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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Dead Man's Party Comes to Life Again : There's No Fresh Blood in the Annual Oingo Boingo Gig, but It's a Good Time Just the Same


IRVINE — Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind....

Oops, wrong holiday. But with the deep chill that descended Thursday night, it certainly felt as if the 15,000 hardy souls at Irvine Meadows ought to have been gathered for some sort of mid-winter festivities.

Although the weather could have passed for New Year's Eve in Hoboken, the calendar said it was Halloween. And in Irvine, Halloween means Oingo Boingo.

Boingo--with its horror-is-fun-but-still-sort-of-eerie sensibility, its dance rhythms conducive to dancing, and its front man topped by curls the color of a ripe pumpkin--has long since proven itself a made-to-order Halloween party band. Which is why the Los Angeles outfit has been coming back to Irvine Meadows every Halloween season since 1986. Thursday night's sold-out show opened a three-night stand (tickets are available for tonight's finale) that amphitheater officials expect to draw 40,000 people.

Between last year's haunting of Irvine and this year's, Boingo was only slightly more active than a vampire at noon. The band took the year off, returning to action only recently for a few warm-up dates before the current Irvine shows. Leader Danny Elfman and company had no new material to offer (and no props different from past years'; as before, the stage was flanked by a pair of gigantic skeleton puppets, both red-eyed and sombrero-topped), so the show really was about renewing old acquaintance.

Boingo made it an acquaintance worth renewing. The standard critical gripe about the band remains in effect: Most of Elfman's early material is too fast, too frenzied, too rabidly theatrical. But Elfman has since the mid-'80s tempered his writing and emerged as an assured melodist (a knack that has made possible his successful sideline as a film scorer, with such high-profile credits as "Beetlejuice," "Batman" and "The Simpsons" theme). Most of the 31 songs Boingo played in its 2 1/2-hour concert reflected that melodic knack, and they were a pleasure to encounter again.

Elfman confessed during the show that he was worried about rustiness after the layoff, and about a sore throat that prompted him (at his mother's insistence, he joked) to swaddle his neck in a winter scarf. But any such problems were minor. Elfman's voice held up well as he alternated between low-register melodramatics and a smooth, soul-influenced tenor.

The band, a potent octet, warmed up quickly and had a good night. Bassist John Avila and drummer Johnny (Vatos) Hernandez set down rhythms that compelled motion; a trio of horn players riffed snappily, bolstering the rhythm in classic R & B fashion, and lead guitarist Steve Bartek fired off a series of edgy, dissonant solos that underscored Elfman's twisted themes.

The show didn't start promisingly, though. Rather than open with its usual Halloween keynote number, "Dead Man's Party," Boingo raced through some of the frenetic old songs that in previous Irvine appearances it had saved for the end. Elfman later explained that "we kind of turned the show around and started with the fast ones up front 'cause it's so damned cold up here."

The audience didn't warm up fully until about a half-hour into the show, when the polka-tempo of "No One Lives Forever" set bodies bouncing like so many apples bobbing in a tub. From there, Boingo moved into a strong middle section.

Although he is not a deep-probing writer, Elfman is not a superficial one, either. His songs often have a psychological dimension, even if it's no more developed than the psychology involved in the B-grade horror movies he loves. It's also not unusual for him to pose existential questions. He may poke fun at fear and death in spooky-humorous numbers such as "Dead Man's Party" and "No Spill Blood," but any writer as death-obsessed as Elfman also is bound to give the subject straightforward consideration from time to time. Boingo did that in a back-to-back pairing of "Out of Control," which warmly comforts and gently chides a youth contemplating suicide, and "Long Breakdown," a dark, driving rocker that takes a bleaker view of what life has to offer.

"Stay" and "Not My Slave" showed Boingo at its best--a band that can take over the feet while also tickling a taste for melodic sweets. Those songs helped take some of the chill out of the evening, as did such strong numbers as "Elevator Man," "Just Another Day" and "My Life" (even if the latter is awfully reminiscent of Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me"). On the other hand, early-'80s vintage numbers such as "Wild Sex (in the Working Class)" and "Nasty Habits" were merely overheated.

Boingo has left MCA Records and is reportedly about to sign a new record deal. Maybe by next Halloween, Elfman and his cronies will have some tasty new treats to spice yet another "Dead Man's Party."

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