Social Distortion, Blue October, Jack's Mannequin, Motion City Soundtrack, Plain White T's, Single File, I Hate Kate, Tickle Me Pink, Synthetic Elements, No Fair Fight
August 11, 2007
On the surface, summertime festival shows seem like a good idea and a real bargain: a lot of bands for relatively few bucks apiece. Unfortunately, such productions seldom live up to expectations. They're generally too hot, too long, too scattershot and too often plagued by technical problems -- which pretty much sums up The Big Gig, the self-promotional bash thrown by KTCL on August 11.
The day began inauspiciously, when the passes that were supposed to be waiting for me courtesy of Motion City Soundtrack's publicity crew weren't at the box office upon my arrival, at around 1:50 p.m. The screw-up took half an hour to resolve -- thanks to Live Nation's Mel Gibson (no, not that Mel Gibson) for finally sorting everything out. During that span, I lingered by a fence listening to a band of young teens (probably Velocity, although I can't say for certain) absolutely butchering AC/DC's "Back in Black" and Nirvana's "Come as You Are." The set took place at the intersection of Precocious and Pukeworthy.
Once inside, Lora and Ellie, my fourteen-year-old twin daughters, accompanied me to our seats in the amphitheater; then we headed back to the local stages just outside to sample No Fair Fight. The set balanced on the screamo/aggro tip, and while there wasn't much new going on, the boys were loud, tight and far aurally nastier than their baby faces implied. Little did I realize they'd also be the heaviest band we'd hear.
First up on the main stage was Fort Collins' own Tickle Me Pink, a three-piece that didn't seem quite ready for the spotlight. Despite a pretty anemic crowd at this point (the venue never did get much more than three-quarters full), they seemed eager but stiff and self-conscious in the face of an ugly sound mix. For the girls, the set was almost saved by the mega-hotness of blonde, skater-haired drummer Stefan Runstrom -- and as a bonus, he turned out to be a pretty versatile player. Too much so, in fact. His extended drum solo was just as tedious and unnecessary as extended drum solos usually are, and he firmly established an immutable principle: It can't be punk rock if the drummer uses a cowbell.
Back in the local zone, Lora and I caught the last song by Sythetic Elements, a skacore band that justified its focus on this retro style with plenty of bounce and panache. Too bad this was pretty much it for the outside-the-shed performances. What could have been a mini-Warped Tour experience wound up being a one-stage affair for the rest of the day. As a result, most attendees -- a weird mix of youngsters and old-school Social D vets -- spent most of their time in their seats or spots on the lawn, slowly transforming into puddles of sweat amid temperatures that reached the upper 90s and stayed there for a really long time.
Next up was I Hate Kate, a Huntington Beach combo KTCL has been boosting for months, and in contrast to Tickle Me Pink, the players were extremely polished and professional. They came across like one of those effective but blatantly inauthentic acts (think of the Producers) that were pushed by major labels in the early '80s to capitalize on the new wave/power pop trend -- an impression underscored when Kate chose to cover, of all things, Peter Schilling's "Major Tom." Lead singer Justin Mauriello was dressed like a cheeseball (white framed shades and a vest -- a friggin' vest! -- worn over a white t-shirt). But he had complete control over the audience, keeping the party going through "Always Something," which was treated like a smash single even though KTCL fans are among the relatively few radio listeners to have heard it.
Joe Ginsberg, Chris Depew and Sloan Anderson, known collectively as Single File, were in third place on the main stage, and because KTCL is doing its best to turn them into the next Denver success story, they should have enjoyed a triumphant set. Instead, they were plagued by sound issues even more severe than those experienced by Tickle Me Pink (and somehow avoided by I Hate Kate). Anderson's guitar and vocals were generally potted way too low, turning the performance into Single File dub. By the time the lads got to their signature cut, "Zombies Ate My Neighbors," the singing was finally at a decent level, but the guitar remained somewhere off in the distance, forcing people who knew the tune to mentally fill in the gaps and leaving those who didn't to wonder what all the fuss was about.
No need to apply the same question to Plain White T's, who followed Single File. Despite the efforts of energetic drummer De'Mar Hamilton, who, as an African American, is neither plain nor white, the Chicago collective was stunningly wimpy -- the band most likely to be beaten up on the way back to the bus. The set's start didn't help matters: Lead singer Tom Higgenson's vocals were inaudible until midway through the initial number, and shortly thereafter, Mike Retondo's bass crapped out, prompting Higgenson to declare, accurately, that it had become "amateur hour at Coors Amphitheatre." But Higgenson, who was dressed like a cross between Pee-wee Herman and Pinky Tuscadero, had the secret weapon to save the situation: "Hey There Delilah," an acoustic ballad perfectly calibrated to melt female tweens' hearts. No wonder the T's so galled the Social D faithful. One original punk mockingly held up a flickering lighter in one hand (it was still mid-afternoon) and flipped the group off with the other.
After that, Motion City Soundtrack, from Minneapolis, came as a blessed relief, albeit a modest one. The act stays firmly within the pop-punk framework, so there were no revelations. Still, lead singer/guitarist Justin Pierre proved to be a genial, amusing host and synthesizer player Jesse Johnson, flipping his Flock of Seagulls locks for all he was worth, provided some visual distraction. The girls' friend Trevor, the world's biggest MCS fan, thought they killed, but the rest of us ended up with little more than a flesh wound. Then again, in comparison with Plain White T's, the band seemed like early Rage Against the Machine.
By this point, however, fatigue had begun to set in, and try as they might, the members of Jack's Mannequin -- an Orange County, California band with zip in common with the OC's Social D -- couldn't provide a cure. Granted, they tried, but pianist/vocalist Andrew McMahon proved to be more Jerry Lewis than Jerry Lee Lewis, squirming alongside his grand instrument in a manner that was more silly than inspiring. Afterward, I told my companions to watch their step, because the band had bored the shit out of me.
The fourteeners with me felt the same way about Blue October, but that wasn't the Texas act's fault. The combo had far and away the best sound mix of the day -- ironic, since its instrumentation was also the most complex -- and proved to be more sonically compelling than anticipated for a group that suggests Peter Gabriel after he left Genesis when it's at its best and Genesis after Gabriel left at its worst. Trevor and his buddies Max and Mac split early on rather than sit through one more minute of October, and with the exception of "In the Ocean," BO's hit, the girls were glassy eyed and non-responsive, like accident victims slowly settling into shock. In contrast, the Social D throng was downright hostile at times. Simply put, Blue October didn't belong on this bill. It was a no-win situation, and unsurprisingly, they lost.
Not so Social Distortion. The sound was dismal again, especially at the beginning of the set; the guitars were muddy and indistinct and Mike Ness' edgy vocals weren't given the prominence they deserved. Rather than surrendering, however, Ness barreled through these difficulties with trademark ferocity, ripping into "Reach For the Sky," "Bad Luck," a caustic cover of the Stones' "Under My Thumb" and more.
But even a figure as iconic as Ness couldn't redeem everything that came before. The Big Gig seemed like a good deal, but by the end, the cost was too high. -- Michael Roberts