Arctic Monkeys play it cool

Times Staff Writer

There's a saying in basketball, "You can't teach height" -- meaning that physical size can make a player desirable despite certain limitations in his or her game.

The rock 'n' roll corollary might be "you can't teach youth" -- meaning that that fleeting stage of life can lend enough energy, passion and questioning heart to a band's music to make up for the absence of a knockout punch on stage.

Case in point: the Arctic Monkeys, whose concert Monday at the Great American Music Hall here was less than you might have wanted it to be, but still rang with the urgency of a voice yearning to be heard and insisting that you pay attention. There's more at stake, you sense, than just selling some songs. This is how they transform the mundane into the magical and make life mean something.

Those qualities are the same ones that make the English band's debut album, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," such an unalloyed joy. You can talk about Alex Turner's compelling voice and the band's bright, engaging mix of punk, pop and ska, but what it comes down to is the eloquence with which the Monkeys capture the experience of youth lived out in a dead-end outpost such as their hometown of Sheffield.

That authenticity was a key element in making the quartet, whose ages are hovering around 20, a full-blown phenomenon in England. Starting in 2004, their concerts and the free records they gave to fans sparked an out-of-nowhere grass-roots following. When the album came out in January, it became the fastest-selling debut in U.K. history.

There's no such widespread Monkey-mania in the U.S., where the album has sold modestly since its release here last month, but there's plenty of curiosity among serious rock-watchers, and probably more than the usual anticipation for the latest hot arrival from England.

Monday's sold-out concert (which will be followed by another tonight at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood) opened their first U.S. tour since the album came out, and chief among the questions was: How would they give their music the something extra you expect from the live experience?

The very least that a fan could have hoped for was a potent delivery of the songs. And that's what the band offered in its hourlong set -- overcoming a few shaky moments when Andy Nicholson's bass malfunctioned -- to assert its claim as a precocious heir to the great tradition of British song stretching from the Clash, Sex Pistols and the Smiths back to David Bowie and, in the beginning, Ray Davies.

The album showcases Turner's gift for documenting the rituals of kids' lives -- centered on a night at the disco, with its attendant flirtations, fights and frustrations. He's a restless documentarian, cramming more words and details than seem possible into the verses, employing slang and local flavor but tapping a universal truth.

It came across with full force Monday, defiant and sentimental, with Turner's rusty-razor voice slicing strongly and dancing with agility through the band's sharp guitar-rock. Turner dropped in some lovely guitar solos here and there as they played most of the album, along with a couple of new songs that sounded just as good.

Turner, Nicholson, guitarist Jamie Cook and drummer Matt Helders loosened up as they went along, hitting the boiling point on "Fake Tales of San Francisco." That indictment of rock poseurs is one indication of the Monkeys' distaste for pretension, which also came through in their attitude-free manner.

Maybe it was too attitude-free. They didn't speak much, and Turner's expression remained impassive, if not sullen. It's almost as if they're a little spooked by the attention, and rather than risk doing it wrong, they're going to tread cautiously. The important thing was that their reserve seemed to reflect a respect for the music and for their audience's bond with it, and they're determined not to tart it up or toss it off.

You can't teach charisma, but ideally they'll become more comfortable as they grow into their skin, and figure out how to dramatize without compromise, to light a fire in their eyes and lean into the crowd that's reaching to them for connection.

But so far so good. You don't want to monkey with something this precious.

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Arctic Monkeys

Where: Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 9 tonight

Price: $15

Contact: (323) 464-0808

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