Live: Digging Deeply Into Marcy Playground

Band proves sound runs deeper than radio hit 'Sex and Candy.'

LOS ANGELES -- On a bathroom break moments before taking the stage at KROQ radio's show Monday night, Marcy Playground frontman John Wozniak stopped to answer a reporter's question.

It was a simple question -- one dreaded by musicians far and wide -- having to do with his band's sound and where it comes from. "Holy Mary, mother of God, please stop killing my soul," the singer said.

Having recovered from the question long enough to offer a response, Wozniak said he just tries to write lyrics that don't insult his fans' intelligence, and that he makes no real effort to sound like anyone, let alone some now-defunct grunge superstar act. "At this point, anything that's three-piece rock after Nirvana is going to be compared to them," bassist Dylan Keefe said.

In fact, the band's stand-out moment Monday at the Opium Den in Hollywood came on "Sherry Fraser," a song that bears little, if any, resemblance to Nirvana or the like and goes so far as to betray songwriter Wozniak's self-described fascination with children's literature icons such as Lewis Carroll ("The Mad Hatter he waits/ For Alice/To come to tea again").

Compared to "Saint Joe on the School Bus," which revisits that now-outdated grunge sound, "Sherry Fraser" (RealAudio excerpt) and the equally good "Gone Crazy" (RealAudio excerpt) offered a unique feeling that gives the band character and style, and left the several hundred twentysomethings in attendance wanting more.

That's not to say everyone on-hand was sporting T-shirts, unkempt beards and nose rings. This is L.A., remember, and the Opium Den is in the heart of Hollywood, half a block from that famous boulevard with all of those stars embedded in the sidewalk. And so, sprinkled in among the alterna-rock fans, were the beautiful people with "real" jobs, most of whom mingled in an outdoor courtyard area adjacent to the stage.

On-stage, meanwhile, Wozniak proved himself an emerging frontman, someone who can keep the audience loose before seamlessly kicking it into high gear on

a song such as "Poppies." At various points, he teased the crowd with classic rock riffs and kibitzed with fans who'd pushed to the front of the stage. Keefe is also an energetic presence on-stage, avoiding the now cliched poses of such bass playing icons as The Who's John Entwistle or the Rolling Stones' Billy Wyman, who just stood still and played. Lurching over his instrument with ferocity, Keefe was more fun to watch than even Wozniak himself.

For all the knee-jerk comparisons to grunge forefathers such as Nirvana that the band seems to attract, Marcy Playground's sound probably owes just as much to -- dare we say it? -- Cat Stevens, what with the tangible folk influences in much of the music and Wozniak's Stevens-like vocal authority.

Still, with their breakout quasi-psychedelic single, "Sex and Candy," among the top five singles on Los Angeles' Modern Rock station KROQ (106.7-FM) (and currently in the national Modern Rock top 20 as well), Wozniak had to beat back the oft-repeated request during the band's hour-plus set at the Opium Den.

And though the band is certainly not complaining about the heavy airplay, they wanted to make clear Monday night that they're not a one trick pony. Playing with a guitar he bought for $20 at a yard sale, Wozniak led his band through a tight, no-nonsense set that shined when it broke away from the blaring guitar-driven standards and focused on the mellower songs such as "One More Suicide."

It was during this song as well as "Sherry Fraser" and "Gone Crazy" that you could feel the band finding its voice, carving a place for itself apart from the pack of derivative, studio-manufactured post-Nirvana combos.

Unfortunately, those who packed the place to the point that seeing the stage was a challenge, mostly seemed to want fist-pounding, alterna-rock hooks, and so Marcy Playground walked a fine line on stage between a band determined to dig deep into its creative subconscious and one that was more concerned with pleasing its fans.

But Wozniak has something to say, and he seems to be connecting with more and more contemporary rock fans every day. Relating his tales of high school angst, the vocalist communicated on many levels with the mostly college age fans who turned out that night, striking a chord on power pleasers such as "Saint Joe on the Schoolbus."

For the last of several shows that Marcy Playground have planned before taking a Christmas holiday hiatus -- followed by renewed touring after the new year -- this reaction seemed a nice turnaround for a band that enjoyed some success opening for Toad the Wet Sprocket earlier this year, only to find itself dropped by its label, EMI, and in search of a new home.

Now it's found a home (on Capitol) and a growing family of admirers, thanks to tunes such as "Sex and Candy."

"It's hard to feel (the song's popularity), because all you see is numbers," said bassist Keefe. Soon enough, if all goes well, Keefe and his band mates will be seeing, hearing and feeling the applause of thousands and thousands of fans across America. [Sat., Nov. 29, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]