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Sounds Uninspired

By Sommer Mathis

December 3, 2003 9:00 pm

A Sounds Eclectic Evening, KCRW’s third annual benefit
concert, was held Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre. The show
was a shining example of how the Santa Monica-based National Public
Radio affiliate, once undeniably at the forefront of cutting-edge
music from around the world, has settled into a complacent role as
a purveyor of conventional music and uninspired emerging
artists.

The concert, hosted by KCRW Music Director and Morning Becomes
Eclectic DJ Nic Harcourt, featured a line-up of talented, but
mostly middle-of-the-road acts such as Irish singer and songwriter
Damien Rice and folksy balladeer Gary Jules.

The choice of Grammy-winning country singer Shelby Lynne as the
special surprise guest was further evidence of the conservative
nature of the show put together by a radio station that claims to
be “a renaissance of new radio.”

Embodying any kind of cultural renaissance is, of course,
difficult when constrained by the public radio mandate to fundraise
or perish. Many KCRW DJs, such as Open Road’s Gary Calamar
and Chocolate City host Garth Trinidad, do play and promote more
cutting edge artists than were presented at the Evening.

But with ticket prices ranging from $50 to $250, the show seems
to have been designed to cater to the middling tastes of those who
can afford to support the station’s programming.

This is not to suggest that the concert went without some
excellent and extremely well-received performances.

Lynne, with her sublime voice and tough-girl lyrics, was soulful
and commanding, even without her powerhouse back-up band.

Beck, in a rare solo acoustic set, received not one, but two
standing ovations, the first after he masterfully blended
Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” with the 1996 hit
“Where it’s At.” Adding a touching, if less than
stellar, rendition of two songs written by the late Elliott Smith,
Beck treated the audience to an intimate journey through some of
his and Smith’s most personal work.

With the audience still on its feet, hip-hop purists Jurassic 5
took the stage and livened up what had been up to that point a
mostly subdued series of quiet, introspective work.

Jurassic 5 is a solid, high-energy group of MCs that embodies a
dedication to the more music, less hype ethic, which is a good
thing.

But trotting this old-school style ensemble out as the best
example of today’s hip-hop scene seems a little more than out
of touch. Certainly one of the Def Jux artists, such as Aesop Rock
or RJD2, who are also played on KCRW but have a grittier, more
defiantly underground edge, would have been a bolder choice.

The two most daring choices on the part of the concert planners
were also the least likely to pan out as being predictive of
long-term influence on the music scene.

The inclusion of former indie rock goddess and current
postergirl for selling out (or martyrdom, depending on whom you
ask), Liz Phair, was definitely risky. But she opted to play it
safe and perform old favorites like “Supernova” and
“Divorce Song,” instead of foisting on the audience too
many tracks off her critically lambasted new pop album. Although
Phair will long be remembered as an important songwriter, her
lackluster performance Saturday belied her current endeavors at
reaching rock star status.

The second risky choice was having The Polyphonic Spree, a
24-person strong acid gospel group currently en vogue on Madison
Avenue, close out the concert. With so many musicians lending to
their full, giddy sound, their performance could not help being
impressive. But if KCRW is positing a band as gimmicky as The
Polyphonic Spree as the future stars of tomorrow, that’s a
little tough to swallow.

The vast majority of the audience for KCRW’s A Sounds
Eclectic Evening appeared to be delighted with the concert, but
that fact begs more questions than it provides answers. Hopefully
the radio station saw the concert for what it really was: a
fundraising event tailor-made for those who are happy to embrace
music that is pretty good, but not terribly exciting.

While nearly every musician in the concert went out of their way
to describe KCRW as radio’s second coming, a more circumspect
Beck said it best when he applauded the station for “keeping
some good music on the air.”

This is precisely what KCRW is doing, and it is a tough job to
be sure. But considering how badly Harcourt and company appear to
want to be perceived as groundbreaking, playing “some”
good music can’t help but feel like a letdown.

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