Past 89X Birthday Bashes downtown have been everything a Midwest summer concert should be featuring half-naked teens, plenty of hip shakin' and those oversized plastic cups brimming with frosty brew while a number of run-of-the-mill, Top 40-ish "new rock" bands (along with some local elites) paid homage to the Detroit Skyline and two Detroit institutions in the form of the Fox and State theatres.
This year, however, 89X moves the revelry to Sterling Heights. Yeah, the Bash has gone suburban. 89X DJ Vince Cannova explains that the move is basically a result of the size of the crowd and a larger number of bands on previous fests leaving artists with shortened set times.
"After 16 years, you decide to switch it up once in a while," Cannova says. "This year, we decided to go lean and mean one stage, four bands, full sets from each group."
Whatever the case, 89X's track record for booking quality Birthday Bash shows is outstanding ... and this year's Freedom Hill concert promises to be no slouch, featuring as it does two up-and-comers sure to impress, an American standard-bearer, and a stadium rock slugger from across the pond.
Cold War Kids: Cold War Kids are a modern day atlas of sound a revamped, modernized roadmap of yesteryear and a nostalgic din of American experience. (OK, the band's no Bruce Springsteen ... but then, who is?) The recent success of the band, based in Long Beach, Calif., is often attributed to that nostalgia, as well as a literary approach to lyrics that provides listeners with a pocket of breathing space removed from the "You broke my heart and I hope you die!" pitch smothering current mainstream radio.
"We like to tell more of a question-type story than an answer-type story," suggests bassist Matt Maust. "We want people to think."
Sure, Cold War Kids are heavily based in prose, but it's not all J.D. Salinger either. The band's got swagger. Live, they're raw and spirited and a likely candidate to impress most metro Detroiters ... and not just because they once earned a spot opening for Detroit's (or ex-Detroit's) own paramount success story, the White Stripes.
"We're just four white guys playing this punk, soulful funky sound," concludes Maust. "[We have] a sound I think is a little more uncommon today."
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is everything real rock 'n' roll should be leather-clad and noisy with a sound that's just a slip away from rehab. This band's had cocksure attitude to spare spewing from each of its downtrodden, guitar-driven recordings. Following the rootsy, more acoustic-based songs on 2005's Howl, BRMC built on its success as a critic's darling, re-establishing a more raunchy vibe with the sullied-up songs on its latest, Baby 81.
"We're a band concerned with sounding too clean," says co-leader Robert Been. "If the sound in the studio goes that way, we'll try to dirty it up. You just don't want your music to sound too good."
It's live, however, that the San Francisco-born band best flaunts its louder-than-the-Who strut, demonstrating night after night why they're better than the Jesus and Mary Chain (an act they were frequently compared to early on) at least live.
"Live, we're pretty fuckin' loud," agrees Been. And that's pretty fuckin' cool.
Social Distortion: After nearly three decades of touring, Mike Ness has run the gamut of rock 'n' roll lifestyles drug addiction, a major label fallout and deaths of multiple bandmates. Nevertheless, following several decades of gutter-dwelling, Mike Ness (Social Distortion's only original member) is as optimistic as ever a mood that was quite apparent on the Southern California band's last release, 2004's Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll.
Ness claims his hopeful outlook on life stems from his non-touring moments, including a white-bread lifestyle you know, wife, kids, a mortgage ...
"My life is based around them," he says. "I'm gone so much on the road that when I'm home, I have to make it count. It's pretty boring stuff, but that's the way I like it."
Family life aside, Ness and his music remain a true American classic, evoking an era of revolutionary sound and a steadfast "countercultural" movement. (i.e., what the word "punk" used to mean).
"The Clash wanted to make the world a better place through their music, and I find myself thinking about that a lot," Ness says. "I have a platform and certain responsibilities with that. [Joe Strummer] made a change in music, but he also made the world a better place and that's what I want to do."
Social Distortion's SoCal-via-Memphis rockabilly performance will quite likely be one of the last chances Detroit's hipper youth has left to see a not-quite-over-the-hill rock 'n' roll icon and a historic band that's still relevant.
Muse: This year's headliner is a prog-rock "sensation" from jolly ol' Blighty. Muse sounds like a band that's seemingly designed for the soundtrack of whatever postapocalyptic film Danny Boyle decides to direct next. With lyrical content mostly based in conspiracy, biblical end-times and alien invasions, the band is more frightening than entertaining. But, hey, they move records like Beyonce in the UK ... and, shit, they even sell out Wembley Stadium there.
"They are huge overseas and anyone who has ever seen them live instantly becomes a superfan," claims 89X's Cannova. "Their fan base isn't as big here in the U.S., so this year, as in years past, we have the opportunity to build the fan base of a band we believe in 100 percent. And again, our listeners get turned on to a stadium rock juggernaut."
OK, so 89X is on board, and Rolling Stone just rated Muse as the 17th best live band playing in 2007. So they might be worth a look and listen, even if they'll probably always be over-battered, over-hyped, recipe-stealin' fish 'n' chips wrapped in yesterday's papers to a Radiohead fan like me.
Thursday, Aug. 2, at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Pkwy., Sterling Heights; show begins at 5 p.m. Tickets: $43.50, $33.50 and $26.50, available via Ticketmaster.
Dustin P. Walsh is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]