History, with heat
History was in the air Saturday at the Gibson Amphitheatre during KCRW’s sixth-annual A Sounds Eclectic Evening. The four-hour concert was a fundraiser for the popular Santa Monica public radio station (89.9 FM), whose star DJ, Nic Harcourt, informed the capacity crowd that proceeds would be used to modernize KCRW’s music library, which he said contains more than a few pieces of ancient vinyl.
Yet if the practical goal was to retrofit the archives, the musical objective seemed to be to keep the spirit of vinyl intact. Each of the seven acts looked to the past for inspiration. Some transcended their influences to create something new; others were content to recycle.
For the Shins, the evening’s headliner, the something new was an invigorated attitude toward performance. Since 2001, when the Portland, Ore.-based band became an underground sensation, the group has steadily increased its profile; its latest CD, “Wincing the Night Away,” debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart earlier this year.
Yet the Shins’ live shows were always a weak link, a dreary demonstration of the indie scene’s reluctance to embrace the art of showmanship. But on Saturday, frontman James Mercer and his bandmates made great use of volume and speed, zipping through 13 songs in an hour like some demented Merseybeat combo. Their newfound forcefulness clearly offended the genteel sensibilities of a large portion of the audience, which started shrinking only a few minutes in. But in the Shins’ sure hands, the past sounded startlingly alive.
Lily Allen, one of the night’s two U.K. imports, also ranks high on the pop buzz meter, but she turned in a so-so set. The whip-smart 21-year-old has spent the last few months touring the world in support of her excellent debut, “Alright, Still.” And as recent performances in L.A. and San Diego have proven, she’s captivating. But at the Gibson, Allen seemed exhausted, which sapped her music of its infectious exuberance. Only “Littlest Things” -- a quiet, piano-led reflection on the days before a relationship went sour -- rang true emotionally.
An essential part of the Sounds Eclectic experience is the surprise guest; Saturday’s came in the form of Travis, the Scottish guitar-pop outfit that’s never quite managed to duplicate its fame at home here in the States. At the Gibson, the band played a pared-down set heavy on cuts from its upcoming album, “The Boy With No Name.” The music’s melodic pleasures were ample, with echoes of the Beatles and the Byrds.
But as singer Fran Healy noted, Travis’ self-conscious wimpiness wasn’t flattered by its placement on the bill following Rodrigo y Gabriela.
This extraordinary duo from Mexico City offered plenty of modern energy, playing folk-based acoustic guitar music like a heavy-metal band, peeling off complicated licks with lightning speed and thumping their instruments for built-in percussion. “We make crazy music,” Gabriela Quintero said, and that’s as descriptive a phrase as you’re likely to hear. Halfway through the set, Rodrigo Sanchez played a well-known Rage Against the Machine riff, which drew cheers from the crowd.
For most groups, like Rod y Gab, the gesture would be ironic; here, it was a fake-out before they launched into a gorgeous version of Metallica’s “Orion.”
The night’s first thrilling performance came from Cold War Kids, the Long Beach foursome that rose to indie-rock renown last year on a wave of blog hype. On their debut, “Robbers & Cowards,” the Kids give old saloon blues a post-punk makeover; much of their music imagines Tom Waits backed by the White Stripes. At the Gibson, with singer Nathan Willett flailing away at an electric piano, the band shed the preciousness that smothers parts of “Robbers.” Willett introduced one new song as being “about a mean mother with a wild daughter,” and though the tune was set in 1948, it throbbed with modern energy.
Bitter:Sweet, the young West Hollywood outfit that opened the show, drew more from old records than inspiration. A stylish 11-member trip-hop ensemble, Bitter:Sweet built new songs atop samples from jazz and soul records manipulated onstage by a DJ.
Breakestra approached a similar aesthetic from the opposite direction. Using guitars, bass, horns and drums, the local eight-man crew turned familiar samples into live music, re-creating in real time the “breaks” that hip-hop producers salvage from old funk records. “Ya’ll remember James Brown?” frontman Mixmaster Wolf asked. A roar from the crowd suggested everyone did, but Breakestra provided a tidy crash course in Brown’s music anyway.