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Paul Mann: Sunset Strip Music Festival Celebrates Tradition

More than 50 bands keep the Hollywood haunt rocking for three days

Four blocks along West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip were shut down Aug. 28, a beautiful Saturday afternoon, for the annual Sunset Strip Music Festival. The famous zone, where the vast majority of legendary rock clubs in the city are cloistered, became a veritable hair band heaven as the day wore on.

With more than 50 acts playing on two outdoor stages and in the five nightclubs in the area, it was a hard-rock fan’s dream show. Although the music covered many genres — from heavy metal to indie favorites — the predominant theme was certainly a celebration of hair bands. The clubs featured short sets by aspiring new indie bands from across the country, while the main stages showcased more established groups.

The carefully selected deluge of bands mainly shared one attribute enduring themselves to West Hollywood fans, and that was stage presence. There were no shoe-staring emo musicians with their backs to the crowd to be seen anywhere on the strip. But there were plenty of in-your-face performers ready to rock.

The opening act on the outside West stage personified the ultimate hair band image, a sort of real-life spinal tap type group. Steel Panther may come off as a parody of 1980s hair bands with their hilarious antics. For instance, bassist Travis Haley (Lexxi Foxxx) took time between songs to admire his long locks in a vanity mirror while applying copious amounts of hair spray. But aside from their comedic schtick, this band can really rock.

The veteran rockers who make up the group, which formed nearly a decade ago, have a real pedigree, playing in former well-known groups such as L.A. Guns. They currently have a recurring gig every Monday night at the Key Club. The band was well-received by the crowd and provided a perfect warmup to the acts yet to come.

On the East stage, great new indie band Saint Motel got things rolling with lively enthusiasm, sans campy costumes and makeup. With a great sound and unbridled energy, the band performed a frenetic set for the early bird crowd.

In the meantime, the action was already in full swing inside the iconic clubs. The poster child of metal clubs, The Whiskey, was a dark and dreary transition from the sunny street outside. Smelling a bit like a Midwest truck stop, the scent of sweat and beer hung in the dank air. It was somehow the perfect backdrop for the band, which exploded onstage.

The heavy metal band Yeti, appearing in a mist of fog and strobe lights, launched into a full frontal speed metal assault that would impress Metallica.

Emerging back outside into the blinding afternoon sun, Neon Trees had taken to the East stage. Although lead singer Tyler Glenn sports a mohawk these days, his persona is that of a larger-than-life lead singer of a classic hair band. Originally a California group that became a pet project of The Killers when they moved to Provo, Utah, this indie band can rock and put on a dramatic performance at the same time.

Just down the street, in the tiny Cat Club, Lady Sinatra also was playing an explosive set of intense rock music. The tiny stage seemed to melt into the packed sweaty crowd as fans tried to sway to the music.

Back in the sunlight, a glittering Semi Precious Weapons had just replaced Neon Trees on the East stage. The New York glam band turned in a performance that was the epitome of West Hollywood. Sort of a cross between Iggy Pop and The New York Dolls, this group could also rock hard.

Led by campy tranny Justin Tranter, the band offers its own brand of racy glam rock. Tranter’s antics included an onstage change of clothes, including a new pair of sparkly high heels, spraying the crowd with a bottle of champagne and inviting fans onstage a la M.I.A. at the end of the performance. In the meantime, the band played a frenzied rock beat led by guitarist Stevy Pyne, who was reminiscent in look and style to AC/DC guitarist Angus Young. The band definitely captured the spirit of the day.

As the sun began to set, the highlight of the festival was set to take place on the West stage. On what was officially declared Slash day in West Hollywood, the city introduced the man of the hour with his new band of veteran rockers. As soon as the iconic musician slapped on his first guitar, the band was off to the races. Playing some of its new material interspersed with Guns N’ Roses classics, the group came off as the ultimate hair band. Led by lead vocalist Myles Kennedy (a new voice with an old soul), the group played the classic songs flawlessly. They probably sounded better playing the old tunes than the reunited Guns N’ Roses, which recently got together for the first time in five years to play the Sturgis (S.D.) Rock ‘n Rev Festival.

By the time the band finished itsir blistering set, thousands of people had crowded the streets. During the encore, a humble Slash thanked everyone for the assemblage in his honor. Then he introduced Fergie of Black Eyed Peas fame as his special guest. They are apparently working on a new video together.

Appearing in classic rocker chick garb, Fergie proceeded to steal the show during the band’s 20-minute encore. The voluptuous singer pranced about the stage, wailing, flailing and caressing the band members one by one. One of the most consummate performers in rock music today, she seemed to make personal eye contact with nearly everyone in the audience. When she sang the Heart classic “Barracuda,” the crowd ignited in a screaming frenzy.

While all this excitement was going on, rapper and movie star Common was having less success on the East stage. Technical problems forced the singer to ditch some of his backup musicians and cut his set short, much to the disappointment of a younger and more fashion-conscious crowd that had begun to gather at that end of the strip. Rapper Kid Cudi had more success in the following set, having planned a minimalist set with just a backing DJ. His huge dance club hits seemed to fall a bit flat, however, with the toned-down approach. His new material, popular with electronic dance fans, is actually more reminiscent of Moby than hip-hop music. He might do well to follow the former electronic music guru and develop a live band for his shows.

The headliner, The Smashing Pumpkins hit the West stage just after dark, in front of a huge crowd of eager fans. Sounding like the Pumpkins of old, the band marched straight into a wall of ear-piercing sound sure to please fans of the original band. Punctuated by Billy Corgan’s trademark wail and piercing screams, his new armada of musicians performed admirably. Young drummer Mike Byrne, showing an infusion of new blood into the Pumpkins’ sound, even did a classic hair band drum solo — perhaps the only one of the day.

As the music came to a close on the main stages, many fans headed home. Hard-core music lovers stayed on to enjoy more indie bands performing in the clubs well into the next morning. It was a scene right out of, well, Hollywood.

Click here for Paul Mann’s photos of the event.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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