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The New Hair Metal

You wouldn't know it to look at the mosh pit, but My Chemical Romance has quit playing punk.

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MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE ALLSTATE ARENA, 3/1

Toward the end of Rise Against's set opening for My Chemical Romance, front man Tim McIlrath big-upped the Fireside Bowl, reminding the crowd that both bands had gotten their start playing there. After the next song he added, "A lot of us came out tonight because we don't fit in anywhere else."

I don't care to guess whether he was really trying to connect with the kids or just saying what guys in poppy hardcore bands with activist leanings think they're supposed to say, but I can't imagine he saw a $30 concert at Allstate Arena as the natural habitat for punks who used to hang out at the Fireside. He had the tech raise the house lights, and from my spot on the balcony the audience didn't look too different from what you'd expect at any arena show--the odd mom or dad, some jock dudes getting too loose in the mosh pit, but by and large just regular-looking kids. The room was about three-quarters sold out, and it didn't look like too many people in those seats had any trouble fitting in anywhere.

My Chemical Romance front man Gerard Way is the best spokesperson skinny, sensitive white guys have had in mainstream music since Kurt Cobain--he passionately embraces the role of the outcast who got his ass kicked by football players all through high school. But though there were more than a few punks, freaks, and true believers in raccoon makeup scattered around, given the number of meatheads in attendance either the jocks in the class of '08 have missed the pro-faggot signifiers Way slips into almost every song--the girly giggle in "You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison" is a prime example--or they've decided to ignore them. Two girls in front of me were aghast about a woman they'd seen with a Mohawk, and one wondered aloud how she could do that to herself. And onstage--well, early in their set MCR gave a shout-out to a guy in the pit helping up fallen moshers, but beyond that they hardly showed their roots at all.

One big change from MCR's Fireside days became apparent as soon as the first song began. The boys are arena-size crowd pleasers now, and as they've cranked up the theater in their shows they've reinforced the fourth wall that separates them from their fans. Way started singing "The End," the lead track on last year's The Black Parade, lying back on a hospital gurney in front of a set of 40-foot black curtains, which parted to reveal his bandmates in their dark-side Sgt. Pepper's outfits and an elaborate stage setup that included a rotating drum riser, a second riser for the keyboardist, and a towering Tim Burton-esque backdrop. The amps were covered in stars, and everything was black, gray, sepia, or off-white, like an antique photograph--the only color came from the crazily psychedelic light show. The rest of the set was just the rest of The Black Parade, top to bottom--a record that could best be described as a hybrid of post-NOFX mall punk and the biggest, most megalomaniacal moments in Queen's catalog. Onstage, though, the same songs came across surprisingly differently.

Gerard Way is a good singer and a great front man, with enough charisma to hold an arena crowd in the palm of his hand, but stripped of all the album's overdubs he sounds an awful lot like Vince Neil. Plus his band has developed a taste for high-speed blues-rock riffing that doesn't do much to discourage the Crue comparisons--and neither does that rotating drum riser, which is just unspectacular enough to be a little embarrassing. My Chemical Romance started out playing concise pop punk, and thanks to the layers of orchestration and obsessive multitracking on The Black Parade, it's hard to tell at first what they're doing differently at the core. But when they play live the cock rock at the heart of the new songs leaps out. The fey, swaggering "Teenagers" isn't too far from, say, Poison. And "The Sharpest Lives" just straight-up sounds like Bon Jovi. It looks like MCR is trying to rescue hair metal from the weak irony of its current revivalists, and judging from the fans' reaction when Way gave them a good old "Let me see your arms, Chicago," they approve.

Everyone in My Chemical Romance is in his mid- or late 20s, so they were at the very least old enough to notice when pop metal was all over the charts in the 80s. It's not likely they don't know they've started to sound like those bands--and if they were worried about it, they probably wouldn't have rounded out their stage setup with a bank of pyrotechnic cannons that shoot 15-foot gouts of flame. And Way probably wouldn't pull cheeseball moves like aiming an onstage spotlight into the crowd.

The teenagers at Allstate Arena didn't notice or didn't care that My Chemical Romance had begun augmenting its exaggerated melodrama with exaggerated Sunset Strip cliches. They're either fully supportive of MCR's pop-metal turn or they think what the band's pushing is still punk. To my ears MCR crossed the line from buffing punk to a commercial sheen (a la Nirvana) to smearing commercial rock with punk scuzz (a la Guns n' Roses) sometime in the two years between Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and The Black Parade, but once bands are big enough to play Allstate Arena, it's totally pointless to argue about that kind of thing--especially when the music's still pretty great. At the end of the wickedly catchy "Welcome to the Black Parade," three giant cannons shot plumes of confetti over the heads of the packed-in slam dancers right in front of the stage, and though most of it fell right away, some stayed in the air for a few minutes, buoyed by the currents of warm air rising from all the overheated bodies.

After MCR finished The Black Parade, they retreated backstage and the curtain fell again while the album's bonus track played over the PA. A couple minutes later the curtain opened on a transformed stage and a transformed band. The keyboard player was gone, and the rest of the guys had exchanged their marching-band outfits for street clothes. The star-flecked amp decorations had been taken down, and in place of the spooky backdrop was one with 16 pistols encircling the word REVENGE. Either as an addendum to their Black Parade set or as an apology to anyone whose patience had been tested by it, they played an encore of nothing but old songs--the cheekily gothic stuff that had earned them their dedicated cult in the first place. After the overwrought theatrics of the main set, it was refreshing. But if it was supposed to make an artistic statement more profound than "We're out of new material," I didn't catch it. Maybe it was just another example of the ever shortening cycle between an event and nostalgia for an event. The encore did sound exactly like Warped Tour '05--that is, it sounded great. But exactly like at Warped Tour '05, everybody I was with wanted to leave early to avoid the rush.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Vivianne J. Odisho.

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