Pop Go The Muffs At Poptopia Festival

Kim Shattuck and company steal local crowd from Fastbacks with a whiny, wild-eyed performance.

LOS ANGELES -- This wasn't Kim Shattuck's night. Then again, that was probably the point.

The Muffs' lead singer, dressed in her characteristic babydoll dress and thigh-highs, did almost as much bitching during her set at the opening night of L.A.'s Poptopia Festival on Monday as she did playing. Things, it seemed, were just bugging Shattuck, from the sound system (which grew increasingly worse during the evening) to the band's former label, Reprise.

Perhaps this accounts for the Muffs playing a sloppier set than usual. Still, those in the audience didn't seem to mind. Call them ecstatic for Shattuck, the crowd, which had reached a frenzied pitch by the time her band took the stage, responded to the singer's every scream (and there were many), every groan, every lousy complaint with worshipful echoes.

"This song is from that record, Happy Birthday to Me, which Reprise shit all over," she said, introducing "I'm a Dick" (RealAudio excerpt). "We're quite happy about being off that stupid label." (Reprise, who recently chose not to renew the Muffs' contract, refused comment on the situation.)

All in all, it was not your average night of Poptopia.

The opening show of the third annual festival, which ends Sunday night, was all set to epitomize what the seven-day, hundred-plus-band shebang is all about: celebrating pop's many brands and styles in the hope that a little fame would cast light on lots of obscurity.

At least that's what you'd expect if you saw the lineup as listed in the local weekly. The actual show proved to be something different.

The bill at the El Rey Theatre was one potent six-pack of pop, featuring the Fastbacks, the Muffs and Imperial Teen, as well as lesser known local acts the Negro Problem, Cockeyed Ghost and My Favorite Martian. Seattle's Fastbacks were a noble headliner, yet they were not the show's main attraction. The underground-punk archetype has spent its two decades of musicmaking cranking out consistently craggy punk with a pure-pop heart, as mainstream success has continued to elude them.

They're undeniably one of the most endearing and respected bands around. But the majority of the crowd didn't much care. Rather the response to this show was ostensibly more tied to geography than hierarchy. The Fastbacks' five California predecessors wore out the crowd before the headliners even took the stage.

As the night progressed, each band faced a more enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately for the Fastbacks, the momentum peaked with the Muffs -- who, as the band second-in-line to the headliner, really had the prime midnight slot anyway, considering it was a Monday night.

And when the beloved L.A. band was done and Shattuck had finished her complaining, most people went home.

Still, the Fastbacks rocked as hard and heavy as they are known to, playing a

good mix of older material as well as songs from their upcoming EP, Win, Lose or Both, which will be released midmonth. Known for their killer MC5 covers, the Fastbacks decided on an all-male homage for this gig. Bassist Kim Warnick and guitarist Lulu Gargiulo left the stage so that Kurt Bloch and Mike Musburger, joined by a borrowed bassist from My Favorite Martian, could close with the MC5 tune "Ramblin Rose."

And despite the occasional stage antics and complaining, some bands -- such as Imperial Teen, whose name is rarely written these days without "overhyped" attached to it -- seemed grateful for their positive reception. "Wow, you guys are being really nice," said Imperial Teen bassist Jone Stebbins.

But after kicking off with their namesake song, the foursome proceeded with a set that bordered dangerously on monotony for the first half. Luckily, they spruced it up considerably toward the end, with much thanks to guitarist Will Schwartz's eccentric, chant-like vocalizations.

Of the three less-known bands who played, the Negro Problem was by far

the most memorable. Featuring flute, horns and keyboards in addition to the

standard, the sextet was an ideal midshow deviation. A chaotic, cartoonish,

and cool display of art rock, the Negro Problem is utterly riveting to watch. Local bands My Favorite Martian and Cockeyed Ghost -- both of whom stomp around in punk-pop terrain -- held their own with the crowd, and it was obvious from some sing-along fans that they'd brought their own followings.

Perhaps obscurity can shed its own light. [Fri., Feb. 6, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]