[H O M E]
|The H.O.R.D.E. Tour hits Florida with the return of the Blues Traveler and
the revival of its original format, freestyle rock. The great line-up
includes national acts like Ben Harper and Alana Davis, and Florida bands,
such as Miami-based Rudy and Orlando's Average Joe.
Last year, the H.O.R.D.E. Festival strayed considerably from its roots as a jam band music festival. Where line-ups for the tour's initial outings in the mid 1990s included such improvisation-styled acts as Blues Traveler (the tour's founder), Widespread Panic, the Spin Doctors and Phish, the festival sought to expand its musical horizons last year with a decidedly eclectic bill.
For the first time, Blues Traveler skipped the tour to headline its own shows. Neil Young and Crazy Horse stepped in as headliner, and the H.O.R.D.E. main stage lineup also included such diverse talents as the hot lounge group Squirrel Nut Zippers, the hard-hitting funksters Primus and pop group Toad the Wet Sprocket. The second stage featured Morphine, Ben Folds Five and Medeski Martin and Wood on many dates.
Artistically, the 1997 H.O.R.D.E. was one of the summer's best festivals, but it failed to do sell-out business, and organizers were criticized for ignoring the festival's jam band origins. So this summer, Blues Traveler is back on board - a move that's sure to please fans of freestyle rock. But the H.O.R.D.E. is still hosting the most stylistically diverse lineup of any tour. Here, then, is a look at the key acts on this year's bill.
On its most recent studio CDs, four and Straight On Till Morning, Blues Traveler tightened its sound considerably. The free-form jams that were featured on early CDs took a back seat to more concisely structured songs. Drummer Brendan Hill said the evolution in the band's sound can be traced back to the group's 1993 CD, Save His Soul, which was mixed by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero. The band members - singer/harmonica virtuoso John Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Bobby Sheehan and Hill - were so happy with their work on Save His Soul, they tapped Thompson and Barbiero to produce the fourth CD.
"We were much more open to them coming in and saying, on a song like 'Run-Around' or a song like 'The Mountains Win Again', 'Let's make it so you have all the little points, like the solo in 'Run-Around" and the solo in 'The Mountains Win Again' but let's not belabor the point and let's make it nice and tight, so when people hear it on the radio, they want to hear it again and again," says Hill. "And when they (audiences) come to see you play it live, then you can take it and explore and expand.'"
The tighter, more focused sound on four helped Blues Traveler to finally connect with MTV and radio, and the CD's two top 10 hits, "Run-Around" and "Hook," exposed the band to a larger audience. It also led to a dilemma that ironically brought about another step in the band's musical growth.
"We felt like a lot of pressure after four to make another really kind of tight, poppy studio album," says Hill. "So that's why we decided to do Live From the Fall, our fifth release, which is that live album. We were able to give the fans who maybe thought we were making things a little too tight on record, give them what we do live so they can have it in their CD player, like a really great bootleg. I think that worked to our advantage because we also separated four from our next studio release by a little bit of time."
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
This 28-year-old native of California emerged in the early 1990s with a sound rooted in the delta blues and folk of artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson with socially aware lyrics that reflect his deep spiritual beliefs. But Harper's latest CD, the excellent The Will To Live, expands considerably on the folk/blues base of his first two CDs, Welcome To The Cruel World and Fight For Your Mind.
Backed by his band, the Innocent Criminals, Harper touches on acoustic juke joint-styled blues ("Homeless Child"), lilting reggae ("Jah Work"), gritty rock ("Faded"), 70s-styled funk ("Mama's Trippin'") and the delicate folk-flavored ballad "Ashes."
Such diversity makes Harper hard to market in the tightly formatted world of rock radio. But Harper isn't about to let marketing influence his approach. "You know, I've never really had choice, man," says Harper, explaining the diversity in his songs. "It's just musically what interests me. It's just that I'm making and exploring the different musical inspirations that I feel and I refuse to deny those emotions and those ideas.
"Sure, I could make a rock record or make a reggae record or I could make a blues record, but that's not what interests me. It's being able to combine different influences, different ideas musically. And maybe in five years I will turn around and make a straight reggae record, or a straight blues record. But that's not how I write. I could write a gospel tune and turn around and write a punk rock tune very easily, and have done so... I've never focused my efforts on writing in one particular style. I've always tried to remain open to different styles, and that's what you hear on the records."
Six years ago, the Barenaked Ladies became instant stars in their homeland of Canada. Fueled by appearances on the music television network, Much Music the Toronto-based group saw its major label debut CD, Gordon, go platinum immediately upon its release. Singer/guitarist Steven Page admits the band expected a repeat performance in the states. "We thought, well if this record's really successful in Canada, we'll just go down to the states and it will be successful there," says Page. "We were wrong."
But it appears the Barenaked Ladies' time has come. "One Week," the lead single from the group's fourth studio CD, Stunt, is tearing up the charts. In Stunt, the Barenaked Ladies have fattened their sound and assembled its best collection of catchy pop songs. "It's All Been Done," "Alcohol" and "One Week" are among the strongest tracks. The band - Page, Ed Robertson (guitars/vocals), Jim Creeggan (bass), Tyler Stewart (drums) and Kevin Hearn (keyboards) - has also toned down some of the goofy lyrics that prompted some to consider the Barenaked Ladies a novelty act.
Page hopes Stunt will focus attention on the band's songwriting and musical abilities. "What we don't have going for us is we haven't been cool enough over the years," says Page. "But some of the most creative people out there in music right now are Beck and the Beastie Boys, who are always glib and full of pop culture references and funny as hell and really smart. We always feel a great affinity to those artists. But I don't think anybody, especially the media, sees us as being anywhere remotely close to that... For some reason people think because we'll be having a good time, they think we're Weird Al (Yankovic) or something, which I think we're pretty far removed from. We're not about parody or straight up goofiness. I think it's a little more intricate than that. My writing heroes are people I think are wickedly funny, but thoughtful and clever, like Randy Newman or Elvis Costello or Leonard Cohen. They're all people who, their writing is heavily dominated by humor, but they're not comedic artists."
Fastball lived up to its group name on its 1996 debut CD, Make Your Mama Proud, with a collection of fast-tempo, hard rocking guitar songs. But the Austin, Texas trio - guitarist/singer Miles Zuniga, bassist/singer Tony Scalzo and drummer Joey Shuffield - have changed their tune on All The Pain Money Can Buy, virtually avoiding loud and fast tunes in favor of a broad range of pop styles. For instance, the band's hit single, "The Way," combines a kitschy bit of Latin pop before bursting into a wildly catchy power pop chorus. "Sooner Or Later" has a trippy, hard-edged 60s sound. "G.O.D. (Good Old Days)" is a buoyant pop tune that's strongly flavored by a horn section. "Better Than It Was" and "Damaged Goods" mine a straight-ahead pop sound shared by artists like Matthew Sweet and the Rembrandts.
"I was feeling very limited," Zuniga said, referring to the style of the band's first CD. "And I also didn't like being lumped in with Green Day. They were lumping my band in with a bunch of aggressive, more adolescent type music. I thought it was a disservice because kids who like that stuff aren't going to like Make Your Mama Proud. They listen to it and the crucial sort of maturity, or whatever it is, isn't there. This time I didn't care if the only people who get into this record are people who are over 30. I don't give a damn. In a way I never wanted to be considered for the (skate-punk-oriented) Warped Tour or (stuff) like that. I wanted to make sure it was musical. I wanted it to be melodic and just overall more musical. It turns out, ironically enough, that more kids are coming to our shows now than I've ever seen."
Best of the Rest
Rounding out the mainstage lineup will be singer/songwriter Alana Davis, who has garnered considerable praise for her soulful pop songs and floating alto singing. The second stage also features solid talent. Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, who offered a fine mix of earthy blues and soul on their debut CD, could be one of the best acts on the entire H.O.R.D.E. Fest bill.
Look for drummer/frontman Fred LeBlanc to lead Cowboy Mouth through a gregarious set that will also feature some well-crafted rocking pop. Agents of Good Roots and Col. Bruce Hampton and the Fiji Mariners should bring a strong element of jam band improvisation to the second stage.