It's probably a bit disheartening -- even downright shocking -- for the Charlatans UK to go from headlining two nights in front of 120,000-plus at England's V98 Festival to playing before a crowd of 1,200 at a tiny Hollywood venue in a matter of days. But that's why they call it culture shock (and why Yanks don't eat beans on toast and drink warm beer). Regardless, an assortment of stunned Brits ("The Charlatans are fookin' playing a gig in this place?"), delirious Japanese (Japan is heavy into Brit bands) and curious Americans poured into a venue that seemed better suited to A Midsummer Night's Dream than a rock show to take in this one-off U.S. gig by the saucy Manchester lads.
It wasn't a proper gig, anyway. The band is in L.A. on a weeklong vacation, with frontman Tim Burgess sharpening his DJ'ing skills at various clubs around town and the rest of the band spending more time in the hotel bar than in the California sun. Maybe that's what made it so good. With the lofty Evergreen trees of the Hollywood Hills creating a dynamic backdrop, an unkempt Burgess sauntered out with typical Mancunian pomposity and launched into the first three songs from Tellin' Stories, the band's last studio album ('97). With the lights shooting through the trees and the band casting Goliath-like shadows on the venue's whitewashed side walls, the tone was set for a enchanted evening.
A drawn-out "Tellin' Stories" proved more epic than the studio version as Burgess, somewhat annoyingly, played air guitar along to the grinds of six-stringer Mark Collins. Whenever Burgess' guitar would blow a flat, he would pick up the air harmonica -- no doubt in preparation for "House Not Home," a poppy new tune that ends on a Burgess harmonica solo. Another new track, the dark and moody "The Blonde Waltz," with its jangly guitars and Doors-ish melody, also made its American debut.
Burgess, a bit more animated than usual, did nothing short of patting himself on the back between each song, encouraging applause from the crowd by taking care of much of it himself. It makes one wonder just how entertaining any of these Madchester bands would be live without all of the trademark bravado. The main set ended with three of the Charlatans' greatest moments from three different albums, "Just When You're Thinkin' Things Over," "Weirdo" and "How High."
The Charlatans reached way back to 1990's Some Friendly -- still their best-known album in America -- for a pair of encores. The Hammond organ-driven "Then" recalled the brilliance of the Manchester music scene in the early Nineties, with its vibrant, breezy chorus and psychedelic, hip-shaking backbeat. And the innocently compelling "Sproston Green," which began as a nearly unrecognizable ember of its former self, eased slowly into the sprightly groove that forms the trippy song's foundation, providing the show's coda. And then the Charlatans were gone, off to greener pastures across the pond, where the pints are fuller and so, sometimes, are the venues.