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Live's Stardom Is at Hand, but So Is a Big Question

August 11, 1995|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

To Angst or not to Angst ?

That's the question raised by Live, the alternative-leaning but extremely mainstream-accessible Pennsylvania rock band whose emotionally charged concert Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre showed why it is destined to be one of the most commercially dominant American groups for the rest of the '90s.

In a rock world obsessed with anger and aggression, Live specializes in positive, spiritually based anthems.

It is an approach inspired by the early U2--and lead singer Ed Kowalczyk appears to take pride in going against the contemporary grain.

"We've tried to make [our new album] more than your average trip down Angst lane," he said in an interview upon the release of the group's "Throwing Copper" album last year--an album that is past the 3-million sales mark.

But the Angst issue is a false one and Live's music, for all its grandiose exuberance and catchy design, lacks the truly uplifting imagination and range that continues to make U2--and another model, R.E.M.--so memorable.

Part of Live's appeal before the wildly enthusiastic, capacity crowd Wednesday was Kowalczyk's vitality. Apparently also influenced by Eddie Vedder, the singer hurled himself into the music with such intense physicality that he made Bono and Vedder seem anemic. The lighting, too, was dramatic in the liberating U2/Who manner of focusing the spotlights on the crowd so that the fans feel an essential part of the action.

Through it all, however, Kowalczyk and his three bandmates came across mostly as savvy pop technicians a la Billy Joel and Bon Jovi--the kind of writers and musicians who can craft songs that are appealing, but on a mostly superficial level. Despite individual highlights, the songs as a whole lack definition and depth.

For starters, the choice in contemporary rock isn't between darkness and light; it is between compelling music and conventional music. There is great music that seeks to uplift (U2, R.E.M.) and great music built around Angst (Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails).

The question surrounding Live as the band continues its commercial climb is whether the musicians--who are in their early to middle 20s--can grow artistically and join the ranks of the artists they admire, or whether they will continue in this crowd-pleasing but essentially hollow path.

That wasn't the only question posed by Wednesday's bill, which also included PJ Harvey and Big Audio Dynamite.

First, how can Harvey, the female British singer-songwriter who was reviewed at length recently, make arguably the best album of the year ("To Bring You My Love") and put on gloriously captivating performances and still not be in the national Top 10? And second, how can Mick Jones go from the absolute center of rock vitality with one band (the Clash) and then end up miles away from it with another (Big Audio Dynamite)?

* Live, PJ Harvey and Veruca Salt play on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Laguna Hills, 7 p.m. $25.50 and $23. (714) 855-4515.

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