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POP MUSIC REVIEW : 'MTV Alternative Nation': A Rocky Notion of Diversity

August 25, 1993|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DEVORE — Thanks a bunch, "Lollapalooza."

Ever since you came along, it seems like anyone can put together a few bands on a tour, slap a unifying title on the bill and call it a new rock festival.

In the case of the "MTV Alternative Nation" tour featuring the Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum and Screaming Trees, it's a matter of the title implying something greater than the sum of the parts. There's nothing wrong with the bill per se, which at Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion here on Monday provided a worthy night's entertainment from three popular young acts.

But if it was supposed to represent music's "alternative nation"--even by MTV's restricted notion--it came up short. Just taking the most obvious aspects, how can a concert in which all 13 musicians are male and only one non-Caucasian, and where all three bands played a variety of basic guitar rock, be an alternative anything?

And there's an ironically misleading element to the name in that the class act of the night, Soul Asylum, was the one that adheres most firmly to the traditional values of rock, i.e. strong songwriting, playful irreverence and direct communication of spirit and emotions.

The headlining Spin Doctors, the New York quartet that became a left-field hit last year with its free-flowing, jam-oriented rock, lacks all those values, save for the playfulness. In fact, the band played three numbers Monday before offering anything that vaguely resembled a real song. Most of the material is all vibe and/or groove, and little else.

Still, there were pleasures to be found in the Spin cycle. There's an endearing quality to the band's funky-hippie stance and to mystic-jester singer Chris Barron, a dead ringer for beatnik Shaggy from the "Scooby Doo" cartoons. But after the richly rewarding Soul Asylum set, the Doctors seemed inconsequential.

Soul Asylum, after a decade of kicking around rock's underground, seemed Monday a band on the verge of being quite consequential. If the over-familiarity of the imagery in the band's songs--often revolving around restless loners and aimless runaways--sometimes undermines their emotional impact, singer-songwriter Dave Pirner's confident, frisky stage presence--all flailing limbs, hips and hair--and the Minneapolis band's raw live power and versatility brought the images to life.

Despite the "Alternative Nation" tag, Soul Asylum is more in line with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers than with Nirvana or Pearl Jam, though its range of influences and its performing approach are from a younger generation than Petty. How many other bands could, or would, do a credibly soulful version of "Tracks of My Tears," and later an authentically punk run on the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer"?

The MTV connection provided a final irony of the night: While the Spin Doctors are something of an MTV phenomenon, both Soul Asylum and opening Screaming Trees have long pre-MTV, pre-grunge-era histories. You'd hardly know that from the crowd, though, with the majority of the 5,000 or so on hand drawn squarely from the younger MTV demographics.

During the Seattle-based Trees' set, the crowd really only came alive for the semi-hit "Nearly Lost You." And Soul Asylum even toyed with the audience, musing on stage with some seriousness about not playing "Runaway Train," the video-driven hit that, judging by the band's remarks, it's grown a little tired of playing. But after being bombarded by teen-age moans of disappointment, the band gave in and played a spirited version of the song--"alternative" credibility be damned.

The tour moves on Thursday to the Open Air Theatre at San Diego State University, and Friday and Saturday to the Greek Theatre.

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