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Def Leppard: Twilight of the Not-Quite-Demigods

Pop music review: Playing to a half-empty house, the workmanlike band served up the familiar hits but showed little charisma or intensity.

August 30, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Heavy metal usually begs to be taken in Wagnerian terms, so let's think of Def Leppard's show Wednesday night at Irvine Meadows as the twilight of the demi- semi- sorta- quasi- maybe- nah- not- really- gods.

This long-running English band never has gone for metal's most gargantuan excesses, coming off less as would-be thunder lords than as workmanlike, competent pros whose knack for a big, catchy chorus and whose luck as one of the first bands to get constant exposure on MTV ignited multiple-platinum sales through the '80s and early '90s.

But it's twilight time for these modest, rather anonymous heroes. A new album, "Slang," has been a commercial flop, and Def Leppard played to no more than a half-capacity house of perhaps 7,000 fans.

Performing on a bare-bones stage under a modest lighting design that called for little more than color-patterned backdrops and smoky beams, Def Leppard stayed true to its yeomanly nature in a set that offered no surprises and no memorable moments but served up the familiar hits in a familiar way that suited the faithful well enough.

The band tossed in a handful of songs from "Slang." Rather than repeating Def Leppard's moves from the good-time '80s, the new album takes a more dense, turbulent, angst-ridden approach that is sometimes akin to such '90s arena bands as Soundgarden.

The results are nothing remarkable--even though Def Leppard has had its share of harrowing, angst-worthy episodes, including the death of guitarist Steve Clark in 1990 from a lethal combination of alcohol and drugs, and the maiming of Rick Allen in a 1984 car wreck that left him to carry on (quite effectively) as a one-armed drummer who uses a pedal for snare sounds. On record, this updating comes off as an engaged, albeit inconsequential, effort to try something new that interests the players, rather than a flimsy attempt at trend-hopping.

In concert, the most effective number from "Slang" was the upbeat title track. It's a stylistic child of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," incorporating hip-hop beats and rap-influenced vocal cadences to go with squalling metal guitars. It's a real departure for Def Leppard, and it came off punchy and sharp.

Otherwise it was business as usual, which meant watching big, huskily built, husky-voiced Joe Elliott carry on with no special charisma or intensity, his band mates with even less, while waiting for the next catchy chorus to role around. Elliott, a good-natured sort, seemed most spontaneous and energized when a beach ball came his way and he got to show off his soccer skills.

Other than that, the closest thing to an unscripted moment came when Elliott noted that guitarist Phil Collen now makes his home in Laguna Hills, adjacent to Irvine Meadows. The singer began to strum and croon the chorus of Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown," but he didn't know enough of the song to make it a refreshing departure.

Soaring, choir-like sing-along choruses, mainly given to proclaiming large appetites for sex and rock 'n' roll, with some romanticism cannily thrown in to lure the ladies, are Def Leppard's distinguishing marks. Big production numbers on record, they were electronically goosed onstage to partly simulate that mass-of-voices effect.

Those memorable chorus hooks are the one reason why Elliott's closing thought--"Don't forget us, we won't forget you"--might not be altogether futile. As long as folks want big, pounding rock moments with some Wagnerian flourishes, songs such as "Photograph" (not to be confused with the zesty Ringo Starr nugget, it was weakly wrought live), "Rock of Ages," "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Love Bites" will probably echo now and then.

Def Leppard was the first, least foppish and musically sharpest of the '80s pop-metal crop that included such heirs as Bon Jovi, Ratt and Warrant. But if that's rock Valhalla, we'll take our chances in the other place.

*

Opening act Tripping Daisy is a young band from Dallas that flitted from style to style without hitting on anything striking. Among the elements: Tim DeLaughter's nasally vocal blend of Ozzy Osbourne and Perry Farrell; some psychedelic-tinged hard rock a la Jane's Addiction; some slow, spacey excursions recalling Pink Floyd; and an MTV hit, "I Got a Girl," that is a catchy but thin bit of alterna-rock bemusement. Flower power's revival isn't at hand yet.

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