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O.C. Pop Music Review : What Price Glory for Offspring? : Irvine concert is a dandy but leaves questions about the status of punk.


IRVINE — Something is happening and I don't know what it is.

The Offspring, who hail from Orange County, returned from their platinum-plated road trip Saturday night and played most of their million-selling album, "Smash," in UC Irvine's packed, steamy Crawford Hall. The band played well on its homecoming, had some fun, and even managed to get the best of the echoey gym and its miserable acoustics. Most of the songs were nifty. The crowd of more than 2,000 people went generally bonkers. But I'm confused.

Were we seeing the triumph of punk rock, and, in particular, the fruition of Orange County's distinguished, 15-year contribution to it? Or were we witnessing punk's death knell?

Hasn't punk rock always been music that lives in opposition to the mainstream, a music of outcasts and misfits shouting warnings, mockery and vilification at the comfy, self-satisfied majority? How does that jibe with an album that sells a million copies in four months, with who knows how many units still to move?

Wasn't punk rock supposed to be music that required a special commitment on the part of its audience as well as the band? Then why were some fans--not a lot, but more than a few--heading for the exit after the Offspring played its career-making hit, "Come Out and Play," as the ninth song in a 13-song set?

(Simple good sense, you say: Who wouldn't want to get out of those sweaty, airless precincts? Yes, but since when did punk fans, those slam-dancing zealots, let good sense get in the way of their devotions? Just three nights before, nobody had budged from the even more packed and humid Troubadour in West Hollywood as Social Distortion, an original Orange County punk band still a step short of massive commercial acceptance, played a stirring concert with several hundred overheated human sardines straining to take in every last note.)

Why did the maniacal response to "Self Esteem," the second Offspring song to get substantial airplay on KROQ, seem so discomfiting? And don't such misgivings put me uncomfortably close to some of the most narrow-minded, contemptibly clubby college-rock tastemakers, who will repudiate good music for the sole reason that it can be appreciated by more than a small coterie of the superior elect? Shouldn't we be rejoicing that the music-industry machinery is finally grinding in favor of a worthy local band and an important, unfairly neglected style?

Perhaps the crowd's response to "Self Esteem" was just a normal reaction to an exceptionally crunchy, catchy song, rather than a programmed response to radio programmers' king-making.

I know, this is supposed to be a concert review offering not confused questions but ostensibly illuminating observations. So, before we sink back into confusion, a few direct comments on Saturday night's proceedings.

The basic elements of the Offspring's success are not that baffling. Young rock fans have always loved loud, aggressive music that they can sing along to. Bryan Holland, the band's singer-songwriter, has been honing his ear for melody over the course of the three albums the Offspring have released since 1990. "Smash" marks his full-blown maturation, and with his leathery, foghorn yelp, with a touch of anxious reediness on top, he has a memorable, insistent instrument for putting that catchy stuff across. "Self Esteem" (coming soon to your living room via MTV) isn't the only song that sounds like a hit successor to "Come Out And Play." "Gotta Get Away," "Nitro (Youth Energy)" and maybe "It'll Be A Long Time" are also strong candidates. With punk suddenly, improbably salable, "Smash" could turn out to be the "Rumours" of the genre.

With bassist Greg Kriesel's backing vocals accenting the melody, Ron Welty drumming with the concentrated look of a jazz player, and guitarist Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman pogoing himself into a sopping sweat, the Offspring played cohesively and energetically.

The set lasted just 55 minutes, and, even given punk's hit-'em-quick and hit-'em-hard ethic, the band should have extended itself more. Why not play the lighter, ska-flavored "What Happened To You?" for an off-beat change of pace? Where was the Nirvana-ish "Dirty Magic," a highlight of the band's 1992 album, "Ignition?" What about the irresistible anthem, "Smash?" Maybe the Offspring think that playing the song, with its sure-fire, obscenity-laced, crowd-rousing, fist-throwing chorus, would be unfair play, like shooting fish in a barrel. On the other hand, including "L.A.P.D.," a routine piece of hard-core thrash, was a waste of time.

The Offspring once more showed their pride in local punk tradition, as Holland took time to invoke such Orange County precursors as the Adolescents, T.S.O.L. and the Vandals. Later, after noting that the band is sometimes mistakenly identified as a Los Angeles act, he led the audience in a cheer of "F--- L.A."

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