CHICAGO -- I was ready to pan this show before I got there. Understand, it's hard to work around your pre-conceptions about holiday rock.
But I have to admit it, six hours into the show and I was impressed. Then the Cure played.
Radio station holiday concerts look great on paper, but are rarely presented in situations that are conducive to good rock shows. Q101's "Twisted 4" on Dec. 12 in Chicago appeared to be no different. It sported the requisite eclectic array of bands. Some, such as openers Sugar Ray, seem on a rocket path to one-hitdom. Others, such as the Cure and Duran Duran, who have been around the bend more than their share of times, were there to anchor the show.
After Sugar Ray's 20-minute set, Everclear took the stage. Frontman Art Alexakis joked about the capacity crowd at the United Center, which is home to both basketball's Bulls and hockey's Blackhawks. "Chicago? This isn't Chicago," he said, "Chicago is the Double Door, the Elbo Room, The Metro." Everclear is no stranger to the Metro, and their most recent show there last month was a full-out rock assault that had the moshers going up top as soon as the first chords seared the crowd.
With only 30 minutes allotted for this show, they ran through radio songs old and new with "Santa Monica," "Heroin Girl" (RealAudio excerpt), "Everything to Everyone" and their forthcoming single, "I Will Buy You a New Life." Everclear's energy was largely lost in the muddy acoustics that plagued this show, and the crowd was uninspired.
The first pleasant surprise of the eight-hour gig was pop-punk anarchists Chumbawamba, who filled in for Icelandic enigma Bjork, who'd canceled all her holiday appearances citing an illness. The group ran through their set, which sounded like a good jungle mix of Duran Duran and Abba with controlled energy. Almost every member of the band took their turn at vocals, giving the group the flexibility to do some rather potent political numbers a cappella, drawing the power of their lyrics right to the front.
They drew the crowd to their feet for the first time, closing the show with their long-awaited, breakthrough hit, "Tubthumping" (RealAudio excerpt).
Duran Duran followed. Although only two original members remain and singer
Simon LeBon has become somewhat of a caricature of his earlier sex-symbol
status, those in the crowd couldn't help but crack nostalgic smiles as they
worked through classic new-wave hits such as "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "View to a Kill." Those smiles turned to dropped jaws for many as they closed the set with "Rio." The huge drum set and guitar pedal arrays seemed as much a throw-back to the excess of the '80s, in which Duran Duran thrived Stateside, as the songs they played. Also on the docket was "Ordinary World," which LeBon dedicated to late INXS singer, Michael Hutchence, who was recently found hanging from his belt in a Sydney, Australia, hotel room.
Next, Lilith Fair founder, Sarah McLachlan, arguably one of the more talented songwriters around, played a set that, while solid, couldn't find a foothold in this lineup. The audience collectively dozed through her 45-minute set and looked toward 311 to bring them back to life long enough to stay awake for the Cure.
Luckily, 311 rose to the occasion. Their energetic mix of rap, hip-hop, horns and dance brought the people back to their feet and gave the Windy City crowd its second wind. Everyone was now looking forward to a great closer from Robert Smith and the Cure.
Shrouded by an intense cloud of smoke, Smith, looking somewhat frumpy in all his genius, floated up to the mic, said "hello" and disappeared into the
background as the rest of the group started into "Plainsong."
Cure fans were very easy to spot in their black capes and spider-web eye makeup. But at a radio show where the six bands before you have played
mostly hit-laden sets, the Cure and their followers were out of place. They openly declared that they were going to play mostly songs that they rarely play live. So, rather than play the myriad familiar Cure tunes, they sprinkled the mega-hit "Just Like Heaven" into a 15-song first set that featured such unmemorable Cure cuts as "Same Deep Water As You."
The Cure could have turned things around. Had they given up the hits, the show might have gone down on the year's Chicago highlight reel, somewhere below the Rolling Stones' surprise gig and above Creed's quasi-homecoming at the House of Blues.
But they didn't. Granted, they led of their encore with "Untitled" from Disintegration before almost grudgingly playing "10:15 Saturday Night" and "Killing and Arab," but it wasn't enough.
In so doing, they helped the radio station, a normally finely focused pop/alt-rock station's concert-goers -- such as yours truly -- to walk away bleary-eyed. [Sat., Dec. 20, 1997, 9:00 a.m. PST]