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Pop Music Review

Rebelliously Retro--and Reveling in It

April 26, 1999|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Age of Aquarius will not leave us. Both Lenny Kravitz and the Black Crowes have been derided this decade for hewing maybe too closely to the finest elements of pop circa 1968-1974, making a retro brand of rock 'n' soul for listeners too young to remember it the first time around.

Kravitz and the Crowes find something enriching and inspiring about the old grooves that they felt the modern era just wasn't offering. And at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Friday, both acts at least demonstrated that their shared obsession is serious and well-executed, even if its connection to contemporary culture is often tenuous.

Together they headlined a package tour that also included sets by hip-hop bluesman Everlast and Cree Summer, whose debut album of spaced-out hippie charm was produced by Kravitz. It was only when Kravitz and the Crowes drifted too far from their core influences that they lost musical focus.

For most of his set, it was hard not to get caught up in the Kravitz groove, a high-energy blend of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Looking for a moment like a young James Brown, Kravitz opened his set twitching frantically to the heavy beats in a snug three-piece suit. This fit with his '70s funk aesthetic, a commitment that Kravitz carried to an epic degree in a stage design of crisp whites, silver spheres and patent-leather reds, where "2001: A Space Odyssey" meets "The Sonny & Cher Show."

Organic or not, this is a sound and look Kravitz has mastered. He stretched out the funked-up rock of "Mama Said" with expressive soloing from his two-man horn section and explosive guitar work from Kravitz and longtime sideman Craig Ross. He was equally powerful when left alone to strum an acoustic guitar, making music heavy with uplifting, humanistic messages.

During his encore, Kravitz reached for the profound voice of his rock heroes with the anthem-minded "Let Love Rule." He marched through the crowd, arms raised, letting the crowd sing back at him. "Our job is to teach, our job is to testify," he urged. "You've got kids shooting people, you've got wars going on--come on, people!"

The Black Crowes likewise reached for epic classic rock moves. They still dress like British rock stars from the early '70s, still yearning for that era when rock was both festive and decadent, silly and pretentious, energetic and somehow life-affirming.

Singer Chris Robinson reflects the same boyish, rakish charm of a young Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, strutting on stage in bare feet, black satin bell-bottoms and a tank-top with "Pimp" spelled out on his chest. Robinson and the band have not just copped all the right looks and riffs, but found a comfort zone with a Faces-meets-Southern rock sound. It's not exactly original, but delivered with enough urgency to inspire fans on Friday to shout along even to the most obscure Crowes songs.

"Sure 'nuff, sure 'nuff!" Robinson declared. "There ain't nothin' to it but to do it!"

Sheer force of will wasn't quite enough to carry the Crowes for an entire 70-minute set. Only when the songwriting coalesced into a tight blend of power and finesse was their mastery of the form undeniable, as in the rumbling gospel-flavored ballad "She Talks to Angels." Too often, lesser material caused the set to drag down into a forgettable blues-rock muddle.

Almost by default, Everlast offered the freshest sounds of the night, making music more complex and original than what can be heard within his recent radio hits. Though he was first championed by original gangsta Ice-T and is now signed to the Tommy Boy Records, hip-hop is now just one of many ingredients in his sound.

This former House of Pain front man is now more likely to pick up an acoustic guitar than he is to bust a hard-core rap groove. On Friday, his backing quartet was a quirky conglomerate of instruments: stand-up bass, lap steel guitar, organ and drums, landing him strangely close to Beck's musical territory. Most important was Everlast's tough urban growl. Rasping through his talking blues hit "What It's Like," Everlast was a folk singer for a new age, not merely an echo from the past.

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