The Pop Moment

Ever been disappointed, but not know where to lay the blame? That's how I felt Monday night at the AstroArena for the Shonen Knife, Breeders and Nirvana triple bill. In fact, I was disappointed just to be disappointed, since this was a twentysomething show (albeit witnessed largely by teens) if ever there was one, and everyone knows that twentysomethings are defined by their sense of diminished expectations anyway. I wasn't expecting much more than entertainment, and even that meager hope proved futile. As a matter of fact, once you start whittling this deeply into your expectations of an already overblown show, about the best you can hope for is to leave without having been bored. I was bored enough to buy a hot dog, fer Chrissakes.My date fell asleep. And as we left, over the din of a pack of kids singing the chorus to Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" (I kid you not), I could be heard muttering my disconsolate meditations on why, and how, everything, eventually, sucks.

What to blame?
Certainly not Shonen Knife, who is as charming and ultimately winning a quartet of Japanese women singing classic American girl pop as anyone could hope for. Sure, their English conveyed a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between noun and verb, but only an M.L.A. editor could hold that against them in the face of their sheer exhuberance. And sure, their not-quite-weened reliance on American pop cliches (surreally enough, the row of Frenchmen behind me cluttered an entire song by singing the chorus of Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight" over an admittedly similar Shonen tune) betrayed room for growth. And sure, their not-quite-weened reliance on American pop cliches betrayed some room for growth (surreally enough, the row of Frenchmen behind me cluttered an entire song by singing the chorus of Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight" over an admittedly similar Shonen tune). But they were fun, dammit, and when the mosh pit kicked into gear over a cover of the Motown classic "Heat Wave," I knew something interesting was happening. Reminded me of seeing spAguire: The Wrath of God, a film wherein German actors played Spanish conquistadores exploring Peru, cursing their bitter fate in English subtitles. Disconcerting, yes, but ultimately worth the headspin.

It'd be tough to blame the Breeders, either. Last year's show at the Vatican bowled me over, and it wasn't just Kim Deal's spooky sex appeal. There's something about the clever, unexpected way that Deal builds songs, and something more about the off-the-cuff way that she and her sister/guitarist Kelly, bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim McPherson play them, that makes me think the Breeders will be one of those rare rock bands people still listen to with fondness in ten years. All that was in evidence Monday night, and even if Wiggs' bass was mixed like a tub of mud, it didn't entirely drown out the beauty of hits old and new.

Blame Nirvana? Why not. They've been blamed for everything else. But this failure doesn't fit quite squarely on the shoulders of songwriter/guitarist/vocalist/generational figurehead Kurt Cobain either. His band pumped out more-or-less inspired versions of a good selection of songs from the recent In Utero, greatest hits from Nevermind (yes, they played "Teen Spirit"), and even dug back into their last Sub Pop release, Bleach, for a riff-heavy run through "School."

On the down side, Dave Grohl's drums were much too loud, as per standard at arena rock shows, and it didn't take long for Nirvana's quiet introduction-thunderous crescendo-quiet interlude-thunderous crescendo formula it didn't take long for the Nirvana formula -- quiet introduction, thunderous crescendo, quiet interlude, thunderous crescendo -- to wear thin, especially since the venue offered almost nothing in the way of mobility to its general-admission patrons. The sort of assault that Nirvana specializes in can be great fun to be a part of, but it's tiresome to watch from a distance. The flailing guitar histrionics of the Germs' Pat Smear -- on tour loan to beef up Nirvana's live guitar sound -- and the quiet spectre of little-used cellist Lori Goldstone at least offered something new to watch, as did the backstage manhandling of some uppity kid who went after one of Cobain's guitars, but in the end, it was just another concert. Cobain prompted the evening's only smile before the second song of the first encore when he asked the crowd: "So, ya'll enjoying your new Pearl Jam record?" Hard to say if he was being pissy about In Utero's relatively slow sales, sneering at a crowd he could play like a puppet, or what, but at least, finally, it was something to think about.

No, what ruined the show was the venue. No smoking, no drinking, no standing in the aisles, very restricted access to the stagefront, flawed sound, and the generally oppressive feeling that you can watch, but you can't play. All three bands work best on a more immediate level of interaction, and watching them try to manipulate a crowd this size just emphasized what Kurt "I Don't Wanna Be A Rock Star" Cobain and his ilk have been trying to say all long: Rock and roll should be in your face, cuz it's a piss-poor spectator sport.


Frank Zappa, composer, musician and satirist, born December 21, 1940, died December 4, 1993, of prostate cancer. Rest in peace.

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Brad Tyer