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A Rock 'n' Roll Potluck at Doheny Beach Picnic

Festival caters to many tastes, from '80s punk to surf tunes. Headliner X sounds as fresh as any contemporary band.

September 21, 1998|SANDY MASUO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The '80s were good for pop music. The punk rock movement had unleashed all kinds of new influences on the pop scene, and creative artists ran with them. Certainly there was a lot of mindless gimmickry, but for every Flock of Seagulls there was a Devo, and for every Romantics there was a U2.

Sounds of the '80s were a significant part of the musical lineup for the first half of the second annual Doheny Days Festival, which kicked off Saturday at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

Headliner X released its debut album, "Los Angeles," in 1980, and although the L.A. quartet has always been considered one of America's premiere punk bands, there's much more to its music than the standard punk rock blend of angry lyrics and furious hard-core pummeling.

Drawing on rockabilly, country and metal as well as punk, X created music that rocked as forcefully as it popped with Billy Zoom's staggering guitar riffage counterbalancing winsome melodies and the distinctive harmonies belted out by Exene Cervenka (now Cervenkova) and bassist John Doe.

The original lineup of X re-formed this year and opened for Pearl Jam on its Yield tour, but it was a treat to see the group perform in such a laid-back setting before a modest crowd. (Doheny Days organizers limited ticket sales to 6,000 for each day to avoid the sardine-can effect that can make attending festivals miserable.)

The set featured material that spanned X's lengthy career and its wide-ranging repertoire, from edgy numbers like "Johny Hit & Run Paulene" and "The Unheard Music" to more lighthearted numbers like "True Love Pt. #2" and the cover tunes they've made their own--the Doors' "Soul Kitchen," Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless" and the Troggs' "Wild Thing"--with which they closed the day.

Though almost two decades have gone by since many of X's songs were first heard, they sounded as fresh and relevant as any contemporary rock.

It was certainly more innovative than co-headliners Dishwalla. As personable and energetic as the Santa Barbara outfit was--it drew an enthusiastic audience response--the blend of meaty rock and hummable pop it hammered out was more style than substance.

Front-man J.R. Richards cut a dashing figure leading the group through an hour-plus of rock that ranged from soulful jamming to brooding interludes reminiscent of Bush and a couple numbers spiked with an industrial dance edge similar to Nine Inch Nails.

The high point of the set came halfway through the group's irritatingly catchy hit "Blue Cars," when Richards and company segued into the opening of AC/DC's "Back in Black," but it was just a teaser. They soon returned to the drawn-out close of "Blue Cars."

*

The Church made its American debut two years after X released "Los Angeles." Like R.E.M. (which debuted the same year), the Australian quartet was fascinated with translating elements of '60s rock (especially psychedelia-tinged pop a la the Byrds) to the post-punk '80s. Singer-bassist Steve Kilbey opened the group's set by pointing out that the Church is an art band and he wasn't sure if "this"--indicating the afternoon sun and the surfy, sandy So. Cal. surroundings--would work.

But the group's dreamy melodies, trippy imagery and fiery playing managed to suffuse the main stage with a suitably arty vibe. As with X, the Church's selections, dominated by hits from its most popular album, "Starfish" ("Under the Milky Way," "Reptile," "Destination"), didn't betray the fact that most charted more than 10 years ago.

Also unchanged was the acerbic sense of humor shared by Kilbey and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, who facetiously urged the audience to stick around for Berlin, which would undoubtedly play its hit "You Take My Breath Away."

When Berlin took the second stage two hours later, the L.A. quartet paid no heed to the jibes--though Kilbey and Willson-Piper had a point: The syrupy ballad was the least-interesting, slowest-moving number in Berlin's set.

Singer Terri Nunn seemed genuinely impressed with the crowd's warm response, and bantered with audience members as if they were old friends. The group's synth-pop came off a bit dated after all these years, but Nunn and company were content to celebrate the past with its fans--their biggest hits "The Metro" and "Sex (I'm a . . .)" turned the gathering on the green in front of the second stage into an exuberant dance party.

Packing an equal kinetic charge was Bow Wow Wow, which got back together this past year for a reunion tour. The English quartet is probably best known for its vibrant cover of the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy," but its albums are also full of interesting polyrhythmic experiments as well as World Music elements. Led by the irrepressibly perky Annabella Lwin, the quartet played the hits as well as new material from a forthcoming album, notably the Middle Eastern-inflected "Bedouin Rocker."

The rest of the dozen bands on the bill covered a lot of stylistic ground: The reunited Beat Farmers treated the crowd to a rip-roaring roots-rock interlude; Missiles of October played a rousing set of smooth blues reminiscent of Robert Cray; the dapper Tourquays, outfitted in matching suits, contributed some surf music to the mix; and Uncle Jake provided a bit of acid rock.

Although there was no access to the water from the festival grounds, the first half of Doheny Days went off like a daylong beach party thanks to the picture-perfect weather, the food, drink and craft booths that have become standard at all such events, and a mixture of music that offered something for most everyone.

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