Review: Looking forward, looking back at Sunset Strip Music Festival
More than guitars, more than drums and certainly more than the shirt guitarist Dave Navarro characteristically went without, nostalgia was crucial to Jane’s Addiction’s hometown concert Saturday night in Los Angeles. Fortunately for the band — if not for the rest of us — there was plenty in the air to draw on.
A long way from its seedy underground roots, Jane’s Addiction headlined the first night of the Sunset Strip Music Festival, the annual celebration of West Hollywood’s important place in rock history. Now in its seventh year (and newly expanded from one to two days), the festival brings music, food and the branded visual clutter of its many corporate partners to a stretch of Sunset Boulevard famed for such incubative nightclubs as the Roxy and the Whisky A Go Go.
Those rooms, among others, are where groups from the Byrds and the Doors to Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses developed their sounds, and Saturday the venues housed some of the lesser-known bands booked for the event. Higher-profile acts including Jane’s Addiction, Cold War Kids and the absurdist rapper Riff Raff performed on three stages on Sunset, which was closed to cars over the weekend between San Vicente Boulevard and Doheny Drive.
No one would deny Jane’s Addiction’s role in the story this festival tells about the Strip. Bridging the once-forbidding divide between punk and heavy metal, the L.A. band led by frontman Perry Farrell helped to invent alternative rock with its first studio album, 1988’s “Nothing’s Shocking.” And though it’s since broken up and reunited several times — releasing two crummy comeback discs — the group on Saturday drew a large, enthusiastic crowd of more than 8,000, according to a festival organizer’s estimate.
Yet the band’s show, built around a beginning-to-end rendition of “Nothing’s Shocking,” did zero to advance its legacy — or the Strip’s. Farrell’s yowling vocals, Navarro’s overblown riffs, the aimless instrumental detours — they all felt cripplingly old-fashioned, a bloated holdover from the days when chest-beating bad boys ruled the Roxy and the Whisky.
On the bright side, the band was far tighter and evidently better rehearsed than at other recent gigs, including a laughably sloppy appearance at KROQ-FM’s Almost Acoustic Christmas in 2011. But in a way, the players’ precision only added to the sense that what we were experiencing was a museum piece unchanged from its original moment.
That could be a business model for the Sunset Strip Music Festival. As Coachella gradually moves away from its guitar-band roots — this year’s edition in April felt overwhelmingly dominated by dance music — perhaps this Sunset event will become Southern California’s premier destination for reuniting rockers. Indeed, another recently revived unit from L.A.’s alt-rock past, Failure, played Saturday to a modestly sized but deeply attentive clutch of fans.
Except that the festival seems also to want to look forward. Before Jane’s Addiction on Saturday, Cold War Kids — “representing the Eastside of Los Angeles,” as singer Nathan Willett made sure to point out — powered through an hour of convincingly modern rock, with textures and themes alive to right now. (Empire of the Sun, the Australian electro-pop duo scheduled to close Sunday’s show, reflects a version of 2014 too.)
And then there was Riff Raff, whose performance on a stage curated by L.A. rapper Murs was by some measure the most up-to-date of Saturday’s offerings. A Houston native known for his out-there metaphors and abundant alter egos — and the real-life inspiration, he says, for James Franco’s talked-about character in the movie “Spring Breakers” — Riff Raff makes an art of toying with perception and identity.
In that he shares much with any number of current pop stars — Miley Cyrus, Rick Ross or Katy Perry, whom Riff Raff accompanied to the MTV Video Music Awards last month wearing a replica of a denim suit famously worn by Justin Timberlake at the 2001 American Music Awards. (Perry went similarly attired as Timberlake’s date, Britney Spears.)
But that tricksterism also connects Riff Raff to such icons of the Sunset Strip as Axl Rose and Jim Morrison, men for whom reality and artifice were fluid concepts. Those two also rarely passed up an opportunity to provoke their audiences, a tendency that once lived on in Farrell and Jane’s Addiction but now appears dormant.
Riff Raff, though, was on the case: Here he spent a good portion of his set seated in a chair while a woman braided his dyed-pink hair.
Was the stunt in keeping with West Hollywood tradition? Maybe not in its particulars. But it provided a welcome jolt.
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