The Beatdown

In the final tally, Avril is far less Complicated than Britney.

Oops!...I did it again.

Last Sunday night, while you were watching Desperate Housewives or Sunday Night Football on ESPN, I was at the Avril Lavigne concert at the Pepsi Center. "You took your kid, right?" That's the response I've gotten from most people who hear I was there. And, yeah, I did. But that's beside the point. What matters is that it was a great show. Wanna know something else? This past spring, I saw Britney Spears's In the Zone tour.

Sure, I could blame that on my kid, too. Or I could throw out some convincing argument about how I was exploring the teen-diva phenomenon as it relates to the cultural and musical zeitgeist. But the truth is, I had ulterior motives for seeing both of these broads. In Lavigne's case, I'd caught wind that Butch Walker was her opening act. And in Spears's -- well, what can I say? I'm a horny, red-blooded American male, and that damn Britney is hotter than a sweatband in a fireman's helmet. (Though if my wife asks, attending her concert was all in the name of father-daughter bonding.)

Lavigne is often regarded by pundits as the anti-Britney, which has never made sense to me. They're both overblown, marginally talented vocalists who've relied on Euro svengalis to produce shallow, prefab pop for mass consumption. Comparing the two is like saying Ted Bundy was more affable than Jeffrey Dahmer, when they both were menaces to society, for chrissakes, and we're all better off since they stopped breathing.

Still, the contrast between the two ladies' live performances was stunning.

Spears's last stint in Mootown was a glitzy, Las Vegas-style revue replete with multiple costume and set changes, video montages and enough neon bulbs to give Clark Griswald a stiffy. Lavigne's setup was naked by comparison. Her band may have had a wall of Marshall stacks, but the stripped-down stage was something you'd expect in a smaller club, not at an arena. In fact, with the exception of a large tapestry hung at the back, this arrangement was identical to Walker's.

Before Lavigne commenced to rockin', Walker, who looked like a stunt double for the Swayback's Eric Halborg, warmed up the crowd with material far more sedate than anything heard on his previous endeavors with Marvelous 3. Once they learned that he'd been chosen for the tour by Lavigne (he produced her latest album, Under My Skin), he was immediately embraced by the faithful. I'm sure it didn't hurt that he's also a stellar songwriter with a killer set of pipes, whose backing band just happens to be American Hi-Fi.

Toward the end of his set, Walker made it clear where his diva loyalties lay. "You know what really makes me mad?" he asked. "Me and Avril were talking about this earlier. When you turn on the TV and a singer is getting ready to sing, and the band starts playing the wrong song. Before she can step up to the mike, her voice starts coming out of the P.A. I'd rather sing out of tune all day long, as long as the words are coming out of my mouth. I would rather play than press 'play.' You know what I'm saying?"

An obvious jab at Ashlee Simpson, one of Lavigne's many disciples, Walker's sentiment was spot-on -- even if it was gratuitous as hell. Lavigne can play. And when she finally strolled out on stage in her trademark black eyeliner and Chuck Taylors, looking like Kirsten Dunst with her hair down in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, she proved it as she dropped two of her bigger hits, "So Much for My Happy Ending" and "Sk8er Boi." Over the course of the evening, she alternated between pacing both sides of the stage like Ozzy, playing an acoustic guitar and tickling the ivories. Unlike with Spears, whose piano faced away from the crowd, Lavigne's was in plain sight, center stage, and as the camera panned to her fingers, you could see that she was actually -- gasp! -- playing. And she was so damn near pitch-perfect the entire show, I'm convinced that the few flubs she made were intentional -- to drive home the point that she wasn't using any sort of, um, vocal enhancement.

I'd still opt to listen to Cat Power over Lavigne, who, although lyrically light-years ahead of Spears, still has a long way to go before those lyrics are intelligent. (For what it's worth, at least Lavigne co-writes her material.) Still, you can't deny the influence she's had on music over the past couple of years. Like it or not, Lavigne's as much of a touchstone for her generation as is her bustier counterpart. It was obvious on which side the gender scale tipped when the crowd started singing along to "I'm With You" in a markedly higher pitch, and the girls in the audience were clearly transfixed. She's resonating with them -- so much so, I'd argue that Avril's throng could give Manson fans a run for their money in terms of devotion. And she's growing up with her followers. Who knows? Maybe we're just a few years away from Lavigne delivering her own "Jagged Little Pill."

That is, unless she winds up as toxic as Britney.

Upbeats and beatdowns: Props to the Fray, now in the process of inking a deal with Epic Records. Who knew a year ago, when I caught one of the band's early shows at the Climax and frontman Isaac Slade -- much to his chagrin now, I'm sure -- had one of his friends urge us to yell "Encore!" before the set was even over, that those guys would be the toast of the town today? Right on for them. The Fray lets the music do the talking, which is exactly why it was one of my favorite bands last year. This year, however, it's all about Matson Jones. Holy crap! This group keeps getting better and better. Jones's show at the hi-dive last Saturday night completely floored me. Imagine Apocalyptica weaned on a steady diet of K Records and Kill Rock Stars' releases with Dave Grohl on drums and a stand-up bassist. Oh, yeah, and add some sick, two-part harmonies. Got it? Well, this band is ten times better than that. Don't sleep.

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