An actor without costumes, sets or props. A multimedia artist given just paper and pencil. A pilot required to fly without instruments.
That kind of discipline could yield interesting results, forcing the protagonist to find new channels for expression.
The third annual "KROQ Acoustic Christmas Concert" Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre wasn't something as completely different as it might have been, considering that a lineup of rock bands was required to play without amps or synthesizers. Still, the scattered moments of musical discovery, the chance to see star performers in a casual mode, and the sense of community enveloping the young, alternative-rock audience made it a celebratory five hours.
Also a bit wearying. By the time Siouxsie & the Banshees, the evening's big draw, took the stage after midnight, the sold-out audience had dwindled in size and energy. Instead of easily taking things to an explosive peak, the English group had all it could do to maintain life in the place, and between singer Siouxsie Sioux's prodding and the band's strong performance, they brought everyone across the finish line.
The group's first-ever acoustic performance wasn't a radical rethinking of its music, but the absence of electronics shifted the focus to its intricate, multilayered rhythmic essence and to Sioux's swooping, bending vocal lines. Grand piano, extra percussion and accordion contributed to the textural adventure.
Sioux was a theatrical, commandingly exotic presence, but she conveyed more warmth and playfulness than usual, achieving the looseness and intimacy that's the goal of the annual event.
Taking a less revisionist approach was Ian McCulloch, who remains a strong cult figure after leaving his post with Echo & the Bunnymen. His oblique, quizzical humor and strong sense of mood marked his set, but with what sounded suspiciously like an electric lead guitar wailing away, McCulloch's music didn't sound that different from its customary acoustic-electric blend. The techno-police should crack down at next year's show.
The Smithereens didn't even bring their lead guitarist, and the drummer played congas and percussion instead of a standard kit. That left things to Pat DiNizio's vocal intensity and his hard, playful guitar accompaniment; in terms of stripping down to the raw basics of voice and words, the Jersey rockers might have come closest to the show's acoustic ideal.
England's Wonder Stuff, still a bit below the mainstream surface but big with the KROQ audience, was a perfect fit for the format: a rock band with folk underpinnings, a melodic pop sensibility and a wide range of influences. Its driving, passionate set, sparked by Martin Bell's fiddle, mandolin and accordion, veered from U2-like anthems to jocular country to Kinks-like music hall to the fiery punk of the Jam's "That's Entertainment."
All the acts--Alison Moyet, This Picture and School of Fish also played--donated their performances, and proceeds benefited the Homeless Coalition.