Live: Offsping Serve Up Frosty, Cool Angst-Lite

Are they punk? Are they grunge? Or are they just another band that has sold its rock soul?

MELBOURNE, Australia -- "Here we are now, entertain us," sang the late Kurt Cobain.

Those naysaying rock critics who cite Bush, Green Day and Offspring as evidence of the corporatization of St. Kurt's purist grunge ethos would have had a field day at Melbourne's Festival Hall last week.

There, near the end of a tight, grunting set by L.A.'s most commercially successful skate-punks, Offspring, lead singer Dexter Holland stopped the show and proceeded to choreograph a round of stage-diving featuring various enthusiastic volunteers who were hand-picked from the floor. Um, choreographed stage-diving? The late gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs would be head-butting his coffin!

Offspring's third Australian show provided a clear picture of how far we've come from the heady days of 1990's grunge-led recovery. This is not a criticism of the band -- God knows, they're just doing their job, and doing it to the loud and clear satisfaction of the 3,000 present at the Dec. 2 gig. Maybe it's just the faintly hollow feeling you're left with after viewing a performance that serves up all the trademarks -- visual and aural -- of a once-powerful form, yet delivers none of its visceral, unsettling thrill.

It is not a contrary thought to say that the show was a charming one. As the crowd hooted and hollered at the sneering, ironic voice-over that opened the set ("You've come here to fuck shit up, haven't you?"), Holland bounded onstage in a natty, mustard, double-breasted jacket and black bondage trousers, followed by his more subtly clad cohorts. The band wasted no time in tearing into

"Bad Habit" (RealAudio excerpt) from their 1994 hit album Smash. Aided by a crisp, energetic sound mix, a rarity at Festival Hall, Holland and guitarist Noodles alongside the stalwart rhythm section of Ron Welty and Greg K put out a bludgeoning wall of noise.

"Cool To Hate" was preceded by a short dissertation from Holland on the "things we hate" -- number one being the Spice Girls. Delivered to a venue full of testosterone-pumped adolescents, this struck one as somewhat fatuous commentary. We waited in vain for some follow-up remarks ("dope is cool," maybe, or "drinking beer is excellent").

The band followed with a quick succession of tunes from current album Ixnay On The Hombre, although the song that really fired up the crowd was 1994's breakthrough single "Come Out And Play (Keep 'Em Seperated)," which in many ways set the tone of the show. While the band attacked a string of ironic anthems about self-doubt and alienation in a workman-like manner, much visual entertainment was provided by a roadie/toaster/backing vocalist, who stole the show with his spastic body-builder-on-acid-style vogueing.

About halfway through their 16-song set, the band displayed a rare flash of Vegas-style showmanship by offering the crowd a real intermission, unencumbered by the usual rock show shouts for more music. It was all part of the show. A hapless male roadie, clad only in a hip-hugging, black mini-skirt, catwalked the stage holding aloft the flashing intermission sign. This set off a flurry of sleazy loungerama effects, replete with soap bubbles, waiters (once again, the roadies in bowties) serving trays of drinks to the front rows and a cheesy cabaret soundtrack.

On stage, the musicians sat motionless on padded chairs!

Following this bizarre turn of events, it was time for more bone-crunching riffing, broken only by a couple of breezy ska tunes and a teasing display of guitar pyrotechnics from Noodles, who broke into a Jimi Hendrix/Black Sabbath medley before skipping backward off the stage monitor and straight into his rhythm guitar duties. The band finished up with

"Change The World" (RealAudio excerpt) from their current album, followed in short order by an encore that contained two of their biggest radio hits -- "Self Esteem" and "Gone Away."

A few final observations:

You've got to watch your head at an Offspring gig. If you're not being beaned by an overweight, crowd-surfing mall rat, you're just as likely to suffer decapitation by a flying CD. This and other items were flung in great quantities from the stage at the set's conclusion by, yet again, the hardest-working roadies in show business.

It is hard not to like Offspring. They obviously enjoy their jobs, which they go about in conscientious, crowd-pleasing fashion, and their hearts are in the right place -- the band has its own charity that raises funds for the homeless. Their shortcoming, if you can call it that, is that they're just good enough to remind you of some truly great bands -- which meant that this night ended up being an entertaining but strangely characterless performance that left some of us underwhelmed.

Call it stadium-grunge. Call it angst-lite. Just don't call it punk rock.[Wed., Dec. 10, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]