Wednesday, July 29, 2009

B-52s concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register

The B-52s, The 88
Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
July 19

When the B-52s did big hit “Love Shack” with Sugarland at the recent CMT Music Awards, it wasn’t as big of a stretch as it seemed. Both acts hail from Georgia and Sugarland often pulls out genre-hopping covers live. Still, the much buzzed about TV appearance together exemplified how much widespread appeal the B52s have these days.

That was definitely in full display at the Pacific Amphitheatre. The crowd makeup was the most varied I’ve seen so far during the OC Super Fair concert series, ranging from gray-haired grandparents and teenagers to middle-aged couples in Hawaiian shirts and gay men dancing up a storm. Some even used plastic bubble guns. Before the concert started, a young lady in a pink dress strolled the concourse area strumming a ukulele, while two women sporting straw hats with bright colored feathers passed by.

Despite a wacky self-titled 1979 debut that found favor at underground dance clubs and college radio and a couple albums that eventually went gold, the unique new wave group didn’t truly find mainstream success until the arrival of Cosmic Thing a decade later. It was certified double-platinum and spawned a pair of top 5 pop singles.

Original co-lead singer Cindy Wilson left soon after, but returned for a 1998 retrospective and subsequent tours. Last year, the B-52s put out Funplex, their first full-length studio effort in 16 years. A fine return-to-form, it mixes modern electronic sounds, retro/surf rock, silly lyrics and the famous high flying vocals of Wilson and Kate Pierson, punctuated by Fred Schneider’s deadpan delivery.

Performing in front of a trippy backdrop design and swirling light pattern, the B-52s kicked off the 75-minute Costa Mesa gig with a spacey “Pump,” the first of five solid Funplex tracks.

Guitarist Keith Strickland led the way with rollicking licks, backed by longtime drummer Sterling Campbell, bassist Tracy Wormworth and an auxiliary musician. Lighthearted sexual innuendo is ingrained in many B-52’s songs. New ones like the chunky pop/rocker “Ultraviolet” and rave-worthy “Love in the Year 3000” hit this point home onstage with the three singers’ playful interplay.

Wilson demonstrated her rhythmic prowess on tom toms periodically throughout the evening; Pierson did minimal work on keyboards (she had problems every time a roadie brought out the instrument). The punkish “Private Idaho,” an early highlight, saw Wilson doing The Swim dance as Pierson trilled like a bird. Schneider updated and personalized some lyrics (a frantic “Strobe Light,” where the gals’ intertwined pipes were crystalline as ever; the strangely alluring “Quiche Lorraine,” where he sang, “It’s a dreary Costa Mesa day”).

The excitement level was ratcheted up several notches during harmonious audience sing along “Roam.” Schneider, who had been offstage at the time, suddenly ran onstage wearing a fluorescent blue wig for the festive “Party out of Bounds.” Entering the home stretch, “Love Shack” was a hoot. Strickland and Wormworth engaged in a short, groovy solo and there was an exaggerated pause so everyone could help Wilson with her “tin roof, busted” line.

Then it was time to step into the “Twilight Zone” for the standard encore: an eerie “Planet Claire” and always entertaining “Rock Lobster” (the latter brings me back to junior high roller rink parties when the tune was popular). Amazingly, Pierson, 61 and Wilson, 52, can still nail those odd animal sounds and squeals.

L.A. band The 88 - whose power pop/rock music has been ubiquitous on dozens of TV shows, commercials and movies over the past five years - opened with a satisfying half-hour set. A still-arriving crowd was indifferent to the quintet’s finely-crafted tunes, but singer/guitarist Keith Slettedahl and animated keyboardist played them with finesse. Standouts included the Supergrass-styled intensity of “Go Go Go,” “Coming Home” and raucous “Sons and Daughters,” from 2008 major label bow No Only…But Also.

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