While long-running alternative rockers Weezer have at times flirted with becoming an arena-rock parody of themselves -- and never more so than on "Maladroit" (2002) and "Make Believe" (2005) -- critics and fans who've tuned out their recent self-titled "Red Album" are missing some of the most intricate pop songwriting since the group's 1994 debut, as well as a measure of the raw, naked emotion that made "Pinkerton" a cult classic.
On the other hand, Rivers Cuomo and his bandmates didn't do themselves any favors by choosing to play the Allstate Arena on Thursday night -- and barely filling half of it -- when a buzz-building club show or a more intimate and superior-sounding theater gig would have done much more to remind the rock world what's great about this band.
Still, as arena-rock spectacles go, Weezer delivered plenty of whiz-bang without detracting from the music. Cuomo, bassist Scott Shriner, drummer Pat Wilson and guitarist Brian Bell changed costumes (matching white, red and finally blue uniforms), swapped instruments, jumped on a trampoline and eventually trotted out 30 young contest winners and aspiring musicians who formed an ad-hoc orchestra complete with oboe, accordion, melodica and didgeridoo to power through "Island In the Sun" and "Beverley Hills" (and it was a rare example of the latter actually sounding good).
In addition to prime Weezer anthems such as "Say It Ain't So" and "El Scorcho," the set list included two surprising covers: "(What's the Story) Morning Glory," the song Noel Gallagher of Oasis was playing when he was recently knocked out onstage by a disgruntled fan, and "Sliver," offered up as a fitting segue from a vinyl recording of Weezer's new original "Heart Songs," which pays tribute to Nirvana, among several other bands that changed Cuomo's life and convinced him on the power of music.
(A horrifying footnote: Fully 9/10ths of the crowd seemed to have no idea at all that "Sliver" was a Kurt Cobain song.)
Overall, this was a looser, more good-time Weezer than I've ever seen, and this seemed to be due in large part to the fact that Cuomo ceded quite a few of the lead vocals to his bandmates, who handled them well. Though he is undeniably the auteur, he's been trying hard of late to prove that the group is a democracy, and he also allowed the others to contribute one song each to "The Red Album" (sad to say, the disc's weakest moments).
Freed from the pressure of fronting the band or carrying all the melodic weight -- illusory though this may be in reality -- the sometimes neurotic and terminally uneasy Cuomo looked as if he actually was enjoying himself for once. Since that enthusiasm powered such a strong performance, it was hard to begrudge the band's leader from shunning the spotlight a bit -- though we certainly could have done without him turning over "Undone -- The Sweater Song" to guest Tom DeLonge.
The former Blink-182 frontman -- who hit platinum pay dirt by acting like an obnoxious, potty-mouthed high school sophomore in that third-tier mainstream pop-punk band -- has decided to "grow up" in his new group, Angels & Airwaves, which preceded Weezer and followed the evening's first opener, hard-driving indie-popsters Tokyo Police Club.
Where Blink-182 could at least be a stupid good time, the more mature Angels & Airwaves is a pathetic U2 circa "The Joshua Tree" rip-off, aiming for glory and grandeur with laughable lyrics about the fire inside paired with bombastic guitar and keyboard riffs over thundering drums. Meanwhile, DeLonge's limited voice still sounds better suited to his old fart-joke lyrics. If I have heard a lamer band in the last year, the bad taste this one left in my mouth is still so freshly rancid that I can't recall it.