LAS VEGAS — If you had a million years to think about it and a million dollars to book it, you could probably dream up a more critically reviled double bill than the one served up Thursday night by the good people at Rolling Stone and the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Here it was: Incubus and the Bravery — two bands that have barely received a splash of positive ink — sharing a stage in a parking lot at a theme casino resort on a sweltering Las Vegas evening. Of course, conventional "critic speak" about these bands is full of vim and vigor, but clearly empty on perspective.
Incubus have harnessed the power of modern-rock radio and translated it into millions of records sold (their latest, Light Grenades, debuted at #1 last November) and have earned a dedicated niche of fans with their psychedelic dabblings and loud/soft heroics (see "Incubus Plan To Rest After Tour — But You Won't Find Them Vacationing In Vegas"). And the Bravery, as evidenced by their reception on this night, have still got their fair share of fist-pumping crowd-pleasers.
It may be a stretch to say that both bands are in the same boat — critically ignored, sort of scoffed at by those "in the know," yet still chugging along — but you could probably argue that they're at least in the same fleet. (Incubus would be something like a totally sweet pontoon boat, while the Bravery are like a battle-scarred German sub, if one were to extend the nautical metaphor even further.) The main difference between the two lies in how they respond to this situation.
The Bravery seem hell-bent on changing widespread critical opinions of their music, no matter what they might say to the contrary. Often panned as nothing more than Killers-come-lately, they ditched much of their pogo-ing and strangely crunchy (and strangely appealing) synths on this year's The Sun and the Moon, a record chock-full of five-part harmonies, whistled refrains and Bryan Adams references, although some find it lacking in the tune department.
Taking the stage just as late afternoon became early evening, the Bravery dove headfirst into a pair of sleek tunes from their self-titled debut, "Fearless" and "Public Service Announcement," rather unnecessarily beefing them up with muscle chords, wailing guitar solos and "whoop-whoop" backing vocals.
On songs from Sun, that more-is-more ethos was even more apparent, with even less pleasing results. "Bad Sun" was bogged down by whistles and muddy slide guitar, "This Is Not the End" lost a genuinely pretty chorus to a wall of sonic dreck, and "Every Word Is a Knife in My Ear" — which frontman Sam Endicott described as "a good old-fashioned punk-rock f--k-the-government song" — stumbled right out of the gate due to a sleepy keyboard intro (though, to be fair, it did regain steam midway through). The problem was that each new wrinkle the Bravery added actually weakened them: the overcooked songwriting (seriously dudes, not everything needs to be bumped to 11) and, more obviously, Endicott's voice, which really can't handle the upper-registers he's trying to explore.
This unnecessary overexertion even extended to the band's outfits: Despite the heat, bassist Mike H. staunchly refused to shed his leather jacket until the set's end, and Endicott disappeared backstage just before "An Honest Mistake," apparently to retuck his shirt into his pants.
While the Bravery flailed gallantly, Incubus struck the opposite tact, delivering a set heavy with improvisation and instrumentation. They were the image of a band totally fine with its standing in the rock strata — and why not?
They strode onstage to a sea of camera phones held aloft and slowly broke into the sleepy chords of "Quicksand," from Light Grenades. Then they really let it rip on "A Kiss to Send Us Off," a big, bold example of a band playing to its strengths. DJ-turned-dude-who-plays-everything Chris Kilmore provided the shimmery layers of synth noise, guitarist Mike Enzinger brought the thunderous guitar stabs, frontman Brandon Boyd made with the karate poses, and the whole thing alternately expanded and collapsed time and time again, much to the delight of the now-packed lot.
They followed "Kiss" with "Wish You Were Here," from 2001's sunnier Morning View, and Kilmore's scratching was met with plenty of air-DJ-ing from the dudes in attendance. Boyd delivered most of the lyrics, then smiled and let the audience have the chorus, which was belted out with aplomb by everyone around (a motley crew that included a spiky-haired guy in a tank top, a Nicole Richie look-alike on her BlackBerry, a portable-fan clutching mom and a dude with a backwards ballcap on).
The love didn't stop there. Other hits, like "Drive," "Nice to Know You" and the booming "Megalomaniac," were all greeted with raised fists and lusty cheers, and spacier numbers like "Anna Molly" and "Love Hurts" didn't want for appreciation either. Fans even went nuts when Boyd broke out the djembe, which, as any rock journo knows, is a sign of the impending apocalypse.
And that's probably the point. The majority of people who write about and review music like what they like and hate what they don't. (I am, perhaps unfortunately, included in this group.) The real world has little, if anything, to do with that equation. And for all the jokes I've made, tonight's show was exactly what it was supposed to be: a solid rock concert in a casino parking lot. The kids had a good time (even the one who puked directly in front of me), and the bands did too. It was like one big love-fest in the middle of the desert. And the critics weren't invited.
Catch all the star-packed VMA action direct from Las Vegas on Sunday. MTV News' preshow kicks things off live at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the big show at 9 p.m.