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ASSORTED NOTES | POP MUSIC

Oasis leads the way as the English take charge at KROQ's Weenie Roast & Luau.

June 16, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Britannia rules.

At least that was the case Saturday during KROQ's fifth annual Weenie Roast & Luau benefit concert, as a delegation of British bands dominated the marathon 12-hour affair at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

Of the five clear high points in a 14-act main-stage bill that leaned to bands with current hits on KROQ-FM (106.7) and other "modern rock" stations, four involved British forces.

It was a timely chance to survey the relative strengths of the two scenes because there has been a leadership void in rock since the fading of grunge, the hard-core Seattle style that fueled the U.S. domination of rock through the first half of the '90s.

Saturday's British charge was led by Oasis, the wonderfully melodic Manchester outfit that was making its first formal concert appearance since it broke off a U.S. tour last year amid rumors that the often battling Gallagher brothers had decided to split apart.

Instead, the group returned to the recording studio to work on a new album (due later this summer) and to take a much-needed break from years of virtual nonstop touring.

In resuming live shows, Oasis seemed like a band reborn. Though the group didn't preview any material from its upcoming album, the quintet played such favorites as "Champagne Supernova," "Don't Look Back in Anger" and "Wonderwall" with sometimes breathtaking intensity and grace.

Not only were the textures more muscular than before, but the songs were also stretched out dramatically--as if the group was so delighted at being back onstage that they wanted to squeeze every liberating ounce of emotion from the songs. The band was in such good spirits that songwriter-guitarist Noel Gallagher had his arm around younger brother Liam, the band's singer, at the end.

Introducing Oasis, KROQ air personality Rodney Bingenheimer called them the best band in the world. For a group that has only released two albums, it's a bit of a stretch--especially since U2 is still alive and kicking. But Oasis' performance showed that the gap is certainly narrowing.

Adding to the British assault was a dramatic midafternoon set by Radiohead, a band that has battled back from the one-hit-wonder stigma of its 1993 "Creep" success to earn widespread respect. Thom Yorke's stark, uncompromising tales of psychological struggle seemed the last thing the audience wanted to hear on this party-minded occasion, which was enlivened by a surprise appearance by luau king Don Ho, but the determined Yorke sang with a show stopping defiance.

In addition, England's Chemical Brothers and the re-formed Echo & the Bunnymen contributed noteworthy moments. The Chemical duo lacks the striking attitude and showmanship of the more compelling Prodigy, but its dance textures are far more forward-thinking and involving than most of the U.S. acts on Saturday's bill.

And these British highlights don't even count the Cure because Robert Smith and the other members of the headlining band occupied a sort of emeritus role at the end of the evening.

The set, which ended just before 2 a.m., reminded us of both the youthful sensitivity that has made the Cure one of the most popular bands ever on KROQ, but also of the fact that the band probably reached its creative peak in the late '80s. Blur, the final English entry, connected with the audience with its peppy, stylish "Boys and Girls" and current novelty, "Song 2," but was generally anonymous.

Unlike the individuality and ambition of the best British acts, most of the U.S. groups Saturday seemed boxed in by stylistic conformities. This was especially true of both ska devotees Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (though the Fish was far more appealing, thanks to such humor-laced songs as "Sell Out"), and the fleetingly appealing, jumping jive archivist approach of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Only the Wallflowers, who overcome their own obvious '60s-roots influences by the superior songwriting of Jakob Dylan, and Third Eye Blind, a San Francisco group with an intriguing literate bent, left you with a strong sense of future expectations.

Social Distortion played with an almost noble independence and power, but the group's themes have lost the essential element of discovery. The Foo Fighters delivered an equally passionate set, though the band's material doesn't match its musical precision.

Given its Orange County ties and ability to mix punk energy and mainstream pop-rock musical hooks, the Offspring was in a position to steal the evening. On record, the group shows signs, in such songs as the new "Gone Away," of stretching the boundaries of punk, but Saturday's set seemed rigid and undemanding.

And the energy that was generated was undercut by the boneheaded decision of singer Dexter Holland to urge fans to throw garbage at the stage. It led to a barrage of trash, including cups of beer. Though apparently no one was hurt, the potential was there for someone to be hit by coins or other sharp-edged items that have been hurled at shows. Talk about stupid.

Logistically, the set changes frequently took longer than you would expect (sometimes 20 minutes or more) given the revolving stage format. Musically, too, the lineup suffered from the absence or a strong female voice.

Generally, however, KROQ did an outstanding job of making its Weenie Roast a comfortable, even classy experience, which raised funds for AIDS Walk Orange County, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Surfrider Foundation and Heal the Bay. Fans were greeted by hula dancers and given complimentary leis. And, the station's emcees avoided the excessive self-promotion that often mars such events. Measured against the sometimes barren nature of radio station concerts, in fact, you might even call this one an Oasis.

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