Imperial Teen Rise To The Occasion Onstage

Talent carried the pop-rock quartet through an otherwise lackluster night.

LOS ANGELES -- The pink glow from Spaceland's cheesy, "Miami Vice"-era neon bathroom sign edged the crowd stage left.

The overly mirrored walls reflected the audience clearly, with the smokeless room strictly adhering to Los Angeles' no-smoking law. The whole effect more closely resembled a dark funhouse than a hard-drinking rock club.

At every segue, the crowd seemed to be waiting for a signal before busting into a dancing frenzy.

That signal never came.

At times, the band onstage seemed more like some nameless rock act playing another in a series of nowhere shows than a power-pop band with the live reputation of Imperial Teen.

Despite an almost-complete absence of onstage banter and their temporary lapse of passion, Imperial Teen kept things spinning Saturday at a happy-enough pace. "I just love their music so much," said Cindy Benton, 26, of Mar Vista. "It's great to hear a band when you've played their record over and over. I'm just psyched to hear them play the songs I know so well."

Most bands go on tour to promote a new record. They play their current songs, churn out some old favorites and hopefully make a few new friends. So it must have been a bummer when Imperial Teen, days into their California mini-tour, learned recently that the release date of their upcoming second album, What Is Not to Love, had been postponed from September '98 to January '99.

Perhaps that explains why their performance at L.A.'s Spaceland on Saturday lacked some of the luster these popsters are known for.

To their credit, Imperial Teen still managed to deliver audience-pleasing pop rock -- along with a few surprises.

"I was really impressed when they all changed instruments," said Mike Velasquez, 29, from San Jose, Calif., as he and his friends headed to their car after the show. "We're going to see them again tomorrow."

The instrument switcheroo happened like this: Roddy Bottum (ex-Faith No More keyboardist) abandoned guitar for drums; Joan Stebbins, the bassist, took over on guitar; and Lynn Perko (Sister Double Happiness), usually the drummer, stepped up, slung the bass over her shoulder and took the lead mic. It all happened on "Balloon," a track from their first record.

It was during these moments that the audience crowded up to the low stage, filling the dance floor. There wasn't enough room for people to move around much, but heads were bobbing enthusiastically.

Notable highlights included "Imperial Teen" and "Butch," both from the band's first record, Seasick. The ever-polite and respectful crowd also jammed to "Yoo Hoo," an old live standard that will appear on the next CD.

Sexuality has always been a not-so-subtle subtext of Imperial Teen, what with Bottum (a boy who likes boys) singing lyrics such as "I can't be what you want me to be," from the song "Luxury," and Stebbins' babe quotient normally running off the charts among people of both sexes. On this night, however, the pheromones were cranked down a notch.

Bottum stayed stage right and singer/guitarist Will Schwartz stage left, with Stebbins -- wearing a demure pink silk shirt -- sticking to the center. They soared through their harmonies with ease but appeared to be just doing their job -- the one they did the day before and will do again.

The real surprise of the evening was the as-yet-unnamed band led by former That Dog frontwoman Anna Waronker. With her new beau, Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), on bass -- plus cello, violin and Moog all complementing the basic rock setup -- Waronker's new band delivered.

Songs by the monikerless Waronker band included "Long Time Ago," "Penny for Your Thoughts," "Goodbye" and "I Wish You Well," an irony-free open letter to an ex delivered in a package of chunky rock-guitar riffs.

While That Dog were primarily cute, Waronker's show on Saturday was honest and uncontrived. Where she used to be off-key and ragged, at this show she was musically solid. Waronker wore a black tank-top with black jeans -- giving her a voluptuous and confident, rather than ostentatiously sexy, look. She had her bleached-blond hair curled at the ends and sported a bit of blue eyeliner.

Through the set, Waronker proved able to croon a ballad and nail a rocker with equal ease.

Despite the newness and unfamiliarity of the music, those up front swooned. "This is real pop. It's honest. It's good," said a vaguely shell-shocked Pete Mahoney, 23, from Canoga Park.