AB Concerts brings Big City Rock, Phantom Planet, and The Secret Machines to Carnival

The year’s hottest groups were playing on campus Friday night to a packed house of enthusiastic Carnegie Mellon students and local music buffs. The Secret Machines, Phantom Planet, and Big City Rock were tapped for this year’s AB Spring Carnival concert. Although the lineup probably made a high school music buff’s dreams a reality (and indeed there were plenty of high school students at the show), it was received with mixed feelings on campus. Despite the somewhat controversial lineup and a venue switch due to weather that forced the concert indoors to Wiegand Gymnasium, the three bands showed up in Pittsburgh with plenty of energy and enthusiasm.

Big City Rock, the night’s opening act, is an up-and-coming pop-punk group currently based in Los Angeles. Bassist Timothy Resudek, keyboardist Frank Staniszewski, and lead singer/guitarist Nate Bott started off in Madison, Wis., with a balanced formula of catchy, uplifting rock songs that could find a spot in the hearts of audiences all over the world.

The name says it all. “Big City Rock can be anything,” said frontman Bott in an interview backstage before the show Friday night. Big City Rock’s music gives you the chance to “celebrate your life.” While some groups shove their material down the throat of their audiences, Big City Rock has no such intent: “People can get what they want out of the music, because the songs say enough,” Bott said. A lot of the songs are, for that matter, “epic and uplifting.” The resulting product is appealing to some — three-minute rock songs that, although overproduced, are catchy, energetic, and, yeah, pretty uplifting. “Human,” according to Bott, is the heart of the group’s self-titled record, its first on a major label. “It’s this unique, catchy, yet chorus-less song,” Bott said.

Although being unique is important to the group’s sound, moments of generic musicianship play a role in the music, and particularly in the group’s performances. The audience was sure to have seen many of Big City Rock’s gags, whether it was raising of index fingers or clapping along, done by many other bands before. In “All of The Above,” Friday night’s closing number, Bott asks the not-so-engaging question, “Do you want to rock?/Do you want to roll?/Do you want to get down on the floor?/All of the above/I’m falling in love!”

Although Big City Rock’s concert Friday wasn’t quite as unique as the group may have hoped it had been, the music can definitely fill a certain spot in the hearts of some fans: With catchy songs and an energetic live show, the group has potential to reel in fans looking for a good time… after all, having fun is what it’s all about in Madison, isn’t it?

Next on the bill Friday night was Phantom Planet. If you haven’t thought of the OC theme song yet, you’ve probably been living under a rock for quite some time — or have just been a Carnegie Mellon student for three or four years. Phantom Planet’s “California” has made it to television sets and radios all over country and has propelled the group to superstardom in the past few years.

Although that song sometimes gets irritating, the group has much more to offer than their supposed sole hit. If you look at the group’s influences, it’s no surprise their music is fun for many to listen to. “We take a lot from [New Orleans funk group] The Meters and The Talking Heads,” said guitarist Darren Robinson in an interview backstage on Friday night. By staying close friends and keeping their ego in check, Phantom Planet’s music has always been about letting “music be music, playing what we [the group] think should exist.” Like Big City Rock, Phantom Planet’s music doesn’t do much more than make you smile. But after all the over-intellectualizing and overanalyzing of music, it’s something easier said than done.

“Good music keeps you feeling good,” said bassist Sam Farrar.

“It keeps your attention,” Robinson said.

“It activates part of the brain that can’t be activated otherwise,” said lead singer Alex Greenwald.

“Good music is scary!” said drummer Jeff Conrad.

Phantom Planet’s concert Friday night was, well, some of the above. The group did keep the audience’s attention by playing catchy fan favorites like “Lonely Day,” a Beatles-inspired rock tune that harkened back to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” The high school girls in the audience were undoubtedly singing along. However, there was a depressingly high amount of filler and time allotted for audience participation. With a half-capacity crowd at the concert, attempts spent at audience participation were doomed for failure. On the other hand, heavier rock tunes like “Big Brat” and “First Things First” kept the audience on its toes.

In addition to “California” (featuring Big City Rock’s Frank Staniszewski on a Fender Rhodes electric piano), which sent the miniscule crowd into a sort-of uproar, the show had one other pleasing moment: a pop-punk rendition of “Phantom of the Opera.” Although it wasn’t scary good, it activated the “noggins” (in Greenwald’s words) of the crowd.

If the crowd was disappointingly small for Phantom Planet, it was simply pathetic for headlining act The Secret Machines. Hailing from New York City, The Secret Machines’ music is innovative and progressive. Where Phantom Planet’s songs rarely clear four minutes, The Secret Machines’ songs are rarely under five. “We don’t talk too much,” said drummer Josh Garza in an interview backstage before his performance on Friday night. “We just jam over melodies and chords and let the songs dictate to us what to do.” The group’s music and live show is undoubtedly an extension of this discipline — long songs and jams that stem from basic musical ideas. To some, their music is engaging, exploratory, and according to Garza, “emotional.” However, the performance on Friday came across as monotonous all too often. Opening with “Alone, Jealous, and Stoned,” the first song of the group’s upcoming album, Ten Silver Drops, the group made it clear that they were far from any of the other groups emerging from New York’s thriving music scene (The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, et al). With pulsing strobe lights and ethereal textures provided by guitar effects pedals, the music was definitely challenging to the ear.

“It reminded me of [U2 guitarist] The Edge’s playing,” said first-year business major Derrick Yu. Although the group’s style was initially engaging, execution of the music was not. Songs were often far longer than they needed to be, with styles and volumes unchanging throughout the entire course of the song. “It was interesting at first, but after a while it was the same drum beat and same sound for every song,” Yu said.

By the end of the show, only about 200 people remained in the gym. It was a show with enormous potential and enormous hype that simply failed to keep the audience interested. With more thought put into the style of each group playing (and a little help from the weather), maybe next year’s spring concert will make a bigger splash on campus.