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The H.O.R.D.E. Festival @ Irvine Meadows Amphitheater
by Sandy Masuo
MTV Reviews Online, National
Aug 27th, 1998

When it comes to building a successful, travelling concert extravaganza, it's crucial to start with a premise that's distinct enough to draw attention, but flexible enough to allow for a different bill from year to year. The H.O.R.D.E. tour, now in its seventh year, revolves around a suitably catchy-but-vague concept - Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere (what does that mean?) - and this year's line-up covered a pretty wide range of styles, from the spunky singer-songwriter vibe of Alana Davis to the sultry old-school R&B stylings of Robert Bradley's Backwater Surprise.

The Irvine show saw lots of sublime, and a few ridiculous, moments. The Barenaked Ladies supplied plenty of the latter. The Canadian quintet makes music that is innocuously pleasant at best, obnoxiously clever at worst. Imagine a filleted Phish, and you're half-way there. Live, the band's material is bearable, thanks to singer Ed Robertson, who manages to dampen the music's smarm-factor with his tongue-in-cheek stage presence. Still, the group's full-length, main-stage set wore mighty thin by the time they wrapped things up.

It was a shame the Ladies' compatriots in Bran Van 3000 couldn't have traded places with them. The nine-piece Montreal outfit responsible for last year's winsome little hit, "Drinking In L.A.," was forced to condense its customary sonic sprawl into a concise 30-minute set on the second stage. But necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention, and BV3K certainly played inventively. The bubbling stew of funk, rock, pop and hip-hop culminated in an imaginative rendering of the Who's "Baba O'Reilly." Rather than tackle the song on its own epic rock terms, BV3K re-arranged it to fit its own colorful style, with singers Stephane Moraille, Jayne Hill and Sara Johnston ingeniously inverting Roger Daltrey's beefy vocal line into a lush three-part harmony with a vampy edge.

Early Who was just one of the many ingredients (along with hints of the Replacements and the Black Crowes) that gave Fastball's debut album, All the Pain Money Can Buy, such scruffy charm. On stage, the Austin, Texas quartet packed a lot more rock oomph, generating a small pocket of intimate, nightclub intensity despite the sparse crowd and the baking afternoon sun.

As fetching as Fastball's set was, Ben Harper was unquestionably the hero of the day. Protracted jamming is like story-telling. It only becomes tiresome when the musicians become so wrapped up in themselves they forget that all the improvising is supposed to communicate their ideas to the audience. Harper and his fiery, articulate band blazed their way through a set that drew on all the power of rock, funk, pop and blues. Their original material was powerful in its own right, but the pinnacle of the set was a mind-blowing version of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile." Instead of merely flattering the memory of the guitar god with a faithful imitation, Harper and company reinvented the song, infusing it with their own soulful style.

After Harper's transcendent set, the more down-to-earth Blues Traveler set was something of an anti-climax. Though they matched the chops of any of the other acts, they didn't manage to summon up any supernatural forces. The hits ("Run-Around") went over well - as did their usual covers (Charlie Daniels's "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," Steve Miller's "The Joker"). But the boggy stretches of jamming that connected them were often off the mark.

It might not have been the most memorable ending for a rock fest (the crowd began to trickle out in earnest before the last song was over) - but it's Blues Traveler's party, and they can stray if they want to.