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Review: 97X Backyard BBQ brings Foxy Shazam, Imagine Dragons, Middle Class Rut, more to Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg

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Schedule conflicts prevented me from staying for the entirety of this year's 97X Memorial Day Backyard BBQ, so I had to miss the top three headliners, The Used, Falling In Reverse and Civil Twilight. But that's okay, because truth be told, the only three bands I really DID want to see went on early: Middle Class Rut, Imagine Dragons and Foxy Shazam, above.

See, over the years, I've learned to trust 97X when it comes to the bands at the bottom of their bills. Take last year's Next Big Thing festival -- do you know who performed at 11:30 a.m.? Fun. The same Fun. that, just a few weeks later, would sell out the State Theatre on the strength of one of the hottest songs in the country, We Are Young. And in a couple of weeks, they have a primetime slot at Bonnaroo.

The lesson: Never arrive late for a 97X show.

That lesson proved vital on Saturday at Vinoy Park in St. Pete, because the first national band on the bill (following local contest winners Khora and Sunshine and Bullets) was Sacramento's Middle Class Rut. And their set was immediately one of the best shows I've seen all year

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All the credit in the world goes to singer-guitarist Zack Lopez and singer-drummer Sean Stockham for breathing new life into the rock duo format. Much like the Black Keys and The Joy Formidable (a trio, but still), you can't believe how much sound is coming from so little instrumentation. Alive Or Dead, for example, started with a trippy metal jangle, then roared into a rockabilly punk stompfest, like Nirvana taking on Johnny Cash.

Lopez's squealing guitar and inimitable scream -- he might have the best punk howl since Tom Gabel -- were drenched in distortion and reverb. And though he is the band's primary singer, both guys handle lead vocals on occasion, and amazingly, both bring something wild to the table. Lopez's upper-register, chantlike vocals will forever beg comparisons to Perry Farrell, but Stockham's effortless sneer reminded me of Liam Gallagher.

The set was a wild blast of energy and jet-engine vocals -- think Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden and especially Jane's Addiction. Those are some pretty powerful comparisons, I know, but Middle Class Rut simply demands a who's who of Recommended If You Likes. Actually, check that: They're just Recommended. Period.

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If any of the bands on the Backyard BBQ bill seems poised for a breakout summer, it might be Las Vegas's Imagine Dragons, who already have a burgeoning radio hit in It's Time. Big is in right now in indie-alternative rock (see the aforementioned Fun.), and Imagine Dragons are gunning to become the next "big" thing.

Radioactive sounds like what might happen if Coldplay wrote Paradise as a dubstep track, while On Top of the World used full-band chants and whistles to create an organic soukous sound. The band is frequently compared to their Sin City forebears The Killers, and never did they sound like the band more than on Hear Me, whose glitzy, Gothy synth grooves inspired much dancing and crowdsurfing in the pit.

Playing their first show in Florida seemed to energize the band. Singer Dan Reynolds, who banged the hell out of a giant drum at center stage, ate a Swedish fish that some fan hurled at the band, then leaped into the crowd during the final song to crowdsurf to the back of the pit. Afterward, the entire band came out to the merch tent to hang with fans and sign autographs.

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If any of the first three national bands on the bill was a known quantity before the day began, it was native Ohioans Foxy Shazam, who are regulars in these parts.  Despite having only one well known hit -- the racy big-booty ode I Like It -- Foxy Shazam are beloved in multiple circles of rock fandom for their ridiculously energetic live shows.

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It all starts with spry frontman Eric Nally, a master of mic-stand acrobatics, whose glammy insanity gives the rest of the free-wheeling band their inspiration. The band seems like some fevered version of a rock 'n' roll world that never was -- the theatrical passion of Meat Loaf or Tenacious D meets the shameless tight-pantedness of Roth, Plant and Mercury.

If there was a stage maneuver Foxy Shazam didn't attempt on Saturday, I can't imagine it. Nally performed somersaults, headbangs, hairwhips, splits and flying leaps. He straddled the shoulders of guitarist Loren Turner during a wicked solo by the latter; he flossed his teeth with the microphone cord; he bummed a cigarette from the crowd, lit it, then (apparently) ate it. And each member of the band tried to match him, hurling their instruments into the air, kicking keyboards and playing every boogie-woogie-punk-cabaret song with reckless intensity.

Nally is almost too perfect of a rock star, like he was dreamed up by some Broadway director (seriously, was this man not considered for the role of Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages?). If Foxy Shazam, Andrew W.K. and Matt and Kim ever decided to join forces like the Avengers and go on tour, that would be it. The earth's crust would be rocked into space by a fireball of rock 'n' roll energy.

"Sometimes I wish there was a mirror onstage," Nally said before leaving, "so I could look at myself singing."

Trust us, Eric: The view from down here's pretty good.

*****

That was all I saw of the 97X Backyard BBQ. But for those of you who stayed for The Used, Civil Twilight or Falling In Reverse, we want to know: How was it? Any unforgettable moments? Tell us about it in the comments! Or better yet, tweet or Instagram your pics with the hashtag #TampaBayLive -- we may publish some of the best in an upcoming issue of tbt* or the Tampa Bay Times!

In the meantime, check out more pictures of Middle Class Rut, Foxy Shazam and Imagine Dragons:

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-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 8:31pm]

    

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