CLEVELAND It's fitting that the Vines launched their first major U.S. tour at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Tuesday night.
Shambling singer Craig Nicholls worked through a Sybil-like array of hall-worthy personalities during the Australian band's 40-minute freak-out: rolling his eyes like Radiohead's Thom Yorke, singing through his nose a la Oasis' Liam Gallagher and howling like Kurt Cobain's mop-topped ghost.
Blasting off with the title track from their upcoming debut, Highly Evolved (July 16), the Vines wasted no time hitting the audience of 1,000 huddled into the hall's lobby with the heavy stuff. Nicholls sounded hoarse just moments into the show's 90-second leadoff. It was the first of three signature vocal mannerisms Nicholls would use during the course of the show the electrocuted yowl. Other selections, such as the meandering ballad "Autumn Shade," would be accented by a nasal drone that was part Gallagher whine and part Johnny Rotten's "Who gives a f---" sneer.
With his bugged-out eyes rolling back into his head, his mouth curled into an exaggerated frown and his tongue lolling out to the side, Nicholls quickly debuted the third vocal style: a keening, sometimes piercing falsetto that made it hard to tell if the singer was mocking the audience, himself or the very idea of rock stardom. If the latter is what he had in mind, he couldn't have picked a better spot.
A trio of truly bizarre rock objets d'art surrounded the small stage. Directly in front of Nicholls, suspended from the ceiling, was a quartet of prop automobiles from U2's ZooTV Tour, while to his right hung a huge neon sign that read "Gwen" (as in Stefani). To his left, a succession of phallic rockets blasting toward the ceiling from the Backstreet Boys' Millennium tour. That's not even counting the giant flying hot dog floating in the air on the museum's lower level, a relic from jam band Phish's stage show.
And while the Vines bassist Patrick Matthews, acoustic guitarist Ryan Griffiths and drummer Hamish Rosser kept their more melodic, Beatles-esque influences mostly in check, they pulled out most of their arsenal on the lilting ballad "Country Yard." Displaying the whisper-to-a-screech dynamics perfected by their heroes Nirvana, the Vines progressed from a loping gallop to a grunge racket in the span of three minutes, bursting directly into their propulsive first single, "Get Free." The song's chorus blurred into an indecipherable scrawl of primal screams as Nicholls did his best Pete Townshend imitation, jumping into the air and doing the splits, ultimately winding up on his back, his Fender Stratocaster feeding back wildly.
Ironically, one of the only times Nicholls seemed to play it straight was when the band performed its signature cover, a dark, acoustic take on Outkast's "Ms. Jackson." The singer slowly danced across the stage and turned the bouncy tale of contrition into a darker, more sinister admission of guilt and shame.
The show, taped for an MTV special, reached its apex less than 30 minutes in with a five-minute squall of psychedelic garage rock soup, "1969." Not to be confused with the Stooges classic of the same name, the Vines' "1969" was a dim, swampy mix of Melvins-like grunge and off-key punk screaming that filled the cavernous rock lobby with the kind of unadulterated clamor the hall may have in its future as more of the first generation of punks become eligible for admission.
And then, just like that, it was all over. Having played 10 of the 12 songs on their debut, the group left the crowd wanting more as it ended the night with a new song that won't likely make it onto your local pop station. In one of the few other instances where Nicholls didn't seem to be searching for an in-between key, the singer stumbled his way back and forth across the stage during the new song "F--- the World." His perfectly tousled, static-shocked mess of hair drenched in sweat, Nicholls swung his guitar over his head and ended the night by nearly strangulating himself with the tangled mess of his guitar and microphone cords and the remnants of his mic stand before collapsing in a heap.
In true punk fashion, fans poured out into the humid night not knowing if they'd seen the future or another great rock and roll swindle. "He just wanted to put on a performance, not sing," 17-year-old Carly Filbin said of the leader of the band hyped as the next Nirvana by the British music press. "If he wants to do that he should be an actor, not a singer."
Norman Narvaja, 25, thought otherwise. "It was R-A-W-K!" he screamed. "That's all I can say. R-A-W-K!"