As Brian Eno has said, “removal of context is an important point in the magic of music.”
While he may have been speaking in terms of studio techniques, I find this mantra to fit equally well within the joyous medium of live music, where, as a performer, maintaining the element of surprise is paramount. Often a spirit of experimentalism and fun can trounce a tried-and-true formula, even if it means things are more uncertain. With this in mind, my extremely limited knowledge of the much-maligned Panic! At the Disco proved advantageous in my enjoyment of their shamelessly poppy but well-engineered sound. Adversely, my familiarity with Weezer’s catalog dating back to my own birth year, ultimately provided cause for marginal disappointment. Atlas Genius also performed, but went unseen, due to the typical plague of traffic which affects Sleep Train Amphitheater.
Panic! At the Disco, or so I am told, appeal largely to a teenage audience that skews female, and is the brainchild of front man Brendon Urie, an acrobatic, multitalented human who possesses a vocal range that would put a choirboy to shame. The band really impressed me with a successful balance between consummate professionalism and spontaneity, with a horn section giving their arrangements a sense of care and inventiveness. They kept up an impressive energy throughout an hour long set, with a tense drum-off, short scream-o interlude, numerous backflips and an invitingly earnest cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” helping to solidify a colorful and polished set, complete with an opulent Vegas casino-style lighting rig. The band truly made San Diego feel like their adopted home, with a lively crowd creating the two-way street that gives gigs their ultimate purpose.
Weezer’s headlining appearance shortly thereafter, was a somewhat different story, certainly not what I expected from my mental creation of who Weezer are as people and what they act like. Their reputation as mainstream alt-radio hit makers certainly justified such a massive slot, but their secret lives as the kings of outcast individuals shone through more brightly, in interesting ways. It took me until halfway through the performance to realize that Rivers Cuomo has even more lyrical finesse than I previously imagined, and has a penchant for creating compelling characters that reveal themselves only once you can see past the sonic wall of electric guitar bliss. But that realization about character building led me to expect more, somehow, from the guys who brought us The Blue Album, a record I have put untold hours into appreciating for its timeless sound and dynamics.
The peripherals of Weezer’s performance seemed somewhat thrown together, for one. Though confetti streamers were used to wonderful effect, jarring LED screen projections mostly distracted from Weezer’s bread and butter power-pop tunes, which can surely stand on their own. Upon coming out for an encore the simple flying W logo in powerful yellow lights replaced this mishmash, simply and effectively. To their credit, the projection of female cultural icons from Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks to Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie during the crescendo of “Thank God for Girls” was transcendent, culminating with the almighty Beyoncé and a resounding roar from the Sleep Train crowd.
The set list was something of a grab bag- not a complete nostalgia trip, nor a showcase for new material. This sense of imbalance left me without the satisfaction of hearing my favorites from their recent releases or the majority of the Blue Album-era classics. Longing for the mammoth hook of “Wind in Our Sail,” I instead got the midtempo “California Kids.” Hoping for the electrifying “Futurescape Trilogy” that closes “Everything Will Be Alright in the End,” there was half of “Only in Dreams,” that lost most of its climactic energy without the hushed verses that give the finale such urgency.
Granted, there were bursts of poignancy throughout that gave a glimpse of what this behemoth show could have been. “Hash Pipe” kicked early-set jitters to the curb with its insistent, drug-addled riffage. “I Love the USA” created a moment of intrapersonal searching with burning guitar solos tearing across the sky with politicized energy. “Say It Ain’t So” and its iconic choruses sounded fresh and urgent. Before a wounded, piano-only version of “El Scorcho” Rivers read the crowd’s own self-effacing tweets aloud in a hilarious moment. But without the tightly-wound energy of an all-hits set or the willingness to give their jammier cuts a voice, this set seemed to float somewhere in the middle of everything. Surely, Weezer have earned a right to play whatever they want. My only concern is that they aren’t taking advantage of their own intimidating catalog. Furthermore, the crowd seemed to have expelled most of its energy in the preceding set, with only the pit truly getting down without any provocation from the band. By the time “Buddy Holly” sent everyone home happy, I noticed I was the only one remaining in my row. Quite simply, it wasn’t what Weezer deserve. Even if they come to San Diego nearly every year by way of the Del Mar Fair, they are a special band with special songs that seemed surprisingly pedestrian given the circumstances of Wednesday’s gig.