Acoustic Christmas spottier in second half
December 9th, 2013, 11:34 am ·

Arcade Fire, Phoenix and Capital Cities turned in exuberant sets at otherwise uneven show.

Let’s cut to the quick: Night 2 definitely wasn’t better than Night 1.

Granted, if Sunday’s second helping of KROQ’s 24th annual Almost Acoustic Christmas was the only portion you got to attend at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium (or watch via webcast), you’ll likely dispute that claim. Certainly there’s a sound argument to be made that the synthed-up, dance-leaning yin to Saturday’s heavier yang offered more individually memorable moments.

For starters, there was a genuine surprise, when a couple hours into this lengthier finale Curt Smith, the high-voiced half of Tears for Fears, joined Portugal. The Man to close out that band’s prog-laden half-hour with a terrific, sing-along version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

It was compelling proof of how TFF’s place in pop history continues to be re-evaluated and elevated by younger fans that have made connections from their current favorites to the sources that inspired them. Their reaction here was so ecstatic that you’d have thought David Bowie had been coaxed back onto the stage.

I suppose you also could consider it unexpected that Houston rapper Riff Raff joined the hopelessly dull posers of the Neighbourhood, not just for a song but apparently as a newly announced sixth member. Yet his cameo was so brief, it left one wondering what he might bring to the group – although its approach is so generic that anything extra might help.

Sunday also delivered a much better headliner than Kings of Leon, who threw a wet blanket on an incendiary stretch of sets Saturday night. Not that Arcade Fire producing one of the most fervently exciting performances all weekend was such a shock – the Montreal troupe has been renowned for its live power since its breakout moment at Coachella nearly a decade ago. But the group’s ability to rouse spirits still cannot be overstated.

Here, despite launching with a lame stunt that initially found masked road hands plodding to the beat of “Rebellion (Lies)” before the real AF strode out from the wings, the band jammed away magnificently, its towering frontman, Win Butler, all smiles and eager to heighten the experience by roaming through the crowd.

Once again fusing the rhythmic flurries of Talking Heads in their prime to earnest chants that have become their trademark – whether the piece is nervy and martial (“Normal Person,” “Joan of Arc”) or a dynamic fantasia of groove (“Here Comes the Night Time”) – their eight-song closing turn played like an extension of the sprawling outfit’s promotional gigs in October. There wasn’t a left-field Devo cover this time, as there was at the Palladium, but there were a few curios (intros of “My Body Is a Cage” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”) and at least one full song (the glorious “Wake Up”) unique to this appearance.

That was worth the admission price alone –good thing, too, since the rest of the evening was woefully inconsistent. For every standout, like Fitz and the Tantrums’ robustly energetic throwbacks to ABC and Hall & Oates or the huge fun of Capital Cities’ infectious electro-pop, there were bland alt-rock newcomers like Australia’s Atlas Genius and Britain’s Bastille and miscast choices like Portugal, all groups that admirably brought their A-games yet failed to have any lasting impact.

As with Saturday, which would have been even stronger given some reshuffling, Sunday’s lineup would have benefitted from adjustments. Bumping up the lethargic rock of the Neighbourhood, anchored by horrendously overdriven bass, would have avoided a sudden drop in momentum after Capital Cities left the venue buzzing from both its cover of “Stayin’ Alive” (surely the first time a Bee Gees tune has been attempted at a KROQ event) and an extended dance-party rendition of its irresistible smash “Safe and Sound.”

That bunch of atypical blue-eyed soulsters would have been an ideal lead-in to another exuberant, soul-lifting sampler from French band Phoenix, which offered a condensation of its hits-filled Coachella set, bookended by the rousing cries of “Entertainment.” Of course, that would have meant moving Lorde (pictured) to an earlier time slot, when the Grammy-nominated teenage sensation from New Zealand was clearly one of Sunday’s main attractions, given the rapturous response she received, particularly from young women.

It’s easy to understand why: she’s darkly emotional like Tori Amos used to be yet vividly expressive like Florence Welch or Goldfrapp is now, and the nakedness of her performance only adds to her budding magnetism. But she’s also very much a newbie, all potential with little payoff, and less poise between songs than during them.

Her skeletal material and insular delivery is thus far one-dimensional, so much so that it was difficult to detect her rethinking of Kanye West’s “Hold My Liquor” amid the murky monotony. “Royals” has seized attention, it seems, because it’s the only trick in her bag with a soaring hook. Moving her ahead of Capital Cities might not have made sense on paper but it sure would have helped ramp up the enthusiasm inside the Shrine.

And about that place, which is steadily being revived as a first-choice concert destination by promoter Goldenvoice: There are pluses and minuses to it becoming Acoustic Christmas’ new home.

It is arguably easier to get to, a less congested route to traverse than CityWalk on the weekend, and its legendary status (and breathtaking chandelier) lends a touch of class that Gibson Amphitheatre never had. Plus, it’s a narrower hall with arguably better sight lines overall, and even with crumbling edges it’s much more beautiful than ol’ Universal ever was.

But it’s also much boxier, more rundown and nowhere near as warm acoustically. The sound quality was highly varied depending on where you sat: Saturday I was right behind the general-admission pit yet had a hard time hearing vocals clearly until the final three bands.

Sunday I was little further back and discovered some sweet spots, though friends in the balcony report it was nothing but rumble and echo upstairs.

Also, next year someone might want to suggest that the venue’s food vendors be prepared for 6,000 hungry people across a nearly a six-hour stretch. Anything edible that wasn’t candy was gone not long after each night began.