Marilyn Manson performs at the Sunset Strip Music Festival in West Hollywood. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
To get a sense of the booking variety at the Sunset Strip Music Festival, which concluded three days of events with a street party Saturday in West Hollywood, it's instructive to look at a single snapshot moment within the roster.
In one two-block span at dusk, it was possible to stroll through the event to see gigs by former teen idol and “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” star Leif Garrett and his rock band at the Whisky A Go Go, or catch legendary O.C. power punks Bad Religion on one of the two Sunset Boulevard outdoor stages.
At the same time at the Roxy, you could check out Das Racist, the Brooklyn rap trio best known for its songs “Michael Jackson” and “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” or walk into the Key Club, where former reality-music-show competitor Vicci Martinez of NBC’s “The Voice” was trying to turn that fleeting prime-time moment into a viable career.
PHOTOS: The Sunset Strip Music Festival 2012
Such is the scope of the Los Angeles music scene, where performers are a dime a dozen and has-beens wrestle with would-bes and wannabes for billing. And as evidenced by the odd mix of acts at the SSMF, puzzling together a day of concerts can be as challenging and creatively dangerous as getting up on a stage to play original music.
Now in its fifth year, the SSMF has blossomed into one of Los Angeles’ biggest outdoor music festivals and aims to be a kind of South by Southwest for non-hipster Pitchfork/Coachella elitists, focusing instead on a whole chunk of hard-working blue-collar rock musicians and fans who have little regard for trendy whims.
Headlined by artists including goth rocker (and, Saturday night, word-slurrer) Marilyn Manson, who embarrassed himself in front of thousands of less-than-impressed night owls with between-song banter about drugs, drugs and more drugs; O.C. punks the Offspring; and electro-house DJ Steve Aoki (who brought on the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am for a cameo), the Strip festival's biggest Saturday moments were provided not by the headliners but by rising performers and fringe favorites looking to take advantage of a captive audience.
The best of the breakouts was by Dead Sara, an L.A. four-piece whose power comes via magnetic singer/guitarist Emily Armstrong and Siouxsie Medley. The band delivered huge, energetic rock songs that harnessed the grunge power of Nirvana and Foo Fighters with a healthy dose of arena rock expansiveness and a hell of a lot of riffage. Playing to an impressive crowd enduring the full force of the afternoon sun, the heat Dead Sara generated pushed down Sunset with force.
Those looking for heat relief were smart to escape to the air-conditioned Roxy, which played home to Chicago-born, L.A.-based singer/songwriter Matt Skiba, best known for his work as a member of emo punks Alkaline Trio. Skiba's gone solo, and his witty and often personal acoustic songs drew a slew of fans who knew all the words.
And at the Key Club, Martinez drew a smaller but equally devoted crowd. The singer/guitarist may not have won the inaugural season of "The Voice," but her performance as part of the festival -- focusing on her as a rock singer and guitarist in the Sheryl Crow/Melissa Etheridge vein -- suggested a performer with enough magnetism and talent to warrant continued attention.
Bad Religion helped define Southern California punk, and its set was as sturdy and confident as ever, even if the band's musical consistency has resulted in some redundancy. But that's punk rock, something singer Greg Graffin has seen a lot of in his time. He proved his history in L.A. by citing his presence at a punk riot after a Sham 69 show 30 years ago in front of the Roxy.
Manson's memory, or delivery, wasn't nearly as sharp. On the contrary, where Bad Religion connected, Manson alienated. The singer's platinum albums in the '90s helped define goth rock, but on Saturday he seemed like a vampire awakened during daylight: groggy and out of it.
PHOTOS: The Sunset Strip Music Festival 2012
In fact, it was easy to identify the moment when he lost the crowd. Between songs, after he'd performed "No Reflection," in an apparent effort to shock, he expressed an out-of-the-blue observation. "Most of you are on narcotics," he declared knowingly. When in unison the crowd responded with a healthy roar of "No," Manson seemed taken aback, and replied, "I'm not on drugs. I swear to God."
But later, before leading into his singalong industrial rock classic "The Dope Show," he tried to blame the crowd's lack of enthusiasm on them not being on drugs. What never seemed to occur to him was the indifference went way deeper than that.
Even the appearance of Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger for three songs by the Doors ("People Are Strange," "Love Me Two Times," and "Five to One), a band born on the Strip and that was honored throughout the festival, wasn't enough to salvage the set. On the contrary, it only made Manson's shortcomings more obvious.
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