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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Christian Rockers Share Higher Ground

March 23, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — In these days of "whatever" and shameless commodification, fans seeking the lift, conviction and celebratory sense of shared striving that once defined rock have to take them where they can find them.

Something akin to the morale boost delivered in the past by Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, U2, Midnight Oil and early-'90s Pearl Jam was there for the taking Saturday night as Christian rockers Audio Adrenaline and the Supertones shared a bill at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center. Of course, anyone uninterested in literal-minded Bible beliefs had to take that something with a grain of salt.

Nashville-based Audio Adrenaline, on its first big tour as a headliner, practices the stylistic channel-changing that is characteristic of contemporary Christian music; previously an amalgam of heartland and alterna-rock styles, on its new album, "Some Kind of Zombie," Audio A throws in the distorted guitars and heavy, Zep-based arena-rock moves of the modern rock format. But berating CCM acts for trend-hopping misses the point: They preach to the youthful flock in whatever musical language reaches the most ears.

Audio Adrenaline took some pains to instill musical coherence in its 105-minute set. It front-loaded the heavy stuff, pulled back for the jaunty chug of "People Like Me," which took its cues from John Mellencamp and the Cars circa "You Might Think," and eventually swung back to some of the more Pearl Jam-ish stuff from "Zombie." Several breaks for preaching and prayer either broke the momentum, if you were looking for show biz as usual, or provided the contextual essence of the evening, if you were one of the 5,000 paying customers, including a bunch of ecstatically pogo-ing, crowd-surfing groundlings.

Led by its sturdy-voiced, indefatigable front man Mark Stuart, a Kentucky preacher's son who performed as if he were leading an old-fashioned Southern tent revival, Audio Adrenaline lived up to its name. The band exuded a unified, exuberant spirit in its performance and utter commitment to its material, although sound musicianship wasn't always enough to overcome murky sound quality. AA threw in some musical humor, including a pretty good noirish blues-boogie led by a hot lead guitarist, Tyler Burkum.

One could imagine a religiously uncommitted listener accustomed to dour, disaffected modern rockers or piffling ska purveyors witnessing the enthusiastic performance and ecstatic fan reaction and wondering, like the lady in the restaurant in "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," whether they shouldn't try some of what Audio Adrenaline was having.

Christian ska-punk may sound like dubious trend-hopping, but the Supertones, who had their own sold-out headlining show at the Bren four months ago, are by far the best ska-punk band from ska-punk-besotted Orange County. Matt Morginsky's froggy, nasal, son-of-Joe Strummer voice hit with gritty honesty, and rode the delicious hooks planted in every song to raggedly soulful heights.

The Supertones played on a double-ramped stage that resembled a skateboarder's half-pipe, and everyone but drummer Jason Carson flew about when not constrained by musical necessity.

Where Audio Adrenaline's songs mainly conveyed Christian concepts in the language of rock, the Supertones had the personal touch. Morginsky came off like one believer telling his own story of spiritual ups, downs and proud commitment.

Because it's not necessary to share or endorse a person's experience to relish a well-told story, the Supertones' inviting, high-energy tunes--especially the ones on the fine current release, "Supertones Strike Back"--could have appeal outside the flock.

Opening act Jennifer Knapp, a newcomer from Kansas, had only three songs to make an impression. She did, with earnest, fervent heartland rock strumming a la Melissa Etheridge and Indigo Girls, with some Natalie Merchant-like vocal shadings thrown in. Knapp's vigorous, unadorned strumming likely would have gotten old over a standard half-hour set, but her three numbers succeeded in getting across introverted spiritual struggles and yearnings via aggressive solo-acoustic means.

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