IRVINE — Was Danny Elfman returning the traditional Oingo Boingo Halloween celebration to his fans, or taking it back for himself?
Saturday, with a generous, well-executed and imaginatively staged show ending a two-night stand at Irvine Meadows, Elfman and band managed to do both.
Last year, Oingo Boingo broke a six-year string of highly lucrative Halloween-season concerts at Irvine Meadows, as Elfman declared that he didn't want to feel like a "trained monkey" performing to meet fan expectations.
As if to alert fans that Boingo was returning on its own terms, Elfman front-loaded Saturday's show with new songs from an album-in-progress that, when it is released next spring, will be Boingo's first since 1990.
Of the show's first 10 songs, seven were new. Judging from a tepid response, they were far from an instant hit with the fans.
Well, too bad for them. The material marked a gutsy new direction for the band and made for some powerfully rocking moments. The hallmarks of the old Boingo were smooth and catchy melodic hooks and frenzied, bouncing beats. The new stuff is the work of a weightier, angrier band, with the hooks toned down in favor of dark, edgy guitar riffs, and headlong thrust replacing the old bounce.
In the wake of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, angry, dark and heavy certainly are in. But Elfman is nothing if not a craftsman, and for all the swarming density of such new songs as "Insanity" and "Lost Like This," there also is a Beatles-derived sense of form that kept Boingo from sounding like a trend-hopping bunch of born-again grunge rockers.
The tribal pounding of the show-opening "Insanity" was carried by a small army of drummers, something made possible by the expansion of Boingo's in-concert lineup from eight players to 12. The result was so thunderously percussive that one wondered whether Ministry's Al Jourgensen, in some fiendish plot re-enactment of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," had kidnaped poor Danny, donned an Elfman disguise, and stolen the Halloween gig for his own band.
Other new songs recalled past Beatles appropriations by the likes of E.L.O. ("Mary") and the Move ("Lost Like This"). The connection with the meatier, denser side of the Beatles was made explicit when Boingo ventured a satisfying, close-to-the-original cover of "I Am the Walrus."
Up in Section 5 during the early going, you could hear some fans crying out for "Dead Man's Party" while Boingo rolled through the new stuff. There was a clear lift in the crowd when Elfman paused to insert one of those peppy, lightly spooky oldies, "Dead or Alive," in memory of Vincent Price. The best-received new songs were "War Again," a pounding anthem that recalled U2 at its most stormy (the song's lyrics showed that, whatever else may have changed, Elfman's use of irony hasn't gotten any subtler), and "Helpless," a bit of cabaret-style musical theater that showed off the singer's stagey, Broadway Danny side to good advantage as he sang from a stool while hamming it up merrily in the role of a Sweeney Todd-like psycho killer.
In any case, Boingo fans are too loyal to rebel, and the band rewarded their patience with more than 20 nuggets from the catalogue that sent the crowd a-boinging with glee. Elfman may have been tweaking them when he used the oldie "Gratitude" to kick off the retrospective segment of the show: "Was it as good for you as it was good for me?" he sang in the refrain--and for most, the honest answer at that point in the concert clearly was "no."
But well-wrought oldies, delivered with no slackening of enthusiasm, soon won them back. Elfman was in good voice and the expanded band was sharp. Guitarist Steve Bartek, who also has served as musical arranger on Elfman's high-profile film scoring projects ("The Nightmare Before Christmas" being the latest), had an especially good night as he sparked the edgy new stuff with help from the always-strong drums and bass team of Johnny (Vatos) Hernandez and John Avila.
The pure-pop appeal of such mid-'80s songs as "Stay" and "Not My Slave" made them treats to hear again. (Somehow, fate played a trick on Boingo and kept those two from being big national hits. Consequently, the band from Los Angeles remains a colossus in California and an obscurity almost everywhere else.) Less appealing were two extended encores that reached back to the early '80s, a period Boingo spent in a racing, frothing frenzy. The old-line fans loved it, but listening to "Only a Lad" and several other similarly manic, pounding numbers in sequence was an overbearing experience for anyone else. This stuff was clearly Elfman's juvenilia.