Billie Eilish, Smashing Pumpkins & More Make KROQ Almost Acoustic Xmas a Compelling Mix of Old & New

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Billie Eilish performs onstage during KROQ Absolut Almost Acoustic Christmas 2018 at The Forum on Dec. 9, 2018 in Inglewood, Calif. 

Mighty Los Angeles alternative station KROQ held its annual Almost Acoustic Xmas this past Saturday and Sunday. A year-end celebration of the best and most popular on radio in alternative music over the past year, the two-night soiree has been an LA tradition since it began in 1989.

Even with the fact that there are always new alternative bands coming onto the scene -- like Grammy-nominated best new artist contenders Greta Van Fleet; Lovelytheband, who might have had the alternative song of the year with "Broken"; The Interrupters; Badflower,; and more -- for a show to remain fresh and vibrant for going on 30 years is a stunning accomplishment in the increasingly A.D.D. world of pop culture. But Almost Acoustic Xmas pulled off the trick this year, selling out both nights by delivering a compelling blend of the best in new and classic KROQ icons.

Bad Religion, veterans of this show since the early '90s, summed it up before their set Saturday night. "It's a nice feeling having a lot of our old friends from the '90s, like AFI, playing the show," Brett Gurewitz told Billboard. "At the same time [there are] The Interrupters channeling that sort of good '90s sound. A brand-new, young band with a top five hit on the radio."

Night one was led by a joyous and playful set by The Smashing Pumpkins. Yes, those are rarely two words you associate with the Pumpkins, but getting into the holiday spirit, the band did a standout cover of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again" and James Iha sang lead on The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love."

In a touching moment, Billy Corgan spoke of how the band's new album was recorded in nearby Malibu and brought out longtime David Bowie associate Mike Garson, who lost his home and studio in the recent wildfires, to play keyboards on a stellar version of "Disarm."

Musically, the band was superb in an hourlong 14-track set that mixed hits -- including "1979," "Today," "Cherub Rock" and "Tonight, Tonight" -- and new material such as "Knights of Malta" and "Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)."

Saturday was the much more rocking night, with Bad Religion and AFI delivering high-energy crowd-pleasing sets of KROQ favorites. Obviously there was a lot of buzz surrounding newly minted Grammy nominees Greta Van Fleet, and the Michigan quartet did not disappoint. Keeping it turned up to 11 for their six songs, the foursome rocked on the blues-based "When the Curtain Falls" and the infectious grooves of "The Cold Wind."

Also repping the new blood well were The Interrupters, who've had a breakout year on radio with "She's Kerosene." The ska-flavored rock quartet brought out producer/Rancid punk icon Tim Armstrong for a cover of Rancid's "Time Bomb" and the song "Family." Backstage after their set, the quartet were in absolute bliss at the response and their year, with frontwoman Aimee Interrupters telling Billboard this was the first time she'd ever even been in The Forum. And here she was onstage. Coming from Southern California, all four members were slightly in awe of playing their first Almost Acoustic Xmas.

On night two, Mike Posner shared a similar sentiment, telling Billboard backstage his current hit, "Song About You," was the first time he's ever been played on KROQ.

Another Mike on night two -- Shinoda -- brought out guests K.Flay for "Make It Up as I Go" and Grandson on "Running From My Shadow" during his strong 30-minute set, which, as it has during his whole tour, mixed Linkin Park songs with his own solo material from this year and even a Fort Minor throwback. Given Linkin Park's long history with the KROQ audience and the fact the show was in the band's hometown of LA, the always powerful sing-along of "In the End" felt particularly poignant on this night.

While night one was more balanced, night two was ultimately a tale of two acts: current phenom of the moment Billie Eilish and the transcendent Florence Welch and her Machine.

Eilish drew one of the biggest crowds -- bringing out much of the massive industry contingent, making the Forum Club more packed than the general-admission floor for most of the weekend -- out to experience the phenomenon themselves first-hand. And they did indeed experience it for themselves, as Eilish owned the stage, delivering songs like "You Should See Me in a Crown" with stunning composure and control of the stage as her zealous fans screamed every word.

Welch, who has become one of the most forceful arena performers in music today, had a similar, though even stronger, effect on the Forum crowd. Closing out the weekend with a greatest-hits set, the as-usual barefoot Welch dominated the stage, moving gracefully about as she soared vocally on songs like "Cosmic Love" and the new "Patricia."

Night one performers Greta Van Fleet returned night two just to see Welch, as Billboard ran into them entering the building. And what they saw was a performer at the absolute peak of her prowess.

During a jubilant "Dog Days Are Over," Welch makes the whole crowd put their phones away, lift their arms to the sky, and when she sings "run," as she puts it, jump and "Let it all go." It could be cheesy from another, but under the earnest and forceful voice of Welch, it is as cathartic and mesmerizing to watch as one would expect. She goes about it an entirely different way than her idol, Patti Smith, who the song "Patricia" is partially about, but Welch has the same ability to lift up and inspire a crowd into one.

That came to full fruition on the closing "Shake It Out," where she turns the crowd into the band's choir. Lights up on The Forum, everyone standing and many dancing with a reckless abandon as Welch does, the song brought a strong weekend to an incredibly uplifting finish.