The Birth of a Great Arena-Quality Act?


The arena-rock warhorse is a dwindling breed consisting of holdovers from past decades and a few '90s-bred ponies that haven't proved they can carry the load as a big draw over the long haul.

Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots broke down before they even made it to the back stretch. Pearl Jam could run the race--but does it want to? The Dave Matthews Band? Not a bad bet; somebody has to take over the Grateful Dead's jam-band slot.

Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Nine Inch Nails? Marilyn Manson, Green Day and No Doubt? None is an odds-on favorite at this point to follow Elton John, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Santana, the Rolling Stones, U2 and other '60s, '70s and '80s-vintage acts whose continuing presence on the scene helps concert promoters smile a bit between worried frowns over the lack of new arena-scale talent.

Then there is the Offspring. The Orange County-based band opened a two-night stand Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, its first area engagement as an amphitheater or arena headliner. (The band's biggest previous show in Southern California was a 1995 gig that drew an estimated 8,000 fans to the Olympic Velodrome in Carson.)

The band had built a strong foundation for a possible arena-rock career, registering one gold, one platinum and two multiple-platinum albums since rocketing to prominence five years ago with the hit "Come Out and Play." Its combined U.S. album sales stand at nearly 11 million, according to SoundScan.

Will Offspring look back on its big homecoming weekend as the triumphant but brief apex of its career? Or has it reached not a peak but a lofty plateau to be maintained over the long haul?

On the evidence of Friday's show before an impressive but less-than-capacity house of perhaps 13,000 ecstatic fans, the Offspring may well have the performing allure and creative staying power to ride the big-venue circuit well into the future.

The concert was a sharp and energized sprint through hit singles and equally tuneful additional tracks from the band's last three albums. Without any elaborate stage sets or expensive effects, ringleader Dexter Holland and his mates pulled off fun surprises and provided the memorable visual moments that make for excited morning-after fan chatter and long-lasting memories.

Musically and attitudinally, this was as varied a show as you'll get from a band that's nominally a punk-rock act. The Offspring offered smart-alecky novelties: "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," "Walla Walla" and "Why Don't You Get a Job?" There were plenty of obstreperously defiant or satiric punk salvos, among them "Americana," "Smash," "Come Out and Play" and "Cool to Hate," typically punctuated by F-word shout-along refrains that the crowd joined without cues or prodding.

But Holland, who sings and writes the songs, also aspires to fulfill punk's more elevated role as a vehicle for alert, intelligent commentary and philosophizing. The stately cry to heaven of "Gone Away" and the dark, urgent thrust of "Have You Ever," "The Kids Aren't Alright," "Gotta Get Away" and "Genocide" gave the show thematic ballast and emotional clout; Holland's piercing voice hit home as he became an embattled idealist trying to decide whether there's any point in trying in the face of so much worldly corruption and idiocy.

"So if you walk away, who is gonna stay?/'Cause I'd like to leave the world as a better place" was his call to activism and engagement with the world at the end of "Have You Ever."

But Holland, a man with smile dimples as deep as lunar craters, knows the value of high jinks for an audience that included preteens and their thirtysomething parents, along with the usual 15- to 30-year-old modern-rock demographic. Showers of confetti and more bubbles than Lawrence Welk ever commanded accompanied some of the more festive moments; Holland also bludgeoned to pieces effigies of the five Backstreet Boys and doused the house with a fire hose--moves correctly calculated to rate high on the kids' cool-o-meter.

The Offspring offer an impeccable sonic construct, thanks to Holland's gifted ear and canny knack as a song architect: There wasn't a riff, beat or vocal line that didn't serve as a hook or a setup for a hook. And the band executed it perfectly. Greg Kriesel, the no-nonsense bassist, anchored the low end with a clear, strong instrumental presence. Drummer Ron Welty provided a purposeful, trebly attack that never muddied the mix, as so many hard-rock drummers do with quaking bass drums. That left ample room in the foreground for Holland's distinctive, somewhat Ozzy Osborne-like tuneful bleat and the zooming riffs he and his pogo-ing sidekick, Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman, buzzed out on guitar.

If they aren't there already, the Offspring are just one more big hit song or album away from critical mass as an arena-rock fixture. Once that chain reaction has begun, they'll have no problem sustaining it if they can keep their performances on the level of this one.

Meanwhile, second-billed Lit is a promising band that could blow up big: Its worthy album, "A Place in the Sun," has gone gold, and the Anaheim foursome hasn't even headlined a club tour yet. But Lit needs to hone its act to make the most of the opportunity. Singer A. Jay Popoff mouthed tired arena-rock cliches between songs--a move that always makes it seem that a performer is just feeding grist to a commercial mill often greased by cliches, rather than making music that flows from the heart. Worse, he gave a club performance in a big setting.

Popoff sang from a tight, scrunched-over posture, often bellowing lyrics into the floor instead of to the back row. He leaped and raced about, but it seemed a forced effort that didn't rise naturally and expressively from the music. It made Lit's performance seem small and confined, when it needed to be expansive and confident.

Popoff's grainy vocal delivery also sounded labored at times, lacking the suppleness that gives Lit's album a hopeful, energetic lift even when the lyrics are downcast. The band can play--Jeremy Popoff's metal-tinged guitar work was a highlight, and he provided solid backing vocals behind his younger brother.

By the last two songs of its 40-minute set, Lit had loosened up and was zooming ahead with fine impact. It needs to build from there if it's going to light up the big venues. Lit is touring with the Offspring for several weeks, and A. Jay could benefit by keeping an observant eye on Holland each night to see how it's done.

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