What was probably this summer's most anticipated modern-rock amphitheater show proved conclusively that the music's not just for punks anymore. In fact, the August 23 Red Rocks performance by Live, a young Pennsylvania act whose latest disc, Throwing Copper, has sold 5 million copies, was not just pleasant, tuneful and accessible to concertgoers of every age and description. It was also, truth be told, kinda boring.
The last characteristic may be the secret to Live's success. After all, being a little bit bland has paid off in spades for acts throughout rock history, at least in the short run. Think of, say, REO Speedwagon. The group's players weren't innovators, obviously, but they were skilled at churning out patently inoffensive tunes that rocked hard enough to attract a young, suburban-male following yet weren't so abrasive that young, suburban-female listeners were put off. As a result, the band built a steady following, scored thirteen hit singles between 1980 and 1988, enjoyed platinum album sales on several occasions and played to arena-sized crowds for nearly a decade. And even though the Speedwagon's essential mediocrity finally caught up with it, its ability to plow the middle ground provided its members with a tidy living for quite a few years. If they saved their money, they're probably doing just fine right now.
Live seems to be on a similar track. There are approximately 800 bands that sound quite a bit like this foursome (vocalist Ed Kowalczyk, guitarist Chad Taylor, drummer Chad Gracey and bassist Patrick Dahlheimer). Likewise, there are a similar number of acts whose music Live's resembles: Select tracks on Throwing Copper call to mind U2, Simple Minds and innumerable others. But by synthesizing these sounds instead of coming up with one of their own, the Live wires have accomplished the neat trick of appealing to just about everyone in the modern-rock demographic. Most fans don't go crazy when they hear a Live cut on the radio, but they probably sing along to it--and they certainly won't turn the dial. The ditties are radio-flashback tracks in the making: In ten years, stations such as the Peak will be overplaying them just as they currently overplay INXS and the Fixx--the Lives of a previous era.
What was most interesting about the show, then, wasn't the featured attraction but the opening acts--artists who represent two very different aspects of the modern-rock universe.
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Veruca Salt, from Chicago, is in some ways very much like Live, in that the band's instrumentalists (guitarist/vocalists Nina Gordon and Louise Post, bassist Steve Lack and drummer Jim Shapiro) are better at borrowing from their influences than at coming up with anything particularly fresh. They differ, though, in the harshness of their inspirations; while Live draws from extremely comfortable sources, Veruca Salt nods to the Breeders, Sonic Youth and other worthwhile but acquired tastes. Thus, Veruca's sound is edgier, if no more unique. The band's forty minutes or so at Red Rocks indicated that it may achieve originality in time, but it's not there yet; "Seether," "Spiderman '79" and the rest were, at their best, only Xeroxes of something else. Even more problematic, Veruca's sense of performance dynamics hasn't developed past the rock-back-and-forth-but-don't-move-an-inch phase--a real drawback on a stage as vast as the one at Red Rocks. In the fast-paced, hit-today/flop-tomorrow world of modern rock, Gordon and company seem to have burst onto the scene a little too soon.
P.J. Harvey, by contrast, is the genuine item--an entertainer capable of taking audiences with her on a ride that can be moving, exhilarating and harrowing. In many ways, Harvey faced an impossible situation at Red Rocks: She had to go before a mob of people who knew virtually nothing about her music (the single "Down by the Water," from the brilliant disc To Bring You My Love, has gotten only scattered airplay) and whose allegiance to Live implied that they might not be up to tackling her challenging psychodramas. But Harvey, clad in a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and black bra, was fearless, giving a possessed and theatrical performance that eventually sucked in a sizable percentage of the attendees. As Harvey left at the end of her hypnotic fifty minutes in the spotlight, a young female in the audience gleefully shouted, "Women are the shit!" In this case, at least, she was right on the mark.
Kowalczyk clearly feels the same way; he praised Veruca Salt and Harvey in the midst of a sincere salute to women in general. Later, he tipped his hat to food servers prior to the tune "Waitress" and was effusive and good-natured throughout his other addresses to the gathering. In short, he came across as a nice guy--polite, affable, the kind of fellow you'd like to bring home to meet Mom. His associates were more anonymous (which suited the music), the tunes ("Selling the Drama" and the rest of the hits from Copper among them) were delivered straightforwardly, and the light display and fog machines provided the kind of effects that you'd expect from a band like, for instance, Bon Jovi.
However, anyone hoping for sparks saw few of them. The evening's most telling moment came during a de rigueur unplugged segment. After Kowalczyk played a denatured solo version of a Guided by Voices composition, two young women were invited to step onto the stage and join the bandmates, who were seated on couches on a rec-room set roadies had just assembled. As the next song got under way, the women started dancing--but after fifteen seconds or so of trying to get excited about the loping, mid-tempo ditty, they sat down on the couch, too, and stayed there until the tune ended. They didn't nod off, but neither did they raise a sweat. That's modern rock, 1995 style.