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Pop Tent

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At Poptopia, America--and particularly Southern California--ruled the roost. At times, it appeared that all the showcases were interconnected by six degrees of Wondermints. For instance, the beloved Wondermints not only played a Tuesday-night showcase at the Whisky a Go-Go, but Wondermint member Probyn Gregory slipped a somewhat meandering acoustic set into a Friday-night Luna Park showcase that was otherwise dominated by girl bands. On Monday night, El Rey showcased much-hyped trippy popsters The Negro Problem, a band that featured guest instrumental work by Gregory on its 1997 album Post Minstrel Syndrome. If that wasn't enough, the Wondermints connection revealed itself again on Saturday night at the tiny Hollywood dive Dragonfly, when ex-Wondermints bassist Brian Kassan displayed his excellent quartet Chewy Marble, whose tight performance lived up to the implications of the band's stellar, eponymously titled 1997 debut album.

An even more fulfilling pop orgasm was reached the following night by Baby Lemonade, an L.A. quartet that would be a chart topper in a more evolved world. Simultaneously dedicating its show to newly deceased Beach Boy Carl Wilson and someone named Cookiehead, Baby Lemonade inspired disparate acts of devotion from fans who clustered near the El Rey stage. One guy held up his tiny tape recorder to secure a bootleg of the show, while nearby a girl sketched the four band members on a giant drawing pad. Though it was breaking in a new bass player, this band demonstrated complete command of the form, with rich three-part harmonies, surprising chord progressions and gorgeous melodicism. On top of that, it rocked with conviction.

The same could not be said of all the showcasing bands. In fact, a persistent problem at Poptopia was that too many bands delivered the pop, but forgot to bring the power. No one ever said that catchy tunes had to come in a twee, sexless package, but that was exactly what came from groups like Cherry Twister--a thin-sounding, overly retro Pennsylvania trio--and Piewackit, a trio which managed to be both wimpy and raw.

On the other hand, from Sweden--a land whose greatest export is wimpy pop--came the gutsy ebullience of The Merrymakers, whose Friday opening showcase at Spaceland set a tough standard for the acts that followed. This band was discovered via the Internet by former Jellyfish leader Andy Sturmer, who found Jellyfish listed as an influence on The Merrymakers' Web site. Sturmer ended up producing and playing on the band's tasty Bubblegun album. At Spaceland, this quintet came on like a dream mutation of all the great three-chord wonders, particularly on its closing rocker, "Superstar." At a Wednesday-night showcase, Phoenix's lone entry in Poptopia, the Beat Angels, also brought a welcome level of toughness to the proceedings.

Poptopia prides itself on its respect for history, which ultimately translates into a showcase for some unjustly forgotten hero. Last year, that hero was Emitt Rhodes, who played his first show in more than two decades. This year, the reclamation project was only slightly less obscure: Scott McCarl, bassist/vocalist for The Raspberries on their final, and best, album, Starting Over. The McCarl show drew a distinctly older audience, including some baby boomers who made this their only stop of the festival. Looking amazingly fit and youthful, McCarl led The Tearaways through a set of new songs, Raspberries classics and covers of The Byrds' "Feel a Whole Better" and The Beatles' "Yes It Is." By the end of the set, he was joined by former Raspberries guitarist Wally Bryson, looking for all the world like an even-more-ravaged Sam Kinison (if that's possible), and ex-Knack drummer Bruce Gary. They finished off the night with a pure garage-band cliche, "Slow Down," but even if the results were a bit ragged, the feeling of recaptured innocent joy was hard to resist. At unexpected moments in his set, an obviously thrilled McCarl would simply exclaim, "Pop music!" like it was a mantra, or a commitment he was trying to keep.

That's the kind of validation Perkins and his fellow Poptopia organizers look for. Perkins readily acknowledges that Poptopia has not yet had an impact on the decision-making of major record labels, but he believes that the language of the current music scene has been changed. "It [pop] is actually kind of a buzz word now," he says. "It's just a couple of notches below electronica."

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia