Cut ups

Scissor Sisters, Franz Ferdinand get queer and funky

The boy whose T-shirt read "The Strokes" seemed so 24 months ago at Sunday's 99X Upstart Fest Part Two. The event, held outdoors behind the Masquerade, was designed to spotlight the latest buzz bands. But what it really did was prove how, when it comes to up-and-coming rock acts, new-garage is out and retro boogie is in.

The fete kicked off around 2 p.m. But I didn't show up until after 5, because, frankly, my Lollapalooza-era days of grilling myself in the sun for eight hours are way behind me. The first act I caught was the gleefully naughty, poly-sexual NYC-based five-piece the Scissor Sisters. The group's name is slang for some triple-X, girl-on-girl action that could double as an advanced Pilates move. ("It's what two women would have to do if they wanted their pussies to rub against [the] other," openly gay lead singer Jake Shears once explained.)

The Sisters started its set with the Elton-ish, honky-tonk romp "Take Your Mama," which is about a gay son getting his distaff parental unit liquored up for a wild night on the town. A shirtless Shears came bounding out onstage, looking way hot in tight black leather pants and a faux leopard skin fur vest. Soon joining him up front was co-lead vocalist Ana Matronic, a straight woman who dresses and acts like a fierce young drag queen.

For about an hour, the group played all the best stuff off its recent self-titled debut, including a disco-ballsy cover of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." They also did a couple of new tunes that would've been better left on the tour bus. But even when the music didn't work, it was hard not to be impressed by the Sisters.

Shears — whose life is a real Cinderfella story in the way he's gone from being a nearly nude go-go boy a few years ago to a nearly nude singer/songwriter today — is a remarkable frontman. He sings in a falsetto that's positively Bee-Gees-ian, and moves like a young boy playing dress-up in his big sister's closet, displaying an arsenal of little ballerina twirls, butt swishes and waving jazz hands. Of course, such sissified posturing has long been a rock staple, from Jagger to Bowie to Tyler to that weird dude from The Darkness. But, as an out gay boy, Spears talks it like he walks it.

Not to be out-femmed, Matronic is a compelling presence herself, serving up the perfect marriage of rock chick and dancing queen. If I were Gwen Stefani, I'd never turn my back to her.

Next up were Las Vegas' The Killers, a band that asked the musical question: "What if the members of Duran Duran joined U2?" The group's mix of swirling new-wave synths and loud, wailing guitars had an unexpectedly tasty chocolate-in-peanut-butter-type appeal, particularly on the driving "Somebody Told Me" and the lush, Psychedelic Furs-like "On Top." But compared to the Sisters, these guys came off stiff and drab. Lead singer Brandon Flowers looked like a college student at his first day job in a button-down shirt, tie and a pair of Top-Siders. And strangely, he delivered his often-playful lyrics with the severe save-your-soul manner of a Christian youth group leader. (Relax, man, you've got a few nice songs; just sing them.)

The festival's headliners were cheeky Scottish boys Franz Ferdinand, named after, well, if you don't know, you should've paid more attention to your high school history teacher. The band quickly brought a little homoeroticism back to the proceedings. "Cum all over me," yelled foppish frontman Alex Kapranos during the straight-boy's-queer-fantasy "Michael." At another point, Kapranos dropped to his knees in front of equally foppish guitarist Nick McCarthy.

But ultimately, Ferdinand was less about cock rock than cock-block rock, spinning multiple tales of thwarted desire over stomping, Talking Heads-esque, art-funk grooves. On the group's best known — and sharpest — cut, "Take Me Out," it's unclear whether Kapranos is simply begging a girl for a date or asking her to do him in Tony Soprano-style so that he won't have to face her rejection. Either way, it's one of the best singles of the year, and it got the whole Upstart crowd clapping in the air and chirping along.

It was clear that the audience had embraced rock's dance-happy class of '04. But whether they will still care about them next year is anyone's guess.