Going on 30 years now (the first KROQ holiday show was 1989, but the current incarnation started a year later in 1990), the KROQ Almost Acoustic Xmas feels much more like a community party and reunion than most festivals or radio station gigs.
For example, Jimmy Eat World, who played the opening evening of the two-night event on Saturday (Dec. 7) at Anaheim's Honda Center, estimated backstage that their first KROQ show was back in 2002. Young the Giant, playing a proper hometown show, were making an encore appearance after playing the 2018 Almost Acoustic Xmas.
That sense of community was evident both on stage and off stage Saturday night. On stage, sharing that communal vibe, tour mates Beck and Cage the Elephant performed "Trouble" together during Cage's triumphant closing set. And after a summer of touring together, Cage frontman Matt Shultz talked to the audience about what "a beautiful human" Beck was. Beck returned the love with a cover of Cage's "Night Running" during his dazzling set.
When Billboard caught up with Cage the Elephant's Brad Shultz and Matthan Minster backstage before their set, Shultz said of Beck, "We just were hanging out with him the dressing room."
Billboard was fortunate to be with Jimmy Eat World next door to Beck's dressing room when Cage was in there, and heard the magnificent jam that made us all stop the interview multiple times in admiration.
As Minister informed us later on of the session, "They just sit there and jam, and they shred."
Shultz added, "He has one of the best bands out there."
Indeed, and that was very much on display during Beck's dazzling 14-song set, which opened with an electrifying "Loser." Being the master showman he is, Beck expertly mixed old and new favorites, like the new songs "Uneventful Days" and "Saw Lightning," off Hyperspace, and Beck classics "Where It's At" and "Devil's Haircut." As always, "Up All Night" was also a joyous triumph.
Cage, playing after Beck, kept up with their touring mate, as frontman Matt Shultz bounded about the stage during such Cage hits "Cigarette Daydreams," "Shake Me Down," "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" and "Come a Little Closer," as well as a few tracks off 2019's superb Social Cues album, including the title song, "Ready To Let Go" and "Broken Boy."
The best cover of the night goes hands down to Jimmy Eat World for their absolutely inspired choice of Wham's "Last Christmas," a nice nod to the early days of the radio station. And, as the Jimmy Eat World members told Billboard before their set, "The Middle" remains as relevant to both their lives and their fans as when it was released 18 years ago. That was felt fans gleefully screamed along to the song.
Long Beach band Cold War Kids, playing an approximate hometown show, showed why they are longtime KROQ favorites with a 30-minute set highlighted by "Love Is Mystical," "Hang Me Up to Dry" and "Calm Your Nerves," among others. And they celebrated the honorary hometown vibe with a hell of a raucous kick off in their dressing room before their set, banging on the walls while frontman Nathan Willett talked to Billboard before their set about their 2019, including playing opposite Billie Eilish at Music Midtown.
"We had this festival in Atlanta, Music Midtown, we were playing sadly for us at the time as Billie Eilish ," he said, laughing. "We got driven over to her stage, she was going on and watching the sheer audience reaction, I've never seen anything like how intense the screaming and the singing along was. That was an experience I was like, 'This is Beatlemania level crazy.' So that was pretty wild."
Playing the Honda Center brought up a lot of nostalgia for Young the Giant frontman Sameer Gadhia.
"I'd come to watch Ducks games every now and then. I think I saw Thrice perform here at the Honda Center a long time ago," he told Billboard. They celebrated the occasion with a strong seven-song set highlighted by a sing-along version of "Cough Syrup" and the unlikely radio hit "Superposition."
Night two of Almost Acoustic Xmas, featuring Twenty One Pilots, The 1975, Mumford & Sons and more, will take place Sunday (Dec. 8).