Lady Picture Show" and the punchy rocker "Big Bang Baby" all have the makings of '90s post-grunge classics.
Whether it's enough to renew the band's momentum is another matter. It seems impossible at this point for the new album, with just 1.1 million copies sold, to join its predecessors at around the 4 million mark. But the fans certainly embraced this comeback, cheering every song as an anthem and hailing Weiland as a returned hero with his every move.
Weiland's bandmates were not so demonstrative. In fact, while Weiland's one other comment was to thank the fans for "letting me come play again with this band," the DeLeos and drummer Eric Kretz gave no indication that they're happy to have him back. There were no displays of affection between singer and band--in fact there was practically no interaction of any kind. While Weiland danced and flailed about, the other three, while playing with power and even passion, seemed in their expressions only interested in getting on with business.
Just once was there any spark of chemistry. During a mid-set acoustic segment, Weiland briefly caught the eye of Robert DeLeo, and they exchanged warm grins. But they quickly broke eye contact, each returning to stone-faced indifference, Weiland grimacing awkwardly. It's the kind of thing that will bear watching as the tour--and the ultimate fate of this band--unfolds.
* Stone Temple Pilots play on Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine, 8 p.m. $25-$33.80. (714) 855-4515.