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Yay! Avril Lavigne totally rocks out at SPAC.

photo:Martin Benjamin

Youth Gone Mild
By John Brodeur

Avril Lavigne, Gavin DeGraw

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 28

In the quest to build a better Alanis, our neighbors to the north may have hit the jackpot with Avril Lavigne. Like Morrissette, Lavigne is designed for younger, mostly female fans, yet she’s “rock” enough to draw in the boys, and just-shy-of-annoying enough to appeal to older listeners. And her songs are of more sound design, in that they’re dumber and catchier; just as self-involved, not as self-aware. The lyrics can be treacly and trite, but considering her audience is largely younger than her own 20 years, that’s not much of a stumbling block. She herself even seems like a dumber, catchier variation on her spiritual forebear—“punk,” in her own appealing little way, but with almost no edge whatsoever, nothing to suggest that she has any ambitions beyond Pop Star.

On Sunday night, Lavigne and her backing band led with the dumbest and catchiest of all. Opening with the rather lame “Sk8er Boi” worked perfectly as a set-up to what followed: A 70-minute set of hits and songs that sound like hits. (Besides, it’s an upbeat song, not so far removed from the Go-Go’s of the ’80s or the No Doubt of the ’90s. Nothing wrong with that.) The whole set was paced for the jaded, with the cruddy songs tucked in between awesome ones. Seriously, there are many less-appealing performers in the world, and “My Happy Ending” ranks with Kelly Clarkson’s recent hits on my list of not-so-secret guilty pleasures.

The performance was clunky—Lavigne mostly stood still and played guitar, or did the right-foot-on-the-monitor-wedge stance that universally means “I am rocking right now”—and she stepped on her big moment by bantering too soon after the close of Desmond Childish ballad “I’m With You,” her best performance of the night, audience-approved. But she redeemed herself with “Don’t Tell Me,” the antitheses of “You Oughta Know.” Here, she really showed her kinship with Ms. Morrissette, especially in the way she enunciated “ti-yi-ay-yi-ime.”

The high point, musically, was “Forgotten,” which had a Sabbathy boil and a sinister, Metallic hook. But the real kicks were saved for the end of the night: A throwaway cover of Blink 182’s “All The Small Things,” a romp through Blur’s “Song 2” (with Lavigne on drums and opener Butch Walker on vocals), and the gigantic “Complicated,” which sent the shrieking masses to tinnitus-exacerbating heights.

Clive Davis protégé Gavin Degraw has made all the right moves: He received an early critical pat-on-the-back with the release of the Chariot album, then took the slow-but-steady approach to radio and MTV, allowing the album to produce four singles thus far. He’s in with the WB and TRL crowds, both repeat-customer types, and he’s got the average-guy thing going on—flowing locks pouring from underneath an Abercrombie-brown cap, li’l silver cross peeking out just so from the neck of a faux-vintage yellow logo tee. About as safe a performer as any parent (and there were plenty on hand) could ask for.

Puffed up to an hour, Degraw’s “opening” set featured most of the tunes from the two-year-old Chariot, plus a few detours, both predictable (an American Idols-like medley of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and “Proud Mary”) and not (a solo rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You”). Judging by the crowd reaction to “I Don’t Want to Be,” “Follow Through,” and the prude anthem “Nice To Meet You,” this was as much his audience as it was Lavigne’s. He even took a walk through the aisles of the amphitheater to flex his newfound star power. When it finally comes around, expect his next album to be a blockbuster.


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