About halfway into their set at a packed America West Arena on Saturday, November 24, self-proclaimed rock deities Tenacious D launched into a song purporting to tell their story.
The ballad, appropriately titled "The History of Tenacious D," attempts to build an awe-inspiring myth around the musical union of two pudgy guys with acoustic guitars. As the song hit the bridge, head D Jack Black sang, with great mock seriousness, about the throng in attendance at America West: "Some came for the music, some came for the laughs. Some came because you knew some serious shit was going to go down."
Tongue-in-cheek though the lyric was, it was a reasonable encapsulation of the assorted nuts that turned out at America West for the oddball triple bill of Weezer, Tenacious D, and Jimmy Eat World. There was little doubt as to where the music and the laughs would be coming from; the only question was which act would carry the burden of laying down the serious shit.
The combination of Weezer (veteran alt-rock warriors), Tenacious D (shtick-heavy parody group), and Jimmy Eat World (sincere, earnest emo-pop quartet) for 17 fall dates in the middle of their respective tours didn't necessarily make sense on paper, but it was obvious at America West that there was considerable overlap among their ultra-loyal audiences.
For Weezer, it was a confirmation of its 2001 return from a five-year sabbatical as conquering punk-pop godfathers. When the band released its Ric Ocasek-produced debut album in 1994, it was widely derided for being part of an alt-rock swing toward frivolous novelty songs in the wake of Kurt Cobain's shocking suicide that year. With the Happy Days pastiche video for "Buddy Holly" and the KISS references of "In the Garage," the band was surely a million miles from the kind of soul-baring Cobain had delivered on In Utero, even if it was unfairly lumped together with comedy rockers like Presidents of the United States of America.
Seven years down the line, and five years after releasing the dour, uncommercial Pinkerton, Weezer now projects the aura of respected elder statesmen, unwitting inspiration to such lesser lights as Blink-182 and Sum 41 (and surely a bunch of other moronic pseudo-punks with numbers in their names).
They might have filled an arena on this night, but it was pretty obvious that Weezer wasn't too comfortable in their cavernous environs. Actually, you got the feeling that for Weezer mastermind Rivers Cuomo, the whole idea of playing live these days is a bit of an inconvenience -- not necessarily something he despises, but an obligatory bit of promotion that distracts him from all those new tunes running around in his head.
With studied discomfort, he addressed the audience -- in a high-pitched squeak that shared little with his full-bodied singing voice -- only to give the next song title, before kicking into a series of three-minute wonders from his hook-filled catalogue: "In the Garage," "Crab," "Knock-down Drag-out" and "Undone -- The Sweater Song." The one time he indulged himself with an unreleased song in the middle of the set, he demonstrated rare politeness by thanking the audience for its patience.
With little sense of exuberance or flair, the band muscled through its standards in workmanlike fashion. For a band so often associated with the more fun side of rock, Weezer flashed little evidence of a sense of humor in its performance. In fact, the few comedic moments in its hour-plus set were purely inadvertent, like the sight of band enthusiasts crowd-surfing near the stage to a song as sweet as "Island in the Sun."
In general, the crowd was the most fascinating part of the Weezer show, filling in the energy gaps with adoration, singing along with almost every song (even the lone Pinkerton selection, the misery anthem "Tired of Sex"). En masse, they held their hands aloft to make a "W" sign, and went apeshit at the mere sight of the curtain behind the band coming down, or the Van Halen-inspired band logo lighting up.
But if Weezer had a stage-presence deficiency, Tenacious D seemed armed with more than enough for both groups. Back for their second Valley visit in five weeks (they blew out the Web Theatre on October 21), the D earned audacity points right off the bat by opening the show with an acoustic version of the theme song from Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack. But it didn't take long to figure out that this potty-mouthed, postmodern Simon and Garfunkel were the most awkward fit on this night.
So much of the duo's shtick is built around their presumption that they are the center of the musical universe. In front of their own fans, it works to perfection, because the crowd plays along, getting into character as breathless worshipers of these self-proclaimed studly rock gods.
At America West, the D had its contingent, but the balance was just a bit off, as the hopeful Backstage Bettys were outnumbered by the uninitiated, some of whom actually shouted stuff like "You guys fucking suck," with no hint of irony. After Black buttered up the crowd by describing how "rad" it was that the Diamondbacks won the World Series, his sidekick Kyle Gass (a.k.a. KG, and Rage Cage) stepped into dangerous sports turf by warning local basketball fans: "Watch out for Penny [Hardaway]'s attitude problem." After Black advised him, "Don't talk about the Suns, that's one thing I've learned tonight," he ignored his own advice and joined Gass in describing how their beloved "Lakey-Lakes" would dispose of the Suns in the playoffs. It was a funny bit, but it drew a chorus of boos.
Drawing on D classics like "Tribute" and the compassionate "Fuck Her Gently," Black and Gass won over much of the Weezer-dominated audience. But when they announced that they were down to their last song, the loud cheers suggested that their truncated 40-minute set was still too long for the unconverted.
One unequivocal cheer that Tenacious D got came when Gass acknowledged the show openers, and returning local heroes: "How about those Jimmy Eat World guys? The more I tutor them, the better they get. They're coming along."
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Gass' compliment returned the favor of Jimmy Eat World front man Jim Adkins' similarly irreverent Tenacious D recommendation: "The world's greatest band, Tenacious D, is up next. How's that, Kyle? Is that good?"
It was a rare bit of levity in a dead-serious, all-too-short (barely more than 30 minutes) set that offered further proof that this Mesa band is a live powerhouse. Jimmy Eat World long ago transcended the limitations of their emo-punk roots, and, like Weezer, they've established themselves as, basically, a loud pop band -- a collective with an unerring feel for the rules of verse-chorus-verse.
But Jimmy Eat World clings to the purposely naive passion that informed their earliest efforts, an aesthetic they drew from their shared underground heroes. With Adkins bounding around the stage like he's going to implode unless he gets that next line out, Jimmy Eat World provided the night with what it wouldn't have had otherwise: a sense of urgency. Drawing heavily on their third, and latest, major-label album, Bleed American (retitled Jimmy Eat World in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks), the group -- bolstered by the sweet harmonies and subtle keyboards of Rachel Haden -- managed the considerable trick of making radio-ready favorites like "The Middle" (which debuted on MTV's TRL four weeks ago), "Sweetness" and "Blister" sound fresh and spontaneous without changing a note from their solid studio recordings.
Part of the peculiarly local thrill of Jimmy Eat World's performance was surely the rare sight of a Valley band playing an arena show in front of the home folks. But beyond that, they stood out because they were the lone source of the "serious shit" that Tenacious D promised would go down Saturday night.