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by Robert Kowal
San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
Aug 31st, 1998



This is probably the most crucial tour in the seven-year history of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. What began as an attempt by Blues Traveler's John Popper to provide a travelling forum for up-and-coming live performance-oriented bands, has grown more and more corporate in scale and sound in recent years. The original tour, a monthlong ramshackle event funded on a shoestring, featured Blues Traveler as well as various hippie-rock brethren. But since the Dave Matthews Band's tremendous mainstream success, hippie rock has become big business again and last year's tour departed somewhat from the formula H.O.R.D.E. had built its popularity on. Instead of booking up-and-coming jam rock bands, last year's tour featured music that had little to do with the genre, namely Beck, Primus, Soul Coughing and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, along with the grungy grandpa himself, Neil Young, as the headliner. Even the "exhibition concourse" looked different: socially progressive groups like Greenpeace, Rock the Vote, and Planned Parenthood were replaced by corporate behemoths like Yahoo, Sony PlayStation, and the evil empire itself, Microsoft.

Karma works brilliantly where music is concerned (just ask Milli Vanilli) and last year's festival, which had become exactly what it set out to transcend, did poorly at the gates and in reviews. This year, the promoters seem to be trying to get back to the roots of their success with H.O.R.D.E. creator Popper's band headlining again. This is not the same Blues Traveler of early H.O.R.D.E though, having achieved platinum album sales and MTV exposure in recent years. Though their radio airplay depends on pop songs like "Run-Around" and "Most Precarious," this is still a live band whose true value is only felt with the power of its long acid rock jams, which are based on blues and highlight Popper's spectacular harmonica playing. The main problem with their music, though, has always been that their shows have little to offer apart from Popper. He is a groundbreaking performer surrounded by a decidedly mediocre band.

Thankfully, the other headline act for this tour, Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, is worth the price of admission all by itself. If there's a way to describe Harper's music to those who haven't heard him, try this: a cross between Marley and Hendrix. Harper's shows alternate between moments of mellow, soulful longing and explosions of slide guitar blues pandemonium, propelled by his custom Weissenborn guitars. Though he obviously calls upon the inspiration of his idols, Harper's music is fresh and urgent. Unlike many of the newer bands that make their living in the tradition of jam rock (Phish, Leftover Salmon, etc.) Harper writes excellent songs with provocative, inspiring lyrics. With a superb sense of overall dynamics and musical structure, Harper knows when to whisper, and when to cry out in his patented operatic aria style.