HOLLYWOOD — It was difficult to say who drew the most applause on Saturday night at the House of Blues on Sunset Strip: Panic at the Disco's dueling pretty boys (Ryan Ross and Brendon Urie), Plain White T's apple-cheeked, aw-shucks frontman (Tom Higgenson) or the shaggy-haired dude who totally wailed on Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" (nameless, bizarrely pumped Harmonix employee). So let's just call it a three-way tie.
There was a whole lot of everything going on at the event that was dubbed "the official launch party" for MTV-owned Harmonix's much anticipated "Rock Band 2" video game, which also doubled as a pre-Video Music Awards shindig, a fundraiser for the nonprofit LIFEbeat organization, a Yankee swap meet and a celebrity bake sale (just kidding about the last two). Oh, and both Panic and PWT took the stage for short sets too.
Whether it was a near-flawless performance of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" taking place on one of the several "Rock Band" stages set up throughout the club, or PWT playing "Hey There Delilah" on the main stage, it was greeted with tons of high-pitched screams and more than a few cell phones held aloft. Watching bemusedly from the VIP section were a host of celebs, including Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson, "From G's to Gents" host Fonzworth Bentley, Buckcherry frontman Josh Todd and, uh, James Woods.
As for the music, well, "Rock Band 2" looks pretty awesome. And the bands were pretty good too. Higgenson and the T's played just four songs — the first single ("Natural Disaster") and the title track from their upcoming album Big Bad World, plus "Delilah" and "Our Time Now" — barely breaking a sweat but still delivering poppy, shiny anthems on a minor scale. As they exited, they blew kisses to the crowd and promised a much lengthier set when they return to Los Angeles on the "Rock Band" Live Tour (synergy!).
Panic were the "headliners" of the night, so they got to play seven songs, including "That Green Gentleman (Things Have Changed)," "Nine in the Afternoon" and a pair of older tunes that were given a husky, guitar-heavy makeover, "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" and "But It's Better If You Do." And while it was just a 30-minute set, you couldn't help but notice that somewhere along the way, Panic had morphed into a pretty good band, channeling — at moments — the shaggy, countryside psychedelia of the Band's Music From Big Pink and the sun-stained studio pop of the Beatles (their "Northern Downpour" sounds like an Abbey Road outtake).
And while the actual rock bands wrapped by midnight, the virtual versions wailed on deep into the night (or at least 1 a.m.). Inspired by what they saw onstage, kids in braces rocked out alongside gray-haired guys in suits, and women in high heels dueted on "Runnin' With the Devil." After all, this was only a concert in the loosest sense of the term, and there were plastic guitars to grasp and rock dreams to fulfill. The bands were almost an afterthought, really.