Live Review: KTCL's Big Gig at Fiddler's Green
The Big Gig, with the Offspring, Paramore, Dropkick Murphys, Flobots, Spill Canvas, Dropping Daylight, Skyfox
Saturday, July 26
The 2007 version of KTCL's signature event suffered from many of the standard drawbacks associated with summer festivals: extreme heat, pacing problems, technical difficulties, a scattershot lineup, etc. Such problems weren't entirely absent for this year's model, staged on July 26 at Fiddlers Green, but they were generally improved -- and the participation of the Offspring, a band that proved to be the ideal headliner, compensated for a lot of them.
I arrived with co-reviewers Lora and Ellie, my fifteen-year-old twins, at just past 3 p.m. -- unfortunately after most of the festivities on the local stage had wound down. Indeed, the first act we got to see in its entirety was Skyfox, a local outfit that won an online contest to open the day's activities in the main arena. Composed of vocalist/guitarist Johnny Hill, bassist Matt Lase and drummer Jonny TP, the group started off its set looking a bit lost on the oversized expanse as they played Harvey Danger-like ditties about punk-rock gentlemen and picking up easy girls in church -- but as the set wore on, they wisely tried to liven things up with some stagecraft. Granted, their most notable gambit -- bringing out a pair of "ball sacks" containing beach balls and inviting the slow-arriving crowd to "play with our balls" -- didn't constitute the pinnacle of wit. But their tuneful if oh-so-familiar,material kept the crowd amused, or at least distracted, for the length of their set.
Dropping Daylight, from Minneapolis, arrived next, with keyboardist Sebastian Davin stepping front and center. He was certainly a warm and welcoming presence, but the florid instrumental passages he played throughout numbers such as "Tell Me," "Apologies" and the title cut from the group's 2006 album Brace Yourself -- and while talking to the audience -- suggested to me that his affiliation with the modern-rock genre had more to do with convenience than genuine affinity. Deep down, I thought, he wanted to be Billy Joel, but I was proven wrong. No, he really wanted to be Steve Perry, as he demonstrated during a frighteningly faithful closing rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," an egregious ditty whose vengeful return to the popular lexicon (demonstrated by the young-to-forty-something throng's eagerness to sing along with every word) is due in large part to its use in the final episode of a certain HBO series. Goddamn you, Tony Soprano! Goddamn you to hell!
To my shock, South Dakota's The Spill Canvas subsequently made another nod to allegedly progressive bands of the '70s and '80s, tossing a snippet of Kansas' "Carry on Wayward Son" into a guitar solo. What's next?, I wondered. Inviting attendees to slow dance to "Lady" by Styx? Another bad sign: Frontman Nick Thomas wrapped up a power ballad, then told the crowd it was time for a "slow jam" -- the lugubrious "Connect the Dots." Then again, the group best known for the catchy "All Over You," which unsurprisingly concluded their performance, was unexpectedly tight, with extremely efficient arrangements and precise drumming by Joe Beck that held everything together. As a result, a combo that wasn't terribly interesting in and of itself proved professional enough to get over anyhow.
The Flobots, the outfit that followed, received a hometown heroes' welcome whose fervor was evident by sales at the merch booth; the group's T-shirts were sold out before the players even stepped to a microphone. Nevertheless, I continue to like the idea of the Flobots more than I enjoy their music as a whole. Apostasy, I know, but for me, at least, their show was underwhelming. The rhymes Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit unleashed amid "There's a War Going on For Your Mind," "Stand Up," "Rise," "Mayday!!!" and more are unquestionably sincere and deeply felt, but too many of them feel so bluntly didactic that they make Zack de la Rocha's salvos for Rage Against the Machine seem subtle in comparison. That's why "Handlebars" remains the combo's best tune: It uses a metaphor rather than piling up simple broadsides and calling it a day; presents an unusual point of view, questioning the sort of overweening pride that's all too common in hip hop instead of resorting to sloganeering; and builds to a musically powerful conclusion. But whereas Rage found an exciting live sound that rendered complaints about hamhandedness moot, at least for the length of a given concert, the approach taken by the Flobots represents a mushy middle ground between slammin' rap and artsy rock. Example: Brer Rabbit's announcement that the band was about to "tear this mofo up" -- note the abbreviation of the word "motherfucker," as opposed to saying the word itself -- was followed immediately by some pretty sawing courtesy of violin player Mackenzie Roberts (no relation). That's kickin' it Yo-Yo Ma style.
Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that the Flobots are taking on substantial issues, and I give credit to Jonny 5 for challenging the audience to think while they partied. (One ticket-buyer apparently didn't like that idea: After Jonny talked about demanding that America move away from any association with slavery, genocide and unjust wars, the guy hurled a beverage bottle toward him. It missed.) But I also think the group needs to come up with sonics and words that live up to their potential instead of settling for being well-intentioned.
After that, an ironic juxtaposition: The Big Gig's most intellectual entrant was succeeded by its most anti-intellectual, the Dropkick Murphys. The Irish punkers from Boston, a city they mentioned so often that there was no way of forgetting it, charged out like a not-so-light brigade, with Al Barr and Ken Casey looking as if they weren't sure if they wanted to sing or brawl. Original, they're not: Note that their use of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" to fuel "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ya" was used back in the '70s by one of their biggest influences, the Clash, for a song called "English Civil War." But their crazed exuberance, as well as their willingness to supplement their instrumentation with bagpipes, an accordion and a banjo, whipped many of the male members of the mob into a frenzy. (Moments after they left the stage to the ringing sound of "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" which earned notoriety thanks to its use in the film The Departed, two goons behind us got into an epic scrap, with one eventually having to be expelled.) And the females? Not so much. The testosterone-fueled proceedings distracted Lora and Ellie for about fifteen minutes, after which they decided that too many songs sounded the same -- like a soundtrack to a soccer riot -- and other members of their gender seemed to agree. In this case, the little girls didn't understand.
That changed when Paramore stepped into the spotlight. I'd seen the band at the 2007 Warped Tour and been totally underwhelmed. The ultra-photogenic Hayley Williams and her accompanists made me think of actors portraying a band on a show like One Tree Hill as opposed to the real thing. This time around, however, I wasn't any more wowed by the band as a whole, but I had a different impression of the woman at its center. The supporting musicians proved louder and rougher than they were at Warped a year or so ago, if no more memorable. Despite their best efforts to earn some attention, only Williams displayed starpower -- and she displayed a lot of it. She's a kinetic presence, leaping around the stage energetically yet somehow never seeming to mess up her perfect coiffure, and while she sounded a bit shrill and (as Randy Jackson might put it) pitchy on early numbers like "Born for This" and "Crushcrushcrush," she proved to be a fine singer on slower numbers such as "We Are Broken," which she delivered sitting down at a keyboard. During such moments, it was clear that Williams has the ability to break out on a wider, more mainstream scale -- to do a Kelly Clarkson, essentially -- whenever she'd like. So be nice to her, the rest of you dudes in Paramore. Because the moment she goes solo, you're also-rans.
A short time later, the Offspring emerged and kicked ass, giving the fans of Dropkick Murphys and Paramore something they could agree on. The act's easy to take for granted, having been around for so long, but Dexter Holland, Noodles and the rest have produced an impressive roster of hits since the mid-'90s -- so many that they could afford to use one of their biggest, "Come Out and Play," as just the third song in the set. The smashes -- from albums like 1994's Smash -- kept coming for a solid hour: "Bad Habit," "Gotta Get Away," "Why Don't You Get a Job?," "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)," and more. As a bonus, the tempos never flagged, as they often do when veteran groups are doing the jukebox routine -- and while the banter between Holland and Noodles had a well-worn quality, it amused nevertheless. After alluding to their new album, Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, for instance, Noodles pointed out that the whole thing had landed on the Internet long before its official release, but he didn't seem concerned in the slightest -- especially not while churning out "Hammerhead," its single, which sounded just as catchy in this context as everything else.
The concluding singalong to "Self-Esteem" sent the masses out of Fiddlers on a natural high -- well, quasi-natural, given the fog of marijuana smoke hanging over the place. The folks at KTCL had to be pleased by the results. Not everything about the Big Gig worked, but at least it had a happy ending. -- Michael Roberts