Backstage at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday, Pharrell Williams was in deep concentration, tapping a piano keyboard plugged into his laptop. He wore headphones with his Gucci shades, but anyone in the room could hear the shimmering noises in his ears, all the beats and melodies slowly coming together. “Always chomping away at it,” he said, finding a few moments to concentrate before stepping onstage with N.E.R.D. and taking part in Activision’s two-hour concert in celebration of its upcoming video game titles.
“Today is a good day, man,” said Pharrell, taking a hands-on role in one new title, the violent gangster drama True Crime: Hong Kong, after years of licensing songs to games. This time, he created original music and voiced one of the central characters. “I like to make music that has a purpose, and not just for the sake of making something so-called ‘hot.’ I like something to have purpose and true functionality.”
N.E.R.D. was just one of several powerful acts to perform at Activision’s arena-size variety show, which also featured dancers and a few moments with skateboarder Tony Hawk, timed to this week’s E3 Expo in Los Angeles. Music acts transcended genres, ranging from Eminem and Usher to Jane’s Addiction and Maynard James Keenan leading an epic cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“Activision knows how to do it big, right?” shouted Usher, arriving amid white crisscrossed lasers and a dance troupe that accompanied him along the catwalk during the potent beats of “Caught Up.” He was soon joined by Will.i.am to recreate their thumping chart-topping collaboration “OMG.”
Each set was short, limited to four songs or less, but the pace never dragged. Just before Eminem’s headlining set, there was footage from a simulated helicopter gunship battle over Laos from the game Call of Duty: Black Ops, accompanied by real pyro explosions around the arena, creating more fire and smoke than a Kiss concert. But most of the night was about music, played live or sent into overdrive between bands during quick, throbbing collisions of beats from DJs Deadmau5, Z-Trip and David Guetta.
N.E.R.D. delivered tough, danceable funk-rock-pop on the new single “Hot-n-Fun,” as a lurid computerized landscape of Hong Kong rolled on the big screen. Pharrell stalked the edge of the stage, reaching down to fans during the charged electrofunk of 2001’s “Lapdance,” before exiting to make room for his new protégé, singer Rhea. Her entrance was from the back of a Ducati, as she strapped on an electric guitar to deliver the hip-shaking “Motorcycle,” a Neptunes-produced track that also appears in True Crime.
The arena concert marked the second hometown gig for Jane’s Addiction since adding Duff McKagan on bass, and this time the band had a big stage to roam, erupting with a quick two-song set of “Been Caught Stealing” and “Mountain Song.” Both made for a rich, Zeppelin-size setting for raw, unraveling riffs from Dave Navarro, and the ecstatic wail of Perry Farrell, who lifted a celebratory wine bottle to the crowd.
Jane’s appears on Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock as games become an essential venue for reaching new listeners. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” Farrell said backstage, “It’s like radio, in a weird way. That’s the playlist going on this year for Guitar Hero, and little kids will get down with those songs — and probably while they’re playing they’ll be saying, ‘I dig this one!’ “
For Keenan, performing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Monday was an unexpected chance to revisit a big rock song from his own adolescence. Dressed in a black suit and red tie, he approximated the soaring operatics of Freddie Mercury against the strings and woodwinds of the L.A. Philharmonic, as animated characters from Guitar Hero sang along.
His A Perfect Circle collaborator Billy Howerdel filled in for guitarist Brian May (who was originally set to perform), rising from the floor with an old Vox amp and Gibson Les Paul to ignite the original glam riffs, adding touches of modern guitar texture. As the song faded out, Keenan hugged the guitarist, and then grabbed his ass as they descended into the stage.
Another big rock moment arrived as Chris Cornell wailed “Black Hole Sun” to the accompaniment of the same orchestra. In a ragged white T-shirt and hair to his shoulders, Cornell looked again like the grunge-era shouter of Soundgarden, reunited this year for their first shows since 1997. The band’s previously unreleased track “Black Rain” will make its debut on September’s new Guitar Hero.
Closing the night was a five-song set from Eminem, whose band was joined by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. The rapper marched along the catwalk with his usual intensity, previewing new songs from next week’s release Recovery. He performed the impatient “Won’t Back Down” and was joined by surprise guest Rihanna to duet on “Love the Way You Lie,” a song of love gone bad and domestic abuse. He closed out the night with “Lose Yourself” (from 2002’s 8 Mile), a thundering statement of self and commitment that had the crowd shouting back the chorus.