[H O M E]
|Every once in awhile, Ben Folds says, The Man falls asleep. It happened
six years ago when Nirvana took advantage of a snoozing music industry to
introduce grunge into the mainstream. Now, after bringing it from the
mainstream to the mall in the form of endless scrunge soundalikes, the
powers-that-be are again napping. "Everything's in flux and no one really
knows what's going to be the next big thing," Folds says, referring to the
buzz currently humming around his piano-led trio, Ben Folds Five. "I mean,
who gives a shit anymore about whether something's strict indie rock? I
think we're slipping in while The Man's asleep." |
Whatever mysterious figure does man musical boundaries certainly must have been caught unawares by the lineup of this summer's sixth annual H.O.R.D.E. tour, which also includes Neil Young and Toad the Wet Sprocket, as well as Beck, Primus and Big Head Todd and the Monsters on selected dates. In addition to Ben Folds Five, the second stage will feature a rotating lineup that includes Kula Shaker, Morphine, Soul Coughing and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Just the presence of Ben Folds Five's piano-driven pop on a bill traditionally dominated by the jam-happy likes of Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic demonstrates that the sharply drawn lines between H.O.R.D.E. and its aesthetic counterpart, Lollapalooza, have become blurred. Many of its acts are actually Lollapalooza alums who have simply opted for another traveling circus this summer.
"I wouldn't have been interested in doing H.O.R.D.E. if it [was still] the hippie-fest it started out as," Folds says. "But the lineup's great, and it's more interesting now. And I find myself wanting to do a tour that's traditionally been more listener-oriented as opposed to a show where there's a lot of stage diving going on. In fact, I'm bringing a string quartet along especially for H.O.R.D.E."
Organizers say this year's tour, which travels to 30 major cities between July 11 and September 1, will again feature a mix of "cutting-edge music, counterculture ideology, high-tech wizardry, ethnic cuisine, hand-crafted wares, and a complete festival atmosphere." One non-musical attraction - a tent occupied by Lionel Trains - is directly linked to Neil Young, who was instrumental in designing a new model train technology for disabled people (one of Young's children, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, is a model train aficionado).
Blues Traveler manager and festival organizer Dave Frey acknowledges that H.O.R.D.E. is, in some ways, reinventing itself (festival founders Blues Traveler will skip all but three dates for a European tour, for example). "What's been really cool for me is that we seem not to be limited by genre or fad or type of music," Frey says. "I know we started out as more of a hippie festival, but the one thing we've always tried to keep consistent with our artists, no matter what kind of music they play, is that they can close the deal live."
The Squirrel Nut Zippers hardly have much in common with sixties-style jamming. Yet it was the presence of rock artists like Young that made the festival irresistible to the retro-swing group, according to Zippers singer and guitarist Tom Maxwell. "The lineup's cool and that was the deciding factor," Maxwell says. "We got other tour offers, and this probably isn't our ideal scene because we like to play smaller theaters, but what the hell - it's a good bill."
Morphine drummer Billy Conway, whose band played some H.O.R.D.E. dates last year, believes too much has been made of the stylistic differences between the major festivals. "I think it's just different T-shirts," Conway says. "It's only the business that worries about the breakdown of boundaries. Most musicians just make music and don't worry about it."
Todd Park Mohr, singer-guitarist for H.O.R.D.E. veterans Big Head Todd and the Monsters (who have toured with the festival twice before) shares Conway's view. "I'd like to think that the musical categories that bands were lumped into are a lot less meaningful today than they were a couple of years ago."
Frey says he's not worried about competition from the more than half a dozen traveling festivals on the road this year, although he doubts H.O.R.D.E. will top the high water mark of $18 to $20 million it set last year (partly because there are fewer shows this year). In any case, he says, that's "not as important as making sure everybody has a good concert experience."
Loosened musical boundaries don't necessarily translate into relaxed attitudes about placement on a multi-artist bill. For example, H.O.R.D.E. veterans Widespread Panic withdrew from this year's festival reportedly because of financial conflicts involving outside promoters and some decidedly unmellow squabbling about who would play when. (Widespread Panic could not be reached for comment by deadline and. H.O.R.D.E. organizers would not go into detail about the dispute.)
"We had some differences of opinion," Frey says. "We were looking forward to having them along for a good portion of the tour, but it looked liked things weren't going to work out in the southern part of the country where they were really strong." Frey says a representative for the band did not want them to perform earlier than originally scheduled (a request made by Frey when Beck came aboard for a two-week stint starting August 1) and felt the group "had already compromised" by agreeing to limit itself to a 75-minute set.
In a statement issued by FORCE Inc., the publicity firm handling the tour, H.O.R.D.E. booking agent Marsha Vlasic states that the festival "has never been about who is opening, who is closing and/or the egos that would make this an issue."
Meanwhile, Soul Coughing frontman M. Doughty is concerned about far more important matters - like scoring good weed. "We've finally gotten to the point where, because of our ass-kissing efforts, we finally have access to all those good drugs," Doughty says with a hearty laugh. "We've been trying to snuggle up to those jam bands for a while." In addition to the potential for nefarious activities, and playing for "an audience that wants to listen," there's always what Doughty calls Benefit Number Three: "bumping into Neil Young at the falafel stand."
Ben Folds has a vision of his own involving the granddaddy of grunge. "I'm hoping to get him to do 'A Man Needs A Maid' with the string quartet," Folds says. "It's presumptuous of me to think he'd ever do it, but I'm going to have it ready just in case. But hey, I'd be happy just to bump into him at the falafel stand like everybody else."