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Pop music review: I Heart Radio music festival

On Friday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Ryan Seacrest made a bold announcement, the same one that peppered many of the ads for the first I Heart Radio music festival.

“This is the biggest live music event in radio history,” he declared of the two-night extravaganza that brought onto the same stage, among others, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Carrie Underwood, Coldplay, Steven Tyler, Sting, Randy Jackson, Nicki Minaj, Rascal Flatts, Bruno Mars, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Sting, Kenny Chesney and Lady Gaga.

Seacrest, best known for his work on “American Idol,” as host of the long-running “American Top 40" radio program and, for Angelenos, the morning drive-time DJ for KIIS-FM (102.7), is nothing if not a hypeman, so he can be forgiven for his oversell. He was, after all, pushing a product: the I Heart Radio smart phone application, which promises listeners access to 11 million songs and to the signals of Clear Channel’s vast network of terrestrial stations.

The resulting media event/music festival sought to tap the deep emotional connection many of us have felt for radio as a concept, one captured by LL Cool J when he declared, “I can’t live without my radio,” and by Jonathan Richman, who sang in “Roadrunner” of cruising down the highway with the radio on and powered by the energy of the medium: “I’m in love with rock and roll, and I’ll be out all night.”

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That primal relationship with the radio dial helped shaped 20th century culture, but it is fading as the definition of “radio” broadens to include services such as Pandora, Spotify and iTunes, all of which have “radio” components and smart phone apps and promise the freedom to choose from millions of songs — diversions from KIIS-FM, Power 106, “American Top 40" and Clear Channel’s many holdings. Hence, “I Heart Radio,” a concert by superstars to celebrate a new Clear Channel conduit.

Grumpy skepticism out of the way, the number of massive hits performed over the weekend was impressive. On Friday, it ranged from the Black Eyed Peas starting the event with, alas, “Boom Boom Pow” — which doesn’t bode well for any festival — to Jane’s Addiction doing “Jane Says” to Mars covering Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” to Coldplay performing “Clocks.”

Alicia Keys debuted a pretty piano ballad called “A Place of My Own,” and after Jay-Z stepped onstage and owned it with a hit-filled 40-minute set that illustrated why he’s the most adept rapper in history — he tore through “99 Problems,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Run This Town” — Keys joined him for “Empire State of Mind.”

Saturday night’s highlights included Steven Tyler’s opening salvo, Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” which he sang with Jeff Beck on guitar and Sting on bass. Minaj, as always, was a joy to watch, a wildly charismatic rapper-singer-dancer-actor-marionette who tore through a handful of her best verses and tracks and said as much with her plasticized facial expressions and darting eyes as she did with her rhymes.

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Throughout the night, performers exclaimed how excited they were to be among such a varied lineup, and on the surface it was true: Minaj doesn’t share much with Aerosmith, nor does she have much common ground with the middling, cookie-cutter country act Rascal Flatts or twangin’ party boy Chesney. The latter, who tossed out solid but harmless nuggets of country rock, certainly doesn’t share too much common artistic ground with Lady Gaga, let alone a Frenchman like David Guetta, who debuted a song with R&B singer Usher.

What they do share are major label contracts, the power to deliver huge messages to big fan bases, access to the most well-financed communication conduits available and a willingness to explain on camera and onstage how awesome the I Heart Radio app and music festival will be.

The performance of Saturday night? By far it was Lopez’s fluidset, which saw her rocking a fantastic Tina Turner-esque red mini-dress circa 1974, which she coupled with gold heels. Lopez dipped back to her early years with a convincing version of “Jenny From the Block” and, of course, slammed home her 2011 comeback dance-floor hit “On the Floor.”

Lady Gaga also lobbied for dancing with one of her typically huge sets. Gaga has got this keyboard stand made out of motorcycle parts that consumes a big chunk of the stage; it’s like an Ed “Big Daddy” Roth hot-rod illustration come to life, all chrome and power and, when she and her 14 leather-clad, washboard-abbed male dancers weren’t doing synchronized voguing, she straddled it, and writhed upon it. At times, she even sat on it so she could play the keyboard.

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One annoying thing about Gaga’s shows of late, though, is her habit of uttering soliloquies to her little monsters with a melodramatically out-of-breath voice, as though she’d just run a marathon. Earlier, Tyler was working just as hard, and he’s twice — three times? — Gaga’s age. You didn’t hear him wheezing between songs; you heard him shrieking with glee.

Near the night’s end, Sting returned to duet with Gaga for a solid version of “Stand by Me” and then moved on to the Police’s “King of Pain.” The two swapped verses — he delivered a straight, unaffected rendition while she oversold her verses by seeming to simultaneously channel both Ray Charles and Mariah Carey. It was a bit much, honestly — but never let it be said that Lady Gaga doesn’t work hard for her money.

The concert’s most touching and real moment came from Gaga near the end of her set, when she dedicated a song to Jamey Rodemeyer, a gay teenager in Williamsville, N.Y., who committed suicide last week after being teased and bullied about his sexuality. The singer’s honest, heartfelt devotion to the cause of sexual and gender equality has made her an important spokesperson, and when she stopped the party to offer an ode to the 14-year-old Rodemeyer, she stripped away, if only for a moment, any cynicism one may have had for the I Heart Music festival’s motives in celebrating the power of music and radio.

With one clear offering, Gaga reinforced the notion that the spirit of music can touch hearts way more powerfully than even the most state-of-the-art smart phone application.

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randall.roberts@latimes.com


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