By Mark Guarino
Avril Lavigne used to be considered the alternative to Britney Spears. But since Spears developed a habit for quickie weddings and fried chicken, Lavigne became an anecdote better suited against Ashlee Simpson. After all, in the world of teen pop, there always seems to be a glamour queen readily available to look good, follow the rehearsed dance moves and mouth along to prerecorded vocal tracks.
Lavigne knows better and her show Thursday at the United Center was especially designed to show some teen stars aren’t dolled-up mannequins. The diminutive Canadian singer took great pains during her 20-song, 75-minute show to prove she actually has a musical pedigree, as much as a 20-year-old can. She rotated between acoustic and electric guitars, dismissed her band to perform guitar ballads solo, switched to piano several times and even sat behind the drums. Her playing on all the instruments was elemental, but even so, to her audience of teenage girls and under, she was living proof that someone in their CD collection dares to be who they say they are.
Authentic musical chops aren’t the entirely of Lavigne’s appeal. Unlike the majority of her peers, when she preaches self-empowerment, she doesn’t do it in a thong. Her arena-sized power ballads and pop rockers were sung with rough edges purposely intact with zero flashy stage production or costume eye candy. The teen trauma of songs like “Don’t Tell Me” and “Losing Grip” was fired with electric guitars uncorked with aggression. Her four-man band (the guitarist’s shirt gave a nod to the Chicago indie label Victory Records) played harder and faster than the songs’ studio counterparts. When opener Butch Walker entered to sing Blur’s ultra catchy hit “Song 2” (with Lavigne on drums), it was sloppy, raucous and fun. For the first-time concertgoers in the audience, it was a lesson in garage rock and a memory they can be proud of years from now.
Even though almost every song committed Lavigne to shoot her voice high above power choruses, her quieter solo moments showed her voice has many shades, not all of them blustery. When it came time to perform her initial hits, it was obvious she had outgrown them and it was time to move on. But instead of singing “Sk8er Boi” and “Complicated” with indifference — they are, after all, mostly credited to the hitmaking trio the Matrix with the songcraft a little too perfect — Lavigne used them to connect with her audience by leading a universal arm wave. Her many fans followed in an act of solidarity — pleasing to cellular strategists everywhere. In an update of flicking your Bic, the schoolyard crowd raised their cell phones high, united by their love of music, self-esteem and their parents’ wireless plans.