UNIVERSAL CITY, California — How do you inspire L.A.'s Lexus-driving, museum-going cognoscenti into headbanging along to Metallica? Via a Mexican duo belting out a Latin-tinged cover of the band's instrumental "Orion" on guitar, apparently. Someone tell Lars.
Taste-making local radio station KCRW's sixth annual, five-and-a-half-hour "A Sounds Eclectic Evening" indeed lived up to its billing Saturday night. From Rodrigo y Gabriela's show-stealing, fleeting acoustic folk-metal to the Shins' expansive distorted-guitar rock to Lily Allen's laptop-assisted hip-pop to a stanky James Brown tribute and even a harp solo, there was something for everyone — every one of the elite attendees who could afford a $40-$300 ticket, that is.
"There are a lot of flavors here tonight," Shins keyboardist/bassist Marty Crandall said during the band's closing set, before adding: "We're butterscotch."
As the benefit — staged to help fund the digital transfer of KCRW's music library — got rolling, the scene backstage proved equally bizarre (oops ... make that diverse!). Will Ferrell, in all his poofy-haired goodness, darted from one room to the next. Adrian Grenier, dressed in a Hugh Hefner-esque felt track suit, coolly strode through the crowd — without much of an "Entourage," natch. Also mixing it up was a rather uppity Tracey Ullman, of all people, who rubbed shoulders with big-name donors to the successful National Public Radio affiliate.
Inside the Gibson Amphitheatre, the evening started off Bitter:Sweet — no, really. The trip-hopping Los Angeles newcomers, led by stunning crimson-haired chanteuse Shana Halligan, kicked off the show with a fusion of live instrumentation, harp, turntables, beat-boxing and beyond that set a too-cool-for-school tone for the night. Call it the smug joy of music.
Another local ensemble, the eight-member Breakestra, appeased the jam-band set with their soulful funktitude. They climaxed with a James Brown tribute that left singer Mixmaster Wolf playfully collapsed on the stage as it revolved to reveal the next act: South by Southwest faves Cold War Kids (see "Where Was The 'It' Band? What's With All The Hip-Hop? Reflecting On SXSW '07").
Introduced as being from "the real O.C." — Fullerton, specifically — the Kids took the stage with a vengeance. The band's spastic, scratchy sound was helmed by frontman Nathan Willett, whose sputtering-guitar and madcap-piano-man antics would have scared the bird's nest off Elton John's head. Looking like a cross between Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme and Modest Mouse's Issac Brock — and sounding not too unlike the latter — Willett acted like he were trying to squeeze out his heart through his throat. The band also provided the night's first doses of humor, though: During "Saint John," some guy named Carlos ran around the stage clad in a Lakers shirt and banged on a tambourine with a drumstick, while drummer Matt Aveiro wore a "Do the Right Thing" T-shirt throughout.
That crowd-pleasing, rambunctious set gave way to Rodrigo y Gabriela's even more passionate mathematical precision, which seems to be in a class by itself. Gabriela's admission that the worldly duo — who now call Ireland home — are principally influenced by thrash metal evoked laughter from the crowd, which at first didn't get that she was serious. But while the audience looked for irony, it just wasn't there. Using her fingers as a percussive accessory to the body of her guitar, Gabriela brought out truly original sounds from her instrument, while her counterpart complemented the choppy, flamenco sounds with his own masterful, breakneck finger-picking. By the time the pair delved into "Orion," the rather staid audience was already hollering like banshees. By the end of the song, virtually everyone was on their feet, cheering on by far the most spellbinding — and stripped-down — act of the night.
Rodrigo y Gabriela — who really should be called Gabriela y Rodrigo, given how impossibly Gabriela shreds with her eyes closed — closed with a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," which was ballsy to say the least. But by the time they finished, the initial chuckles over the duo tackling the endlessly covered song turned into roars of approval, cementing them as this year's breakout act at the gala.
While calling R&G a surprise would have been an understatement, the official "surprise guest" of the night were the underwhelming Travis. (Travis are hardly Franz Ferdinand, who were the surprise act at last year's installment — or on second thought, maybe FF are becoming the next Travis). At any rate, the selection underscored KCRW Music Director Nic Harcourt's Achilles' heel: A predilection for Brit-pop bands like them. Likewise, endowing Travis with the honor reinforced the criticism that as forward-thinking as it may be, KCRW does tend to play it safe. The sappy lads trotted out some new material, but it may as well have been old stuff, judging by the diffident, scattered applause.
Next came another Brit, Lily Allen, who was decked out in a purple-pink dress and received a brief standing ovation. The singer must've gotten a warning after giving a lackluster performance at SXSW with cigarette and drink in hand, because she held neither during her well-behaved set — although she did later admit to having had too many shots of Jägermeister before climbing onstage. That some of her missing live performers were substituted with a laptop gave Allen a case of the giggles, which lasted through lackadaisical renditions of "Shame for You," "Smile" and the set-closing "Alfie." She did nail the ballad "Littlest Things," though, revealing that substance sometimes overtakes shtick.
Just about everybody stuck around to see the Shins, who thanked KCRW's support of their heralded Wincing the Night Away by performing the first four songs — including the ubiquitous "Phantom Limb" — from the album. Despite too much squeaky guitar feedback, the tunes were rousing, and before the band delved too deep into the lulling, narcotic second half of the album, it wisely pivoted into older faves like "Mine's Not a High Horse," "New Slang" and "So Says I."
James Mercer finally piped up five songs into the set, giving KCRW the obligatory props, but it was Crandall who delivered the zingers during the band's dutiful but relatively uneventful set.
"Hi, Paris, if you're here," he said.
Given the "eclectic" nature of the evening, few would have been surprised if she had been in attendance.
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