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Pop Music Review

The Birth of a Great Arena-Quality Act?

O.C.-based Offspring, making a sharp, energized sprint through hit singles in its first area engagement as a big-venue headliner, shows some serious talent.

July 19, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The arena-rock warhorse is a dwindling breed consisting of holdovers from past decades and a few '90s-bred ponies that haven't proved they can carry the load as a big draw over the long haul.

Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots broke down before they even made it to the back stretch. Pearl Jam could run the race--but does it want to? The Dave Matthews Band? Not a bad bet; somebody has to take over the Grateful Dead's jam-band slot.

Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Nine Inch Nails? Marilyn Manson, Green Day and No Doubt? None is an odds-on favorite at this point to follow Elton John, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, Santana, the Rolling Stones, U2 and other '60s, '70s and '80s-vintage acts whose continuing presence on the scene helps concert promoters smile a bit between worried frowns over the lack of new arena-scale talent.

Then there is the Offspring. The Orange County-based band opened a two-night stand Friday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, its first area engagement as an amphitheater or arena headliner. (The band's biggest previous show in Southern California was a 1995 gig that drew an estimated 8,000 fans to the Olympic Velodrome in Carson.)

The band had built a strong foundation for a possible arena-rock career, registering one gold, one platinum and two multiple-platinum albums since rocketing to prominence five years ago with the hit "Come Out and Play." Its combined U.S. album sales stand at nearly 11 million, according to SoundScan.

Will Offspring look back on its big homecoming weekend as the triumphant but brief apex of its career? Or has it reached not a peak but a lofty plateau to be maintained over the long haul?

On the evidence of Friday's show before an impressive but less-than-capacity house of perhaps 13,000 ecstatic fans, the Offspring may well have the performing allure and creative staying power to ride the big-venue circuit well into the future.

The concert was a sharp and energized sprint through hit singles and equally tuneful additional tracks from the band's last three albums. Without any elaborate stage sets or expensive effects, ringleader Dexter Holland and his mates pulled off fun surprises and provided the memorable visual moments that make for excited morning-after fan chatter and long-lasting memories.

Musically and attitudinally, this was as varied a show as you'll get from a band that's nominally a punk-rock act. The Offspring offered smart-alecky novelties: "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," "Walla Walla" and "Why Don't You Get a Job?" There were plenty of obstreperously defiant or satiric punk salvos, among them "Americana," "Smash," "Come Out and Play" and "Cool to Hate," typically punctuated by F-word shout-along refrains that the crowd joined without cues or prodding.

But Holland, who sings and writes the songs, also aspires to fulfill punk's more elevated role as a vehicle for alert, intelligent commentary and philosophizing. The stately cry to heaven of "Gone Away" and the dark, urgent thrust of "Have You Ever," "The Kids Aren't Alright," "Gotta Get Away" and "Genocide" gave the show thematic ballast and emotional clout; Holland's piercing voice hit home as he became an embattled idealist trying to decide whether there's any point in trying in the face of so much worldly corruption and idiocy.

"So if you walk away, who is gonna stay?/'Cause I'd like to leave the world as a better place" was his call to activism and engagement with the world at the end of "Have You Ever."

But Holland, a man with smile dimples as deep as lunar craters, knows the value of high jinks for an audience that included preteens and their thirtysomething parents, along with the usual 15- to 30-year-old modern-rock demographic. Showers of confetti and more bubbles than Lawrence Welk ever commanded accompanied some of the more festive moments; Holland also bludgeoned to pieces effigies of the five Backstreet Boys and doused the house with a fire hose--moves correctly calculated to rate high on the kids' cool-o-meter.

The Offspring offer an impeccable sonic construct, thanks to Holland's gifted ear and canny knack as a song architect: There wasn't a riff, beat or vocal line that didn't serve as a hook or a setup for a hook. And the band executed it perfectly. Greg Kriesel, the no-nonsense bassist, anchored the low end with a clear, strong instrumental presence. Drummer Ron Welty provided a purposeful, trebly attack that never muddied the mix, as so many hard-rock drummers do with quaking bass drums. That left ample room in the foreground for Holland's distinctive, somewhat Ozzy Osborne-like tuneful bleat and the zooming riffs he and his pogo-ing sidekick, Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman, buzzed out on guitar.

If they aren't there already, the Offspring are just one more big hit song or album away from critical mass as an arena-rock fixture. Once that chain reaction has begun, they'll have no problem sustaining it if they can keep their performances on the level of this one.

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