Live Review: AWOLNATION at Velvet Jones, May 19, 2011

For all intents and purposes, Awolnation is a solo endeavor for Aaron Bruno, who is by no means a stranger to L.A. music fans as a former member of Under The Influence Of Giants and Home Town Hero.  And as with those groups, Awolnation’s greatest strength can also be it’s weakness, which is that the music basically sounds like a bunch of stuff you’ve heard before — in this case, including, but not limited to, heavy on the Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie and Devo with a dash of George Michael thrown in.  At its best, Awolnation provides well-tailored pop-rock songwriting, liberally salted with krautrock leanings and 80’s synths.  At it’s worst, you get something that occasionally sounds like Offspring or watered-down N.E.R.D.

Awolnation's Bruno live at Velvet Jones

Raise your hand if you're present: Awolnation's Bruno live at Velvet Jones (photo by the author)

However, the good far outweighs the bad, and last Thursday at Velvet Jones in Santa Barbara, the good part of that equation was very much in effect, as Awolnation (Bruno and four scalding sidemen) wound down its current tour in support of its recently released full-length debut.

Though the set started out meekly (two of the first three songs, “Jump On My Shoulders” and “People” are some of the Awolnation’s weaker fare) things got going after some repeated good-natured pleading from Bruno for the crowd to get active – which they did, once they had something to sink their feet into – in this case, “Soul Wars.”

The intensity stayed high with the easy sing-a-long of “Not Your Fault” and the one-dimensional NIN eyelid twitch of “Sail,” which gave Bruno the opportunity to turn up the heat on channeling his inner Reznor live.  If that song’s one-dimensionality works to it’s favor, the half-dimensional, lyrically juvenile, white-boy rap of “MF” should have been a failure as its successor, but in the live setting, the beat was enough to keep things moving right along.  Bruno and company closed out their main set with the controlled epilepsy of “Burn It Down,” giving the crowd a chance to get all 90’s in their own way by brewing a mosh pit in front of the stage.

Awolnation live in Santa Barbara

BassInvaders: Awolnation gets back to bass-ic s at in Santa Barbara (photo by the author)

Returning for an encore of “Guilty Filthy Soul” (the chorus of which borrows liberally from the melody of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) the band continued to sizzle, and surprisingly, “Knights of Shame” – not one Awolnation’s best songs on record, with it’s musical identity crisis and rap break-down – worked quite well as the closer.  Its extended moaning synth swagger provided the perfect coda to the evening, as well as an opportunity for Bruno to take over on drums before calling it a night.

Though the show at Velvet Jones (a sort of Echo-meets-Troubadour joint) wasn’t anything special in terms of visual presentation (Awolnation came off as a sort of a glorified bar bad, albeit an exceptional one), it’s very apparent that all the ingredients are there for Awolnation’s music to become stitched into the fabric of mainstream media (think sporting events) once a major push from the band’s label comes and the music supervision industry gets on board.  Certainly, Bruno’s track record and proven star power make that inevitability just a matter of time for 2011.

Even so, if you find yourself questioning whether or not a group has that “it” factor, looking to younger fans will typically provide that answer.  And on this night, the frenzied 18 + college town crowd in attendance had that “I saw them way back when” look beaming from their faces as they filed out of the club.

Well, at least those that weren’t lined up to meet Bruno after the show, that is.

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