The vast majority of radio-sponsored music festivals make me feel nervous about the future of music. A laundry list of acts with Top 40 hits fill up the billing and I – more cynically that I care to admit – ask around, “Is this what’s popular now? Who’s listening to these artists?”
But I didn’t have an ounce of that anxiety when it came to seeing the lineup for ALTer Ego 2019 – the alternative rock festival sponsored by both iHeartRadio and ALT 98.7 in Los Angeles. In only its second year, ALTer Ego managed to deliver one of the best lineups I’ve seen in years at the Forum in Inglewood; a tight, one-evening only event featuring Muse, The Killers, Weezer, Twenty One Pilots, Rise Against, Bishop Briggs, and the Revivalists.
In a unique turn of events, Twenty One Pilots kicked off the show by setting the bar immensely high with next-level stage production. Drummer Josh Dunn walked out wearing the group’s signature face mask and hoodie ensemble, holding a fully-lit torch above his head. Before the stage lights could even turn on, he promptly turned and lit a full-sized car on fire, which remained onstage for the rest of the performance. Lead singer Tyler Joseph hopped across the fiery car, danced as confetti fell, and made his way through a sea of people to climb atop a tower at the back of the venue. They played eight songs in total and it still felt like everyone in the Forum knew every word. From then on, the energy barely dipped the rest of the evening.
With a bit less pizzaz and a lot less fire, The Revivalists brought a grassroots vibe to their lively performance. Like a much more engaging version of the Lumineers and less showy version of Arcade Fire, the eight-piece New Orleans group combined gritty guitars, brass, and jazzy drums. Lead singer Ed Williams’ soulful voice channels Nathan Willett from Cold War Kids, particularly on their biggest hit, “All My Friends,” which even got people in the seats dancing.
Rise Against followed the southern rockers and quickly made things feel a bit more metropolitan in no time. Calling out their hometown of Chicago twice, Rise Against reveled in the huge response they received from the LA crowd. Just before performing their classic hits “Prayer for the Refugee” and “Re-Education (Through Labor),” lead singer Tim McIlrath dedicated the performance to all teachers, especially those protesting the current LAUSD Teachers’ Strike. The decidedly political moment garnered some of the loudest cheers of the night – and that was before McIlrath claimed of the band’s favorite teachers of music was also in attendance. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame turned out to be that “teacher” and he joined Rise Against in a cover of his own song “How Long.” It was one of the highlights of the night.
Politics temporarily stayed at the forefront when Bishop Briggs – still rocking a shaved head in solidarity of her friend currently fighting cancer – reminded the crowd that she was the only woman on the bill that night. Dressed in a bright hot pink tracksuit that felt like a pointed political choice, Briggs eloquently spoke about the importance of the Women’s March that took place earlier that day. As she danced and leaped across the expansive stage, Briggs never let the fact that she was the only solo artist keep her energy down. She only performed five songs yet every single one – particularly the psychedelic and addictive “Baby” – got the audience on their feet and singing along.
By the time Weezer took the stage, no one in the venue was sitting anymore. In only a half hour set, Rivers Cuomo and co. tore through hit after hit after hit of classic Weezer tracks that honestly sounded so much better than they had any right to be. The band’s backdrop transformed with every song, starting with a giant blue Weezer symbol during the Blue Album’s most iconic track “Undone (The Sweater Song)” before becoming a giant green Weezer symbol in homage the Green Album’s best track, “Island In The Sun.” Color was so important to the band that Cuomo took a moment to mention that he’d recently painted his guitar “black because [he’s] creative” – but also in preparation for the release of the Black Album on March 1st. While the lead single from that record – “Can’t Knock the Hustle” – probably received the least amount of fanfare from their set, I cannot underscore how much fun both Cuomo and the audience had during the performance. Weezer, of course, closed with their now meme-worthy cover of “Africa” by Toto and it was impossible to not smile throughout it.
Speaking of smiling like you mean it, The Killers were probably the only band capable of following Weezer’s high-energy slot. The live band – which now only consists of Brandon Flowers on vocals and Ronnie Vannucci Jr. on drums, following the departure of guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer – remains as bombastic and Vegas-inspired as ever. Much like Weezer, the Killers’ 40-minute set was a barrage of career-spanning hits including their most recent ironic, funky tune “The Man,” “Human,” “Somebody Told Me,” “When You Were Young,” and, of course, “Mr. Brightside.” No one can ever claim that The Killers don’t put on a great show or have memorable songs you can’t help but sing along to – but their performance more than any other artist’s felt a bit like they were going through the motions. Despite releasing their most overtly political track to date (“Land of the Free”) only days before ALTer EGO, Flowers bypassed playing it, discussing it, or addressing the crowd at all. No one seemed to mind much, particularly during “All These Things That I’ve Done,” which prompted a massive singalong during that iconic bridge: “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”
Closing out the near-perfect night of incredible live music, Muse took the stage with such voracity and charisma that it seemed as if they were backstage for hours waiting to erupt with music. Guitarist Matt Bellamy quickly busted out his operatic vocals for their newest single “Pressure” off Simulation Theory – a space-y, Blade Runner-esque record chock full of classic Muse moments – and set the atmospheric tone. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme shined through the infectious “Madness” while drummer Dom Howard stood on his stool and banged his sticks to get the rapturous crowd into the fist-raising “Uprising.” Not a beat was out of place nor a note out of tune as Bellamy skipped across the stage during the military-inspired “Psycho” and with every passing song, it became more and more clear why Muse is still selling out arenas around the world after releasing eight studio albums.
Spending the night with so many inspiring alternative artists releasing such astoundingly great music during such a confounding time in both the world and rock music, ALTer EGO reminded the audience that there’s no need to be cynical: alternative radio music is still capable of being good. And radio-sponsored music festivals can still totally rock.