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I've never been an especially ardent fan of rock festivals. They strike me as a prolonged pretext for public vomiting, what with all the suds and the sun and the jostling. This, dear reader, is a subject about which I know a fair good bit, having spent the lion's share of a June afternoon in 1982 emphatically yakking during the Second Annual Day on the Green. (Yup, I missed the yowling entirety of Oingo Boingo and most of the Fixx, so I guess there's that silver lining to be considered.)
Even as an adult who no longer throws up with regularity, I've tried to steer clear of festivals. Lollapalooza, with its trendier-than-thou pitch and bombastic lineups, is more annoying than vital at this point, Lillith Fair feels a wee postured in its gynocentrism, and the cacophonous Warped Tour ranks as plain scary. I initially wrote off the H.O.R.D.E. Tour as a stoned retread of Lollapalooza, just another dose of corporate-sponsored synergy dressed in hippie threads.
Then I heard the lineup. That shut me right the fuck up.
It's not that I'm any drooling fan of Neil Young or Primus. No, what's got me jazzed for this year's edition of the H.O.R.D.E., which piles into Coral Sky Amphitheatre Sunday, are the opening acts. Soul Coughing. Squirrel Nut Zippers. Leftover Salmon. Bands that represent an unprecedented (and long overdue) departure from the hegemony of guitar rock. After five years of relentless Stratocaster squalling, other, more interesting instruments are finally demanding equal time. Pianos, mandolins, samplers, saxophones, banjos, ukuleles.
"This year's lineup is grabbing more from the corners than from the middle," notes Ken Mosher, whose Zippers are leading the charge. "It's been a real eye opener for me, because I'm the sort of guy who listens to really loud, two-guitar rock and roll."
Mosher's own tastes may come as a shock to Zipperheads. For one thing, he himself sings and plays sax. For another, his North Carolina-based septet produces an enchanting melange of swing, Dixieland, and big band jazz that has nary a fret in the mix. (Unless you count the ukulele.) Somehow, the band has still managed to beguile the MTV generation. "Hell," the first single culled from the disc Hot, enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV, and the band has been playing to sold-out venues all year.
"The thing is that all the bands without a big guitar sound have gotten an incredibly warm reception," Mosher says. "It's obvious that the crowds are ready for something different. They've been challenged to open up to different styles of music, and they have. And that spirit of tolerance has made the whole event feel sort of like summer camp. There's a real camaraderie between the bands. When we left the tour for a while, I missed the camaraderie more than the tour itself."
Part of that camaraderie, Mosher says, has been the backstage hootenannies that draw together artists that radio programmers would never dare to play consecutively. "We usually find a place where we can just sit around and play acoustic instruments," he notes. "We'll do wacky gospel songs, or bluegrass. And players just drop in."
Nor have the jams been restricted to the backstage, as Leftover Salmon's Vince Herman discovered last week at a New York date. "I was just standing there singing, doing my thing, and I could see the crowd getting all worked up. They were waving their hands in the air and hooting and I was like, 'What? Did I just play a really great note or something?' So I turned around and there's Neil. I was like, 'Holy shit. Goddamn.' He sat in with us for a couple of songs, played harmonica and sang along. I wasn't even that surprised. Hey man, it's the H.O.R.D.E. That's kind of what it's all about."
Herman's own troupe is another that happily roams the fringes of rock. Drawing predominantly on bluegrass and Cajun influences, the band serves up hook-laden jams that have so far transcended categorization. "Apparently, no one's discovered what we're playing yet, 'cause once they realize we're playing Cajun and bluegrass we're gonna get the boot," Herman quips.
In fact, he says, the entire vibe of the tour has been shockingly inclusive. "It's been a real cross-pollinating experience. I'm seeing bands I would never have had a chance to see if we were out on tour ourselves. You look at Morphine, or Soul Coughing, or Ben Folds Five, and these are bands that are producing amazing music without relying on the standard configuration."
Sadly, South Florida fans will miss the languid sax-dominated sound of Morphine and the joyful piano pop of Ben Folds. But they will be treated to a dose of Soul Coughing's inimitable genius. The New York quartet sets sly poetics to a hip-hop beat and gooses the mix with a dizzying selection of samples, reproduced live on-stage. Singer M. Doughty does play electric guitar. But the real allure is the sonic swirl around his sparse strumming: the steady thump of Yuval Gabay (drums) and Sebastian Steinberg (upright bass) and the mesmerizing sounds that emanate from Mark De Gli Antoni's special keyboard. In the space of one song the master sampler manages to interweave the hiss of a rainstorm, the lurching of heavy machinery, and the eerie vocal rhythms of an errant phone message. The band's second disc, Irresistible Bliss, has spawned the hit single "Super Bon Bon" -- and a legion of imitators.
They have not, however, managed to win over the masses. Indeed, for all the progress made by H.O.R.D.E.'s fretless contingent, the biggest draws continue to be the ax-wielders. A word to the wise, then: Make sure you arrive early. Soul Coughing will be hitting the main stage early, at around 4:30 p.m. Leftover Salmon and Squirrel Nut Zippers are slated to play the second stage at 7:40 and 8:55, respectively.
Rumors continue to circulate as to who will occupy the open slots remaining on the Coral Sky bill. The odds-on favorite for one slot, based on gossip from Mosher and Herman, is Blues Traveler, the band that gave birth to the H.O.R.D.E. concept six years ago. The two names mentioned for the second slot are Beck and Sheryl Crow. Considering that Coral Sky will be the festival's final stop, don't be surprised to see other big names drop by.
Also worth noting is that Neil Young has taken to playing an acoustic set as soon as the gates open. The man who played grunge before grunge existed has fully recovered from the hand injury he sustained cutting a ham sandwich, and according to both Mosher and Herman, he's in top form.
"Neil's playing great," Mosher says. "I'll tell you this: I felt a lot better about being 30 when I saw him. He's out there playing with the enthusiasm of a seventeen-year-old. I swear to God, I'd have a heart attack if I played that hard. Before this tour began, I probably would have said that he'd be my least favorite act. But I've got a new respect for him. His voice doesn't sound whiny at all. You know how it sounded so whiny in the Seventies? Wait a second, don't print that. He'll probably come over and punch me in the nose."
That or take a swing with his guitar.
H.O.R.D.E. Tour begins at 3:00 p.m. this Sunday, August 24, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sanbury's Way, West Palm Beach, 561-795-8883, with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Soul Coughing, the Fool, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Spiritualized, Leftover Salmon, Taj Mahal, To the Moon Alice, Breedlove, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and more. Tickets are $28.