(Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA on August 29th 2010) I was at the Sunset Music Festival Saturday only, specifically to cover the headlining acts. After I checked in and got my credentials at The Viper Room, I headed outside to check out the street stages. I went directly to the East Stage to see Common, but due to some difficulties setting up, his set was delayed. I really needed to wait for him to go on so I could deliver a proper review, but judging by the mic’d dialogue that I could hear between the DJ (serving also as monitor board engineer?) and the house engineer, I knew I had some time.
As serendipity would have it, one of my favorite LA bands, The Binges, was playing at The Cat Club right next to the stage. I walked the ten feet to The Cat Club to check it out. As they consistently do, The Binges delivered a brutal, electric set of unapologetic hard rock/sleaze/metal. Really, this band is always good. I remember a few years ago, during one of their gigs at Safari Sam’s, a friend of mine asked me, “Why aren’t The Binges the biggest rock band in the world?” Honestly, I had no answer for him. I still have no answer for him. In fact, I contend that if you haven’t seen two incredibly small but incredibly virtuosic Japanese girls shred the guts out of an AC/DC cover, you haven’t lived. Next time they’re in your neighborhood, do yourself a favor.
I cruised back outside, and finally, after the long delay, Common took the stage. Because of the aforementioned difficulties, he was forced to perform without monitors. The show, as they say, must go on. I’ve seen Common live before, and I can say that the man never disappoints. Even without the benefit of monitors, he smashed his set. Each time I’ve seen him live, Common uses the same lineup: his DJ, a live drummer (sometimes also with some hand percussion and an MPC), and a keyboardist with a bank of synths. The DJ and keyboardist were on point, and I have to give a special accolade to the drummer, who augmented the set by making great choices. Rather than just playing amen breaks throughout, he accented the loops, played fills when the beat was hitting, and kept solid time when the beat dropped out. As for Common himself, his flow was tight as ever. His enunciation was clear, his voice strong, his timing impeccable. He started the set with his verse from “Respiration” and burned through hits like “I Want You” and “Sex 4 Sugar.” Between numbers, he served double duty as his own hype man. His banter with the crowd was ever charming; his stage presence was great. I wish I had seen his entire set, but before long, I had to bail for the West Stage to see the man of the hour.
I arrived at the West Stage just in time to catch Slash launching into “Night Train.” By this point in the day, the West Stage smelled exactly like I had always dreamed a Slash show would smell — like vomit and cigarettes. And Slash sounded exactly like I expected him to sound…but I may be at a loss to describe that sound. Much like Brian May before him, Slash has a signature sound that is defined by, but not at all replicable by, his gear. Of course, there is the huge ‘Les Paul through two Marshall stacks’ tone, but beyond that there is the phrasing — the love of the blues scale peppered with classical metal solos, the sometimes epic, sometimes dirty, sometimes just plain weird riffs that no one else could write. And now, as he’s gotten older, there is a blatant exposition of his ability to play any style in the rock, blues, hardcore, punk, metal or pop canon better than nearly anyone on the planet.
Tonight, Slash played all of his parts perfectly. It may be the inherent ability, it may be the sobriety, it may be the lifelong love affair with his instrument, but the man never flubs a note. His timing is perfect; his bends, his slides, his hammers — everything sounds perfect. Slash played with the five-piece setup that he is likely very comfortable with, and the band sounded huge. Brent Fitz provided a rock solid back-beat, beating the hell out of a DW kit. On vocals, Myles Kennedy was outstanding. During the Appetite songs, he handled Axl’s vocal parts as well as, if not better than, Axl would have. He did a great job with Andrew Stockdale’s part when they played “By The Sword,” and he even brought his arena rock-style to Scott Weiland’s part when they played the one Velvet Revolver number of the set (“Slither”). When Slash played the opening riff to “Starlight” (a riff which could easily have been written by Keith Richards for Exile On MainStreet), I immediately noticed that it sounded crunchier than it does on his album, like a Guns track. Actually, the whole song sounded bigger live than it did on the album. Kennedy’s vocals sounded bigger, harsher, making the new material march in much better time with Slash’s parade of hits.
I might say that everything in this set was supersized and, at some point, everything became magical, like one of those shows you read about but don’t believe you’ll ever see. When the band did a solid version of “Rocket Queen” (complete with the clean, pretty, arpeggio’d launch into the giant GN’R coda), I took a look around and noticed how many people had brought their small children to see Slash. Residents had come out with their kids — the pit was full of kids.There was a couple next to me holding a three-year-old girl (wearing ear protection, note to parents). I looked to my right and saw a boy who was probably about eight years old singing along to “Rocket Queen” and headbanging, just as I had when I was about eight. I dont know if that’s appropriate. It’s probably not — “Rocket Queen” is a dirty number — but it’s definitely Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Near the end of the show, The Sunset Strip’s eternal poster boy addressed the crowd, trying his best to express his gratitude toward the city, the festival planners, and the fans for bringing all of this together in his honor. When words failed, however, he simply launched into the unmistakable circus intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”…and the cameraphones came out. As promised, Slash brought out Fergie during the encore. They performed “Beautiful Dangerous” from the new album, and then the band covered “Barracuda” and closed out with “Paradise City.” There was a moment during that most killer version of “Paradise City” when I glanced down the strip and could have sworn that I saw a young Axl Rose getting off the bus from Indiana, just like in the “Welcome To The Jungle” video. The sun was setting, and it was hard to make anything out, but I looked up at the stage and the silhouetted palms and the iconic rainbow sign, and the tipsy R above the Roxy and even the spinning globe above the Hustler store…and I felt it. For one second, I felt what all of those thousands of people who come here every day from places like Indiana must feel. I thought about all the opportunity this place used to, and hopefully still does, hold. I thought about the possibility that one of those people, from one of those places, might get off one of those buses and get lucky enough to form a band with someone like Slash. I thought about lightning striking.
The thought passed. There was enough time to hit the beer garden before Kid Cudi’s set on the East Stage, which was again delayed. I grabbed a cold one and then headed to the stage. If Slash’s stage smelled like vomit and cigarettes, Cudi’s smelled like weed and Teen Spirit. The crowd for Cudi’s set was very young — mostly high school boys and high school/college girls. Kid Cudi went on late, and I would assume that he, like Common, was performing sans monitor. From the audience, it actually appeared as though he was rushed onto the stage. Cudi opened the set by playing a snippet from Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh,” which was mostly lost on the crowd but which I think pretty well summed up the show: “I’ve got some bad news for you, Sunshine.”
To begin with, I love Cudi’s recordings. He is one of the most original and relatable artists in the game today. His uberminimal, dark, introspective tracks are a welcome departure from all the generic radio rap we usually hear. His live show, however, is suffering from what most young major label rap artists’ live shows are suffering from: lack of show. Seeing Kid Cudi’s set at SSMF made me wish that labels still developed their acts for stage. It made me wish that they still put bands behind their young vocalists, forced them to learn about music, rehearse for months, interact with their sidemen, and play the obligatory blood and guts tours in Japan, Sweden, and US small markets. Furthermore, it made me wish that labels had ever developed their rap acts for stage.
Kid Cudi, a major artist, was thrown on stage with a laptop and a vocal mic, and very little stage experience. Vocally, his verses got lost in the beats and his choruses were burned out (due partially to poor mixing and partially to poor mic technique). He had nothing to interact with on stage, and the sound from the Macbook was thin and distorted. None of this, of course, is to say that Kid Cudi will not become an amazing live performer. To be honest, he did everything in his power to make the show bump, and what he lacked in stage experience, he made up for in raw energy and unconditional love from the crowd. Kid Cudi is a hard artist not to love, and despite all the issues he faced tonight, the crowd was all about him. Give the man a budget!
I rushed back to the West stage just in time to catch the opening strains of “Ava Adore.” I have loved The Smashing Pumpkins since I was pre-pubescent, since before I even knew what teen angst was, and I have never seen them live until now. Though they are embarking on a theatre tour, the band played an arena-scale set with Billy Corgan in full guitar-god mode. As a side note, I completely endorse the new lineup, and even the newest member (bassist Nicole Florentino) played a great set.
The Pumpkins instantly captivated the audience with a barrage of numbers from their catalog. I suppose it’s a testament just how personally people take the Pumpkins’ music that hits like “1979,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “Cherub Rock,” and “Today” all spawned the type of singalongs where everyone in the crowd sings to himself, not quite shoegazing but not crowdsurfing. Scanning the crowd and watching people sing, I felt like I could see their memories — their first cars, their first sweethearts, their hometowns… Corgan himself was charismatic and funny. He joked with the crowd, even asking them, “What, too cool to sing?” as he stepped away from the mic during “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” The new material, which Corgan describes as a return to the original Pumpkins sound, was also well-received. The band powered through an excellent version of “Song For A Son” (a track that could’ve made the Zwan album), proving that the new lineup is a true band. There was also a lot of jamming in this set. There were some long solos with both Billy and Jeff Schroeder (switching between a Les Paul and a Jag) soloing on guitar.
As he’s been doing for the past few years, Billy threw a lot of Hendrix into his style, playing his Strat with his teeth, with the stage coping, even playing a brief effect laden bit of “The Star Spangled Banner” (no seagulls, though) before giving it a good Thurston Moore smack on the back. At one point, drummer Mike Byrne even busted out some extended, Bonham-worthy tom-ination. Before they wrapped it up, Billy stopped the set to say a word or two about the importance of The Sunset Strip. He shouted out a laundry list of the LA-based artists who have influenced him over the years, and asked that everyone support this festival in years to come. The Pumpkins encored with their catchiest new song, “Freak,” and one of my personal favorites, “Zero.“ Then I came home, a little better for being able to say that I finally saw the Pumpkins…and I saw them play in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. Word.
Now, as I sit here in Venice at 4:00 a.m. with my writing partner, Mr. Jack Daniels, and I try to encapsulate the festival, I can only say that it’s good to know. It’s good to know that no matter what has come and gone in this town…no matter what music, what cultures, what trends have emerged and faded…no matter what neighborhoods have shifted in and out of vogue, have gentrified, have crumbled, no matter what…the Strip is still here. It’s still happening, just as it did in the summer of love, just as it did in the late ’80s. The Strip is still here. God knows she ain’t what she used to be, and she aint what she’s gonna be (whatever that is), but the Strip is still here. Billy knows.
All photos taken by Tara Stewart