It's been a long time since patrons at the annual KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas concerts have seen something like Amy Lee: a living, breathing, assertive, wailing singer of the female persuasion.
When she fronted her band Evanescence during the second night of this year's edition Sunday at the Gibson Amphitheatre, Lee joined Gwen Stefani (solo and with No Doubt) and the Distillers' Brody Dalle as the only women to crack the men's club this decade. You have to go back to 1999, when Fiona Apple and Tori Amos played, to find anything close to equality.
Evanescence's spot in the middle of Sunday's bill had the makings of a mismatch. Lee writes and sings unfashionably old-fashioned hard rock whose Led Zeppelin-like riffs and vocal grandeur are a world away from the aesthetics of the "modern rock" programmed by KROQ.
But instead of awkward standoff, Lee and the audience hit it off surprisingly well, a testament to the power of the right attitude and a voice with enough purity and power to command respect, regardless of your tastes.
Lee seemed humble but never less than confident, and she created room for rapport early on when she had acknowledged that her music "is a lot different than the bands you're used to."
Actually, if you added a bucket of sludge to the group's sound you might have something close to Korn, but even its crisp, clean approach got fans pumping their fists, and when Lee dared softer moments alone at the piano, including the single that KROQ is actually playing, "Call Me When You're Sober," she thoroughly held the crowd.
This unexpected bonding was a warming highlight of an event that doesn't tend to tweak expectations as it celebrates itself and the success of the music it plays. (The evening concluded with return visits from three perennials who have all been through town on tour recently: Beck, the Killers and, doing double duty this weekend, the Foo Fighters).
But Lee's wasn't the only breakthrough at Sunday's show. The one thing scarcer than women over the 14 years of Almost Acoustic Christmas has been African Americans, but in 2006 there's no escaping Gnarls Barkley, whose hit "Crazy" has been played seemingly everywhere, from KROQ to Radio Disney, and whose CD "St. Elsewhere" was just nominated for an album of the year Grammy.
Following opening sets by She Wants Revenge and Snow Patrol, Gnarls, led by producer-keyboardist Danger Mouse and singer Cee-Lo Green, kicked the evening into gear with a typically effervescent display of its soul-rooted rock experiments, including "Crazy" and a take on a song by KROQ hall of famers Violent Femmes, "Gone Daddy Gone."
The band leaders were dressed as Santa Claus, the musicians wore jester outfits, and the women in the group wore cute Santa's helper outfits and knew how to clap and have a great time when they weren't playing their strings.
Where this was all unforced and full of cheer, the on-the-rise Las Vegas band Panic! At the Disco provided an argument against the resurgence of theatrical rock. The musicians, dressed in Victorian duds, were joined by a troupe of vaguely sinister and erotic circus performers who cavorted and contorted to dizzying, distracting effect. This revival of the Tubes' 1970s effort at big-top rock was labored and fussy, but the crowd seemed to enjoy the razzle-dazzle.
Don't worry, though. Just when one trend seemed to be asserting itself in this six-hour panorama of current music, another came along to counteract it. Bucking the theatrical tide were some dressed-down bands, including Angels and Airwaves, in which former Blink-182 member Tom DeLonge seemed to be spoofing a believe-in-yourself motivational coach. Maybe if he lets his music do more of the talking he'll get a better response.
And the Raconteurs, led by the White Stripes' Jack White and pop-rock singer Brendan Benson, combined the former's fondness for distortion and extremes -- he turned the Cher hit "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" into a psychodrama -- with the latter's discipline and instinct for hooks. The result was loud and aggressive enough to knock you back, buoyant enough to lift you up and keep you afloat through the holidays.