CHICAGO -- Shirley Manson of the techno-rock band Garbage folded herself onto the microphone stand and cast a vacant gaze on the crowd.
"So, what do you think?" she said at the end of her group's set. "Are you going to see me again?" Judging by the number of patrons who spent their time at the Aragon Ballroom's bars instead of listening to Garbage's set, the odds were against it.
That's the way it can go at an event like Friday night's Miller Genuine Draft Blind Date concert at the Aragon, headlined by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Garbage and neo-swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy opened the beer company's second annual free promotional show -- one of two this year. (The second is scheduled for London in October.)
Last year, beer-maker Miller Genuine Draft began presenting the Blind Dates. Rock fans from around the country can win tickets to the concerts through radio promotions and contests in bars. Maybe it was all the free beer given away at this Blind Date, but the evening didn't seem so much about music as about lucky contest-winners getting into a free show and drinking the sponsor's product.
As it happened, the Chili Peppers, continuing their string of gigs with returning guitarist John Frusciante, were the best-received performers on Friday's bill. Their loose, high-energy set drew the most positive response from the crowd of 800 or so.
Rocking through an hour-long set, the Los Angeles-based funk-rockers featured the most worn hits in their canon, "Give it Away" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Under the Bridge," mixed in with long-lost songs such as "Yertle The Turtle," off 1985's Freaky Styley. Frusciante even stepped up for vocals at the beginning of "Me & My Friends."
The show boasted a more varied lineup than previous editions of the Blind Date, which have featured such artists as Bush, the Foo Fighters and David Bowie. That difference was emphasized when the evening began with a carnival-style freak show, including fire-eaters, chainsaw jugglers, women lying on beds of nails and a man called "T2" who, after having had a tumor removed from his face, could drink beer and waggle his tongue through his now-empty eye socket.
The Aragon usually holds as many as 4,500 fans, but it was split in half for the carnival and the main stage. The high-ceilinged space still felt cavernous -- not quite the mashed, sweaty, crowded atmosphere one expects at a rock show.
Holding a stack of empty beer cups, ticket-winner Carl Fioravanti of Chicago said, "This is the most bizarre show that I've seen since Pink Floyd's The Wall [tour]."
Some people in the audience were unlikely to be impressed no matter what band performed. When asked whom he would want to see at a Blind Date, Keith Aech remarked, "No one who would play here: King Crimson, Pink Floyd. I was actually hoping it would be Poi Dog Pondering."
Tony Garcia and his not-so-blind date, Carrie Rizzo, won their tickets at Club Fever outside of Chicago by answering questions about the Rolling Stones. "The trivia contest gets you more involved than just being caller number three or something," Rizzo said.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy got the crowd moving a bit with a run-through of big-band standards from Duke Ellington to Cab Calloway and beyond. Performing on the stage where Glenn Miller debuted his legendary "In the Mood" decades ago, BBVD showed why the swing trend is gaining momentum. They impressed a portion of the audience, including several couples who were swing dancing as soon as the first notes started.
Garbage followed with a set that never quite seemed to gain the momentum they needed to win over the somewhat inattentive crowd. Singer Manson began with a seeming indifference toward the fans, but she quickly noted that a different approach was needed for a group of people who hadn't paid to see a Garbage show.
Manson chose to interact more with the audience, hovering near the front of the stage for much of the set. With the rest of the band play-fighting and wrestling around, she relaxed more and more. Not that it mattered much to many in the crowd.
"The crowd was more into the first band than the second," Garcia said after the show, already forgetting the names of the groups.
In only the third show by the band's new/old lineup, without guitarist Dave Navarro, the Chili Peppers lacked some energy. Frusciante apparently wasn't quite comfortable yet. However, the Peppers plunged forward.
Singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea were bouncy in their anchoring roles. Kiedis flailed his ever-long hair while growling out the band's material. Flea was up to his usual antics, jumping all over the rest of the stage.
They closed with a Stooges cover, "1970." Although Kiedis didn't cut himself with any bottles or expose himself as Iggy Pop might have done, the Chili Peppers still left their Blind Date on a high note.