UNIVERSAL CITY, California — So who was the story at the 16th annual KROQ-FM Almost Acoustic Christmas festival this past weekend?
Perhaps the White Stripes, who had the perfect color scheme for the occasion and whose songs made it into multiple sets (Jack Johnson tossed a few “My Doorbell” verses into “The Horizon Has Been Defeated,” while Coldplay’s Chris Martin inserted “I’m going to Wichita/ A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back” into “Speed of Sound”).
Or maybe it was Jack Johnson, the only act who actually played almost acoustic and tossed in a Christmas carol (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” complete with a new verse in which Rudolph talks back, telling the other reindeer, “How can you look me in the face when yesterday you called me names?).
Depeche Mode were if you asked Chris Martin, who gushed over the British electro-rockers at least a dozen times during Coldplay’s set.
And that was just the second night. Saturday’s show was just as jam-packed with memorable moments (special guests, special covers, special shout-outs) as Sunday’s, with Korn, Nine Inch Nails and System of a Down topping the heavier lineup.
So basically the story was the event itself, which celebrated its 16th anniversary at the Gibson Amphitheatre (which, to add to the confusion already caused by the event’s Almost Acoustic name, is actually not an amphitheater).
Saturday’s show kicked off with a showcase of metal and punk newcomers whose futures are looking mighty bright, with Rise Against, Avenged Sevenfold and Thrice. The latter marked their return to the event (after playing in 2003) by bringing along a string section as well as a guest singer for “Red Sky,” Deftones frontman Chino Moreno.
“I was just thinking he’d do some harmonies and stuff and he was like, ‘Yeah, I got some stuff I wanna sing,’ ” singer Dustin Kensrue said backstage. “He kinda went off and sang some melodies that he had made up and they were really cool.”
Playing between Thrice and Korn, Fall Out Boy met with a mixed reaction but soldiered through a 30-minute set.
“On the night we played we’re kind of like Britney Spears,” bassist Pete Wentz joked after the show. “If we played tomorrow night it would be like we were Slayer, so Fall Out Boy is somewhere in between the two nights. It’s cool. I think it gets real easy to play in front of people who are just gonna drink the Kool-Aid and love your music no matter what, and I think that it’s a little bit more of a challenge to go out there and have to earn people and people who are not necessarily very open to being earned. At least at the end of the day hopefully people will respect you for trying.”
Korn’s set marked their first Los Angeles gig without former guitarist Head, who quit the band earlier in the year to join a Christian ministry, but the band’s sound was just as thunderous as ever as it ripped through seven albums’ worth of hits, including an epic cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pts. 1-3.”
“As you can tell we’re missing our boy Head,” singer Jonathan Davis told the crowd before their final tune. “I want everybody to know out there tonight we love that motherf—er very much and respect what he f—ing did. He had to do his own thing, and we have to do ours, and that’s to make the best f—ing records and play the best shows, and especially make it so you motherf—ers out there are proud to be Korn fans.”
And the sold-out crowd certainly seemed proud as they bounced through one song after another, including new See You on the Other Side tracks like “Liar,” which offered a rare glimpse at Davis’ singing chops.
Few bands can follow Korn, but it was no problem for Nine Inch Nails, whose Trent Reznor channels his anger similarly to Davis, with his vocal cords stretched and his sweat glands working overtime. There were also more instruments destroyed during their set than played by some of the earlier bands.
So then how do you follow that? System of a Down had the answer, but if you could put it in words, well, it wouldn’t be System. The metal mad scientists seemed even a little more mad than usual, especially guitarist Daron Malakian, who disco-danced, dove into the crowd, made a lot of sex jokes (and Bush jokes) and disco-danced some more.
The pinnacle came during what felt like a spontaneous cover of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” during which Malakian replaced the chorus with: “We are the System, we are the System of a Down.”
Sunday’s show was also sprinkled with some interesting covers, starting with Nada Surf’s take on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Jack Johnson was the master, though, making live mash-ups with his own tunes and hits from Sublime and the Cars. He also brought out fellow singer/songwriter Matt Costa to strum through a version of the Beatles’ “Two of Us.”
Chris Martin also uncharacteristically did a lot of lyric swapping, ad-libbing lines about the festival. In “Clocks” he sang, “Look at Earth from outer space/ Maybe L.A.’s the center of the whole damn place/ Give me time and give me space/ Give me peace of mind to trust/ Give me Depeche Mode playing after us/ Give me Jack Johnson, let me be/ And give me Death Cab for Cute-tee/ But most of all our favorite types/ Let Coldplay play after the White Stripes.”
Martin seemed like a child on Christmas morning from the onset, accidentally breaking a guitar neck while popping a balloon, talking to a fan’s mom on a cell phone and even covering a bit of “B.Y.O.B.” and dedicating “Trouble” to System of a Down.
“I know you’re tired, but Depeche Mode are gonna come on, and they’ve got the best torsos in the whole of the world,” he said at one point. “Maybe not L.A. actually, ’cause a lot of you people in L.A. have incredible physiques, that’s why we play here so often.”
Coldplay’s set featured one single after another, plus a few X&Y tunes, including “Kingdom Come,” which the band performed “almost acoustic.” After the tune, which Martin wrote for Johnny Cash before he died, the band segued into Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” playing the tune with help from the audience.
Hot Hot Heat, Death Cab for Cutie, the Bravery and Depeche Mode rounded out Sunday’s show.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.