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Utopian No More
HORDE goes commercial but regains winning lineup
by Letta Tayler
Newsday, National
Aug 7th, 1998

HORDE. Jam-band fest returns to its roots - sort of. With Blues Traveler, Ben Harper, Barenaked Ladies, Paula Cole, Alana Davis, Gov't Mule, others. Seen Wednesday night at Jones Beach Theater.

The presence on the HORDE festival grounds of two menthol-green KOOL cigarette booths where listeners could apply for "valuable cigarette coupons" was a sign that the 7-year-old rock fest has strayed from its utopian origins.

But if HORDE has slipped on corporate integrity, it has regained part of the musical foothold it lost last year when it featured an oddball - and poorly selling - mix of young alternative-rockers and veteran Neil Young.

At Jones Beach on Wednesday, many of the 10 acts fit the original HORDE format, playing music that was heavy on melodic, feel-good improvisation, or funky grooves, or both. If the sound was rarely awe-inspiring, it was cohesive and the duds were few, making for an enjoyable 6 1/2-hour musical ride on a perfect summer night.

After taking a break from performing at HORDE last summer, the festival's founders, Blues Traveler, returned as the headliners and sounded none the worse for the hiatus. The band's colorful frontman, John Popper, wearing his trademark sword and a hat festooned with a white brassiere, got listeners twirling with his usual twittering harmonica improvisations on the frenetic "Crash Burn" and the sing-along "Hook."

In an unusual move, Popper swapped his harps for a guitar on two ballads, "Alone" and the brand-new "Her and Me," delivering spacey jams with curlicued, Grateful Dead-like figures.

Popper has great intonation but he can't really sing, and his harmonica still sounds more Olympian than balletic, more athletic than soulful. But he toned down the dazzle and upped the emotion on the slow-boil finale, "Make My Way," in which his sobbing harmonica played sonic leap-frog with the sensual slide guitar of Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes, who came onstage for the one song.

In contrast, Popper's duet with Paula Cole, a cover of John Lennon's "Imagine," was flat - an amazing feat, given how overwrought Cole sounded for much of her own set.

Cole, whom the Grammys in February crowned best new artist, looked stunning in a slinky black gown and cowboy boots, but her vocals and gestures often bordered on histrionic. Her gasps and pants during the cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" sounded like Miriam Makeba run amok. Cole redeemed herelf with "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone," which remains her best song, showcasing her soaring soprano.

If Cole was uneven, Barenaked Ladies' appeal - the crowd couldn't get enough - was baffling. The Canadian, all-male quintet's melodic, semi-acoustic pop ("Brian Wilson") and intelligent, sensitive-guy ballads ("Jane") were appealingly wrapped in warm, cuddly harmonies. But their bland raps ("One Week"), intentionally clever pop culture references and intentionally dumb humor were instantly tiresome.

Once again this year, HORDE was successful at finding groups who sounded better live.

Ben Harper's shimmering funk-fueled slide guitar, which he played on a series of hollow-necked Weissenborns, was electrifying. Gov't Mule's sludgy blues-rock, wrapped in Haynes' Southern grits vocals, deserved a slot on the main stage, rather than the second stage. Sultry Alana Davis, a Lilith Fair alumna, effectively mixed Ani DiFranco's righteous-babe attitude with Sarah McLachlan's touchy-feely introspection.

Opening act Conehead Buddha, an unsigned ska-funk-rock band from Albany, was more engaging than the two second-stage acts that followed. Too bad Conehead Buddha was at HORDE because of KOOL, which sponsored a local band at each of the festival's 40 tour stops.

HORDE organizers this summer wisely brought back the workshop stage, an area where artists from various bands on the tour hold informal jams. They'd cancelled the workshop stage at Jones Beach last summer because of logistical problems. Perhaps next summer HORDE can drop KOOL as a band sponsor instead.