Washed up, but not washed out

Review: Several years after their heyday, Rogue Wave attempt relevancy at the Westcott.

It’s nearing 11 p.m. at the Westcott Theater and Rogue Wave frontman Zach Schwartz is starting to look sheepish.

“Play – what?” He says languidly, squinting into the blue-toned stage lights. “Play the entire soundtrack?”

There’s a high-pitched, feminine cry from the front of the tiny crowd.

The O.C.?” Schwartz grumbles again. “Is that show still on?”

It isn’t, and hasn’t been for the past three years – a fact that Schwartz and his motley crew of buskers, grad students and middle-aged musicians undoubtedly know quite well. But even though the polished Oakland-based indie-rockers have released two entire albums since the popular teen soap went off the air, this is what their crowd comes out to see: “Publish My Love,” “Interruptions” and other numbers from The O.C. era – stuff like “Lake Michigan” and “Bird on a Wire,” which resonate on the basis of saccharine vocals and gauzy, unhurried mid-tempo guitars.

Photo: Alex Pines
Rogue Wave at the Westcott Theater Saturday Sept. 25th.

The identity problem that accompanies a major television appearance is certainly not unique to Rogue Wave; if they had it rough, one can only imagine how Rooney or Phantom Planet fared in the post-O.C. void, bereft of all the free publicity and critical affirmation that accompanied each airing. But Rogue Wave have picked a weird way to distance themselves from the past: leaving indie giant Sub Pop, for starters, and touring with Midlake – a troupe of bearded, unsmiling balladeers.

You have to give them credit for the attempt. At Saturday’s show, guitarist Dominic East – a gawky looking guy, with oversized glasses and too-long limbs – bobbed along like an over-caffeinated cartoon to songs like opener “Stars and Stripes” and the sing-songy “Good Morning.” His parts were fairly standard, vanilla fare, but God knows he played them with conviction: hopping backwards and forwards on “Solitary Gun,” raising his eyebrows in time with the “oohs” and “ahs” of his background vocals, nodding his head like Schwartz’s tired vocals expressed some sort of cosmic truth.

Granted, East and two other members of the five-piece band have only been on-board a couple years, and their more veteran bandmates looked markedly less enthusiastic. Schwartz, a little lethargic at the front of the stage, was more often flat than on-key. He certainly didn’t make it easy to connect with his sappy, nonsensical lyrics on songs like “I’ll Never Leave You,” where his thin voice and thinner demeanor failed to carry the dramatic sentiment and all-too-derivative, singer-songwriter vibe.

But just as the set was beginning to spin into bad Ben Gibbard territory – and ironically, just as Schwartz had sung a less-than-fervent line about the past being dead – Rogue Wave reversed direction.

“Enough of the new shit,” Schwartz declared, with more personality than he’d demonstrated to that point. “We’re going to look backwards for a while. We always like to do that at rock shows, for some reason.”

No great mystery, that one: looking backwards is what Rogue Wave, for better or worse, do best. The band launched headfirst into “Publish My Love,” the full-bodied, atmospheric track that first made waves on The O.C. Mix 5. Unlike their most recent output, which is nothing if not even-keeled, “Publish My Love” surges and thrashes at random; the entire band, Schwartz included, wheeled around the stage and doubled-up on the frantic percussion kick-ins that jumpstart each chorus. “Eyes” fared somewhat worse (Schwartz visibly struggles for every high note), but “Medicine Ball,” “Bird on a Wire” and the waltzy “Lake Michigan” also evidenced the old charisma for which Rouge Wave were once known.

Sadly, even at their best, Rogue Wave couldn’t compete with the propulsive energy of Peter Wolf Crier or the fixative power of hollow-eyed mountain men Midlake. In comparison to the wild beating that Wolf Crier’s Brian Moen gave his drum set, or the fragile flute trills that haunted Midlake’s anachronistic folk rock numbers, Rogue Wave just sounded anemic – washed up.

Of course, neither Midlake nor Peter Wolf Crier could headline this tour. They’ve never been on The O.C., after all.

Dominic East, guitarist for Rogue Wave, plays side-by-side with Zach Schwartz during Saturday night's show at the Westcott Theater. (Photo: Alex Pines)

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