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POP MUSIC REVIEW : The Rich Sounds of Aerosmith

August 02, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — "It's not about the money" is high on the list of cliches spouted by rich rockers who like to insist that their motives are pure, not pecuniary.

But few of pop's moneyed elite would go so far as to saunter on stage, as Aerosmith's Steven Tyler did Saturday night at the Pacific Amphitheatre, wearing a red shirt sporting a slogan that's pure Bolshy. "Eat the Rich," it said. And "Eat the Rich" is what Tyler howled, over and over, during Aerosmith's show-opening song of the same name.

Puzzling words, coming from a lavishly successful band that not only knows where its next paycheck is coming from but what the amount will be (more than $30 million, via a ballyhooed contract with Sony Music that doesn't even kick in until after Aerosmith delivers one more album to its current label, Geffen).

There's evidence that Aerosmith is feeling a little unsettled by all that money in its bank. Its current album, "Get a Grip," sounds like the work of rockers trying hard, maybe too hard, not to be pegged as complacent, middle-aged fat cats. On much of the record, the band holds its trademark boisterous hedonism in check while summoning a tone of resentment and defiance--the not-so-sweet emotions that are the currency of Metallica, Nirvana, Guns 'N Roses and other signature hard-rock acts of the gloomy '90s. Among that crop of angrier new songs is "Eat the Rich," which snarls at the haughty airs of those to the manner born.

Like baseball players, rockers with mega-deals may learn that there is a psychological price to be paid for highly publicized, high-bucks contracts bestowed by free-spending bosses (ask Daryl Strawberry or Gary Gaetti, two slumping stars who, for all their past exploits, may wind up better known as multimillion-dollar washouts). But money is a tedious subject for people who want to be entertained. Nobody complains about Barry Bonds' huge deal with the San Francisco Giants as his exploits power the team to the top of the standings. Something has to go seriously sour before fans start worrying whether rich entertainers or sports figures are earning their keep.

Aerosmith's show at the Pacific was anything but sour and, even with Tyler wearing his rich-guy contradictions on his chest, money quickly ceased to be an issue. The entire band was in splendid form during a two-hour set flawed only by a bottom-heavy sound mix that frequently intruded on Tyler's singing.

The show presented a perfect blend of old and new. Virtually all the prime hits from Aerosmith's rise in the 1970s were there, none of them sounding shopworn, and a couple extended with exuberant jams. After a decent start, it was one of those oldies, the meaty rocker "Draw the Line," that lifted the show to a higher level from which it never descended.

Seven songs were taken from "Permanent Vacation" and "Pump," the late-'80s albums that gave a cleaned-up Aerosmith a second life after a period of drug-related doldrums. Of the six songs taken from "Get a Grip," only the ballad "Cryin,"' with its indelible hook, could match Aerosmith's prime stuff in terms of melodic appeal. But after the murky-sounding "Eat the Rich" (a questionable choice for set-opener, even if the sound mix had been clear), all the new-album material rocked sufficiently hard to avoid any lulls.

*

Tyler, at 45, is still up to the same old song and dance as one of rock's most colorful and capable front men. He pranced and cavorted in his usual humorous, nonstop fashion, vaulting from the drum riser, using his scarf-festooned microphone stand as a baton, and doing a back flip or two.

His vocals were strong when they emerged from the difficult mix--especially during an impeccable "Dream On" in which he easily mastered the high cries at the famous ballad's climax. While Tyler clearly owes a debt to Mick Jagger for his gypsy rag-man look and his cantering dance style, his singing more likely was to borrow from Paul McCartney in his guise as a bluesy yeller (think of "Maybe I'm Amazed," and the improvisational parts of "Hey Jude").

Rather than dominating the band, Tyler's antics seemed a natural, unforced response to its playing. Joe Perry isn't the sort of lead guitarist whose style is so original as to be instantly identifiable, but everything he played was grounded in a thorough knowledge of the blues-rock tradition and a willingness to rein in ego in support of a song.

As a songwriter with Tyler, Perry certainly has come up with his share of famous, instantly identifiable riffs. While Aerosmith didn't hop on the "Unplugged" trend during the show, Perry took the band down home with a nice country-blues electric slide guitar solo spot.

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