Blink-182, Weezer, Taking Back Sunday and Chester French Fiddler's Green September 6, 2009
The members of Blink-182 became the kings of pop-punk nation a decade ago, when Enema of the State flushed the style's system with a cleansing formula of big hooks and cheerfully profane snottiness. But the median age of the most exuberant attendees wedged into Fiddler's Green to see the Denver stop on their reunion tour, also featuring Chester French, Taking Back Sunday and Weezer, didn't match that of the players themselves: singer-guitarist Tom DeLonge and drummer Travis Barker are both 33, while singer-bassist Mark Hoppus is 37. In fact, the sold-out amphitheater as a whole and the lawn area in particular were dominated by high schoolers who enthusiastically relate to the adolescent hijinx the boys celebrated early on -- the ones they're trying to move beyond without leaving behind. I guess this is growing up.
Chester French kicked off the evening in the coveted band-most-people-don't-know-that's-supposed-to-win-over-the-crowd-anyhow slot, and frontman Andrew "D.A." Wallach worked overtime to fulfill the last part of this equation. Between songs, he announced that he's originally from the Denver area, which, if true, is a fact our friend Google doesn't seem to know. The act got its start in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard students Wallach and cohort Maxwell Drummey were discovered by Neptunes and N.E.R.D. guru Pharrell Williams, who name-checked Chester French in Westword Q&A last year.
Wallach then barked that the three key letters for the set were "NFJ," which stood for "no fucking joke," and that proved to be true, in that the combo wasn't laughed off the stage -- but neither did the crew connect with the throng in any notable way. Part of the problem was the material: The recorded versions heard on the album Love the Future stand out to some degree thanks to Williams' hybrid production approach, none of which translated live. The likes of "Bebe Buell" weren't melodically distinctive enough to rev up the Blink faithful, and the lyrical references went over most heads, too -- no wonder, since Buell is best known for boinking '70s-era rock stars now on the cusp of Social Security-eligibility. Even "C'mon (On My Own)," CF's catchiest tune, which Wallach said was inspired by Colorado, fell short of its blueprint, despite his bouncy antics. Nice try, guys -- no fucking joke.
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The men of Taking Back Sunday had even more reason to be frustrated. For the first part of the set, the sound mix was beyond dreadful, with the drums of Mark O'Connell and bassist Matt Rubano drowning out pretty much everything else, including the signature vocals of Adam Lazzara. If the five bandmates knew it, however, they didn't let on, throwing themselves into songs like "What's It Feel Like to Be a Ghost?" as if they weren't operating at only about 40 percent strength. But mid-set, Rubano left the stage to race around Fiddler's, plunking crazily in stairwells and walkways -- and as soon as he did, the levels moderated. Suddenly, Lazzara no longer looked like he was lip-syncing to the wrong song, and the band's power could be felt instead of just approximated.
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As noted in our 2007 review of Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution tour, which also featured TBS, Lazzara uses microphone swinging as his on-stage signature. Instead of simply whipping the mike around like a martial-arts weapon, he frequently allows the cord to rap around his neck -- yet somehow, he always manages to grab it before the thing knocks him unconscious. Sure, it's a shtick, but it's an impressive one. Equally notable, though, was the contrast between his vocal exhortations and his Southern gentleman banter. Although Taking Back Sunday calls Long Island home, he hails from Alabama, and his sly introduction to "Where My Mouth Is" made the subsequent performance that much richer and riper, building momentum for "MakeDamnSure" -- a predictable closer, sure, but also the right one.
More unexpected was the preface to Weezer's appearance: a video hosted by guitarist Brian Bell in which he introduced fans to various Denver landmarks, as if they were unfamiliar with them. Still, his deadpan delivery of random factoids, like how he bought some money at the Denver Mint, paved the way for a set far more successful than at a headlining gig last October that found Blink's DeLonge second on the bill; he was riding astride the unbelievable dreadful Angels & Airwaves at the time. Back then, Weezer was promoting its most recent self-titled album, which featured only a couple of decent tunes, with several of those that didn't pass muster warbled by other bandmembers. Now, however, that platter is part of the act's past, allowing main man Rivers Cuomo to incorporate its highlights into a greatest-hits playlist that induced grins from first note to last. Clad, like Bell and company, in a white laboratory jumpsuit, Cuomo looked more than ever like Rick Moranis before he either shrunk or blew up the kids, and he played his persona for maximum irony, declaring before "Pork and Beans" that "this is what the kids call 'the emo.'" Still, when Cuomo delivered a crack about "arena rock" while leading the mob in side-to-side arm-waving during "Undone (The Sweater Song)," the line cut both ways. Yes, the spectacle was stereotypical, but it was also hugely enjoyable, especially in tandem with one of the '90s more memorable tracks. Likewise, "Island in the Sun," which Cuomo began by setting up loops on drums, bass and guitar and performing solo, was both a mad-scientist stunt and a self-deprecating comment about how simple that tune, and pop music in general, can be. Nonetheless, the performance was somehow both amusing and intriguing -- a tough balance to strike.
True, today's Weezer is an overt goof: Why else would Cuomo and company take the stage to the 20th Century Fox fanfare before opening with Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and closing with the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" -- after which they left? In the end, though, the gags enhanced the music, and vice versa.
Which brought us to Blink, revealed after a curtain drop to the sound of "Dumpweed" and the sight of an elaborate backdrop with round screens filled with isolation shots of Delonge, Hoppus and Barker. Visually, the design emphasized their separateness, which might have contradicted the togetherness vibe with which the concert series has been hyped. But no: As the show went on, it was abundantly clear that the three were thrilled to be in each other's company again, with Hoppus and DeLonge (who came across like a pretentious prick at the aforementioned A&A show) repeatedly referring to each other as "my friend Tom" or "my friend Mark" and engaging in homocentric frat-boy jibes. They hugged, they groped, they accused each other of fantasizing about naked men -- like, for instance, John Elway, who DeLonge said he either wanted to ball or clean up in a bubble bath. Pretty funny stuff, perfectly in keeping with Blink tradition -- and DeLonge and Hoppus were comfortable enough to rank on each other, too. At one point, Hoppus polled ticket-buyers to find out how many of them were in bands, then warned those who raised their hands never to give a performer like DeLonge a microphone unless they wanted to bring their concerts to a grinding halt. And that's not to mention the bit about DeLonge licking Hoppus' face, giving him herpes that would soon wind up on the inner thigh of Tom's mom. Even so, such juvenalia couldn't help but seem a bit strange coming from men now in their mid- to late-thirties -- ones who are considerably fleshier now than they were when they started out. The same goes for much of their material. The questions asked in "What's My Age Again?" are even more acute now that the original age mentioned in the lyrics -- 23 -- is at least a decade out of date. Maybe that's why, from a musical standpoint, the songs that seemed to work best were ones such as "I Miss You" and "Down," in which the Blinkers strive for something akin to maturity. They may not be as fun as the other Blink material, or even as good as much of it -- but if these guys are to record together again, as opposed to simply making some extra green on tour, they represent the future. The exception to this rule is Barker, who looks older but certainly doesn't play like it. Shirt off, the better to display all-encompassing tats that have turned him into a human sketch pad, he's so taut and trim that it's hard to believe he nearly died in a plane crash less than a year ago, and his drumming skills certainly haven't atrophied. His complex, hyper-speed patterns were simply breathtaking even when DeLonge and Hoppus couldn't keep up with them -- there were more than a few rough spots, playing-wise -- and Barker's joyous intensity never flagged. Simply put, he's Blink-182's best special effect, which made it appropriate that he was at the center of the gig's most ambitious example of modern stagecraft. Following exciting main-set closers "Josie" and "Anthem Part 2," Barker appeared on a platform that projected across the stage, then levitated and rotated in blatant disregard of physical laws -- the same sort he ignores with every glorious beat. If time has taken its toll on Barker, there was no evidence of it at Fiddler's -- and DeLonge and Hoppus stepped up to the occasion, too. Their performance was engaged and energetic, keeping their loyalists buzzing from first moment to last. Of course, they may not always be able to get away with changing the "All the Small Things" line about "roses by the stairs" to "blow jobs on the stairs" without seeming tacky or desperate. But Sunday night, they did.