Before the modern-rock selling machinery kicked in five years ago, alternative bands had the like-it-or-not luxury of developing gradually, album by album and year by year, at a grass-roots level.
Now that modern rock is big business, bands can be thrown onto a big stage before they've figured out what to do under a spotlight.
Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish are cases in point. Last year, both squandered chances to make a good impression in high-profile Orange County shows because they didn't know how to react under the spotlight.
Playing at the KROQ Weenie Roast at Irvine Meadows last June, L.A.'s Goldfinger went for pointless obstreperousness, baiting the crowd for no other reason than to show how punk the band was.
Headlining the Galaxy Concert Theatre last August in a show celebrating the release of its "Turn Off the Radio" album, Orange County's Reel Big Fish blundered with forced irony, as front-man Aaron Barrett kept making disparaging little speeches about rock stardom, as if the band's numerous disparaging little ska-punk songs about how rock stardom stinks but they sort of want it anyway didn't exhaust that very slim subject without need for further commentary.
Things were much better Saturday at Oak Canyon Ranch, where Reel Big Fish briskly headlined an afternoon-long outdoor showcase of Southern California ska and punk bands, and Goldfinger turned in the best set of the day. The show, dubbed "For the Kids," featured 12 bands who donated their services to raise money for children's day-care programs run by the Saddleback Valley YMCA. All in all, it was a fun, upbeat day of modern rock that was energetic, lighthearted and well-executed, if not exactly memorable or soul-stirring. It played to an enthusiastically bouncing kid-corps of more than 3,000 fans, most of them probably not old enough to drive themselves to the gig.
Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish both seem to have gained from experience, tightening their sound to exploit the tunefulness and energy inherent in most of their material. Also, in contrast to those misfirings last year, both have adopted the often helpful rule of "shaddup and play."
Goldfinger didn't waste time trying to show it was punk; you could look at the four band members' tattoos, dye jobs and shaved craniums to figure that out. Or you could just listen to the hooky, propulsive songs the band played from its successful 1996 debut album, "Goldfinger," which, with sales of 200,000 copies, made it the bill's commercial top dog.
Goldfinger also has substance on its side: Its songs are small but well-wrought sketches that come off as honest accounts of important emotional currents and personal issues drawn from life. Singer John Feldman just let them rip, leaping about the stage as he slashed at his guitar; lead guitarist Charlie Paulson did a nice job of adding to both the musical intensity and visual interest--quite an accomplishment considering that he was hobbled by a broken ankle and confined to a seat at stage right.
Goldfinger front-loaded its punk-pop material, then veered toward ska-inflected songs later in the set, with help from two members of Reel Big Fish's horn section. The finale, "Mable," was a moment of real punk glory, achieved not by baiting the crowd, but by embracing and including it. Goldfinger invited fans from the audience and friends from the stage wings to jump in and sing along, and they did so rousingly from a jammed stage in a way that captured the best of punk's communal spirit.
Reel Big Fish ran through a proficient 50-minute performance in which Barrett let the songs speak for themselves. Not that they have much to say, but most of it went down stylishly with a sunny ska horn section and many a catchy chorus.
The band is showing signs of being the next hit act out of Orange County: Its typically ironic modern-rock insider's commentary, "Sell Out," is an unavoidable novelty on the playlist of novelty-loving KROQ, and the album has sold 74,000 copies to date, according to SoundScan. If Reel Big Fish breaks real big, it would be nice if the pivotal song proves to be "Beer," a barreling and tensely skipping ska-punk nugget that brings a fairly complex, tormented romantic situation to life. It was by far the set's highlight.
Another main stage band, Save Ferris, will be hearing "watch the birdie" a lot in '97, thanks to a photogenic front woman, Monique Powell, and a new major-label deal with Epic Records. But an albatross may be about to roost: Save Ferris will have to cope with the pressure and, perhaps, offhand dismissal that will come with inevitably being pegged as "the new No Doubt."
There are differences: Save Ferris has a good deal of swing content you don't hear in No Doubt, and Powell isn't up to any just-a-girl stuff with her brassy, womanly voice. However, this is another woman-fronted, ska-influenced rock band from Orange County, and in an era of information overload that compels the sorting and pegging of items for quick assimilation and disposal, Save Ferris shouldn't expect too many refined distinctions to be made.
Powell has an edge to her: She wasn't above mocking some audience members who irked her during a candy-tossing barrage (she has the same compulsive, mischievous-verging-on-malicious ha-ha-ha giggle as local punk pioneer Jack Grisham), but her banter didn't cross the line into actual nastiness. The most apt comparison between Save Ferris and No Doubt is this: It took No Doubt three albums to figure out how to hone its writing to produce songs that are memorable and concise; after just one EP, Save Ferris has a lot of learning ahead of it to accomplish the same.
There's no magic in a band with no melodies, but Voodoo Glow Skulls, from Riverside, did about as well as a barking, hard-core punk band can in trying to broaden the genre's borders. A buzzing, three-man horn section, some ska rhythms to go with a pummeling punk beat, and a wry rather than wrathful band personality helped. Ultimately, though, sameness set in.
The main stage also afforded another look at the Aquabats, those nine masked men in Day-glo green uniforms who are a Saturday morning kid's TV show wanting to happen. A lot of silly string got shot off during this silly performance, but the Orange County band is honing its broad theatrics, and it is practically guaranteed to raise a smile.
Through all their antics as they frolicked or fought costumed antagonists, the Aquabats managed to keep on track musically. The doo-wop accented "Red Sweater" was a silly little love song that worked.
A well-attended second stage favored straight punk rock over the punk-ska hybrids of the main stage. Home Grown, a young Orange County band that has established a substantial grass-roots following, showed some promise with its melodic sense and enthusiasm. Nothing groundbreaking, but at least the band knows how to put a song together as it takes a mainly light view of such everyday teen-interest stuff as girls, jobs and the fate of the Earth.
Total Chaos, from Ontario, showed what a sturdy and hardy form punk rock is. With its Anglophile accents and musical styles, its anthem-punk songs and its 1977 fashion sense, the band should be a joke, or at least a cliche: Rancid's little brothers, barking after the fashion of an even bigger brother, Joe Strummer of the Clash. But with at least one number, "Love Song," Total Chaos clicked with a chunky beat, persuasive vocal and intense playing that together vouched for old-line melodic punk as a style as enduring as a Chuck Berry stutter-and-twang riff.
Youth Brigade, the L.A.-based, all-sibling punk trio formed in 1980, served as the venerable conscience of the event. Singer Shawn Stern, who played the role of idealistic punk theorist in "Another State of Mind," the memorable documentary video about a 1982 tour by Youth Brigade and Social Distortion, was still at it at "For the Kids."
"I'm all for having fun, but punk rock is about more than having fun," he said, chiding other second-stage bands for not noting that the day was devoted to a cause (all the main stage bands did applaud the benefit and its purpose). With its fine old anthem about determination and solidarity, "Sink With California," and "Punk Rock Mom," a song whose premise of punk life after full adulthood was born out by some of the parents shepherding kids at "For the Kids," Youth Brigade was both relevant and musically up to snuff.
Given the day's generally low-stakes subject matter and its lack of truly probing or passionate music-making, however, Stern didn't get much help in persuading a new punk generation that it's "about more than having fun."