Eminem Declares ‘I’m Back!’ With Roaring Epicenter Concert

Detroit MC puts on an energizing set, as Big Boi, DMX, House of Pain, Bush, KISS and more hit the stage on day 1 of eclectic California rock festival.

FONTANA, California – Detroit descended upon California as [artist id="502642"]Eminem[/artist] made a triumphant return to the West Coast at the Epicenter 2010 Festival on Saturday. Marshall Mathers performed just before KISS (whose love affair with Detroit is well documented), and what the rapper lacked in pyro he more than made up in fanfare. Still one of the biggest-selling artists in the world, Epicenter was one of only a handful of concerts Em put on in 2010. Cali happily welcomed Eminem back, roaring, dancing and rapping their approval.

Epicenter’s first of two days was marked by sweltering heat in the 100s and a handful of performers whose absence from the stage was even longer than Slim Shady’s self-imposed hiatus. 1990s alt-rockers Bush, featuring frontman (and Gwen Stefani’s husband) Gavin Rossdale, made the fest their first major show in nine years, while House of Pain made it their first in 12 years. Oft-troubled rapper DMX rapped for a VIP-only audience.

Sponsored by Los Angeles rock station KROQ, Epicenter is only in its second year and is the brainchild of the same veteran music-industry trio who put together Rock on the Range in the Midwest and Canada. Last year’s lineup included Tool, Linkin Park and Alice in Chains. This year, Epicenter moved to the parking lot of the expansive Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, part of California’s Inland Empire.

The first major player to hit the main stage was one half of the mega-selling progressive hip-hop duo Outkast. Big Boi emerged in the afternoon, after opening sets from Hollywood Undead-spinoff Deuce and keyboard-heavy L.A. trio Crash Kings. Big Boi’s DJ complained about the heat nearly melting his vinyl, but the Atlanta MC smoothly mixed solo tracks into an otherwise Outkast-leaning set that included some freestyling.

Papa Roach may not sell as many records as they used to, but the band received a heroes’ welcome the second they hit the stage. They’ve updated their look, too, trading the nu-metal garb for skinny jeans, hipster sneakers and longer hair, all of which suits them. They unleashed a dirtier, darker side than was apparent on their earliest hits, and frontman Jacoby Shadix was the consummate showman, leaving fans hanging on his every hand motion. “Last Resort” closed the set, sounding appropriately more raw and energized than the version on their major label debut.

Gavin Rossdale may have dabbled with the band Institute and a solo career, but at Epicenter, the singer/guitarist got back to Bush, performing the music that put him all over the radio in the ’90s and touring with an opening act called No Doubt. Back then, Bush became one of the first bands to capitalize on the mainstream doors blown down by Nirvana. Bush hail from England, not Seattle, but grunge motifs are all over their numerous hits, many of which they played: among them “Machinehead,” “Swallowed,” “Everything Zen,” “Glycerine” (which Rossdale belted out solo with an acoustic guitar) and a set-closing “Come Down.”

The sun mercifully went down as the second stage prepared for hip-hop headliners House of Pain, who came on after Kinda Major, Smile Empty Soul, the Knux and Big B warmed up the crowd. It’s been an eventful journey for rapper/singer Everlast, who began his career as a scrappy solo artist, found fame with House of Pain and their massive hit “Jump Around,” before reinventing himself as a guitar-slinging country/rap troubadour after suffering a surprise heart attack.

Everlast had his guitar for most of the set as he led a full band (drums, bass, keys and a horn section!) flanked by Danny “Danny Boy” O’Connor. The pair rapped House of Pain songs like “Shamrocks and Shenanigans,” “On Point,” “Put Yer Head Out” and, of course, “Jump Around” over a variety of familiar songs, including the beats made famous by Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” and Tupac’s “California Love,” all during a rousing and lively set that included a dedication to Gang Starr’s late MC, Guru . There was also an appearance by members of their most recent project, La Coka Nostra.

Expectation was palpable for Eminem’s first West Coast concert appearance this year. Video screens projected a message written as if it were taken from news headlines. The text spelled out the dark period in Eminem’s career, when retirement seemed a possibility, before heralding his triumphant return. Looking healthy and ready for battle, Eminem was backed by huge production (including several clever, stylized videos that played throughout), a hype man, a band, and even D12 for a short medley. Like his September stadium shows with Jay-Z, Eminem kept the song selection diverse, drawing from newer material and classic tracks like “The Way I Am.” The show kicked off with “Won’t Back Down” and “3 a.m.,” setting the tone for the rest of the performance.

“I’m back, man,” he told the crowd early in the set. “You miss me? I missed y’all.”

He led the crowd in a “Free Lil Wayne” chant as he launched into “No Love.” Em asked the crowd if they had ever “had beef” with their parents just before “Cleaning Out My Closet.” A “Big Proof Forever” message was displayed on the screen when the rest of his Detroit crew D12, including a shirtless Bizarre, flooded the stage for tracks like “Fight Music.” Cell phones and lighters were raised high during the Aerosmith-sampling “Sing for the Moment.” It was a long marathon of quality tracks during which Em proved to have as much stamina as ever, despite his lack of touring.

Sandwiched right between the night’s biggest acts, DMX gave the tiny VIP tent something incredible to remember when he banged out hits like “Party Up in Here,” as well as one new track. The Ruff Ryder looked to be in good health and grateful for the audience’s enthusiasm. He made several references to his faith, thanking and praising God profusely.

What can you say about KISS that hasn’t been said? The band closed the night with pyrotechnics and dependable spectacle. There’s the makeup, the production, the costumes, the stunts, the constant marketing of everything from condoms to Dr. Pepper, sure, but you know what else? There’s the songs! KISS, who have been together for close to 40 years, crafted a catalog at their height that includes lean, mean, muscular rock anthems like “God of Thunder,” “Detroit Rock City” and the ubiquitous “Rock N’ Roll All Night.”

Founding members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss are both gone, but Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons still tear it up live for their KISS Army, and Epicenter was no exception. Drummer Eric Singer has of course been part of the KISS family for a longtime and Thommy Thayer does an admirable job of filling Space Ace’s shoes, guitar effects and all.

Sunday (September 26), the second and last day of the outdoor festival, will feature Blink-182 in their only North American appearance this year, alongside Rise Against, Bad Religion, Against Me! and more.