Staying power is no small feat for alternative rock musicians. Most are left for dead after a successful album or two and those with hits are somehow entitled to “comeback” status for missing the charts with a disc. As the industry scours the country for the next Nirvana or Red Hot Chili Peppers, there are a few artists, such as the The, developing the sort of fan base associated with rock bands of the ’60s and early ’70s.
Matt Johnson, who has been making records under the moniker the The for more than a decade, and Frank Black, who split from the Pixies which he fronted as Black Francis, have established enough of a following to warrant a booking at the 6,000-seat Universal. That the hall was little more than two-thirds full reflects the so-so retail showing of the The’s “Dusk” and Frank Black’s debut.
Johnson and Black, both of whom have earned considerable praise for their recorded output, delivered sets Friday that were full of energy and passion yet a sonic sameness depleted their ability to translate onstage energy to the crowd. By removing the sheen and luster that has defined the The’s pop music over the course of four U.S.-released albums, Johnson gave the crowd a captivating show to look at but no dynamics to sustain interest.
Most of the The’s 80-minute set was devoted to material from “Dust” and 1989 ‘s “Mind Bomb” but where those discs are a combination of moods and textures, the The live is a one-note samba. Beat-driven without being quite danceable, the music was too much backdrop for Johnson’s presence.
Black’s 40-minute set seemed bent on reflecting the Three Faces of Frank: the uneasy plump fellow from Boston singing about silliness, the self-assured guy who has assimilated punk angst, ’60s surf guitar, Beatles bass lines and Beach Boys’ harmonies, and the angry rocker lashing out at the world, surrounding what had been inviting music with beefy, death-metal chords.
But, his set was a welcome reprieve from openers Swell, a Def American quartet from San Francisco still learning to play their instruments.
Both Johnson and Black possess tremendous talent for melody and lyric and while neither is about to threaten R.E.M. in sales volume, both have the kind of appeal alternative rock needs to make it.