The music, of course occupied the center ring of this year’s festival more than a mere music showcase. Throughout the day, a milling throng of smiling kids in baggy shorts and tour T-shirts sampled exotic foods and “smart” drinks, bought pendants and bracelets and hash pipes, had their noses pierced and considered a (washable) tattoo. They also sampled political literature, registered to vote, and won chances to smash televisions and other major appliances in the “crush cage” by playing issue-oriented games of chance.
Acts on the second stage created something of a scheduling dilemma: with no prior notice, hometown bands Green Magnet School and Tribe played before the opening act on the main to a smaller-than-deserved audience, and the most mind-blowing act of the day, Jim Rose’s Circus Side Show, performed concurrently with Ice Cube. Not even the esteemed Cube could lure me away from Rose’s grasp once the freaks were on parade. I mean, how often is one given the opportunity to witness human pincushions with skewers piercing eye sockets and windpipes, a man named Lifto hefting concrete blocks with chains straining his pierced nipples, and Matt the Tube regurgitating beer, chocolate, ketchup, and Maalox – and then drinking the bile beer in a toast with the lead singer and drummer from Lush?
Musically, as well as literally, you could divide the day-long event between darkness and light. Lush, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Ministry attempted to lure the audience into a dark world of noise and chaos; Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the Chili Peppers reached out with communal vibes, albeit a more pedestrian musical language. From the vantage point of the lawn, the bright afternoon sunshine and happy faces contrasted with the late-night music of the Jesus and Mary Chain, throwing unwelcome light into the band’s heart of darkness, even though they played solid, straightforward renditions of songs such as “April Skies” and “Kill Surf City.”
Pearl Jam, on the other hand, scored early with classic hard rock and the goofy earnestness of surfer/vocalist Eddie Vedder. While the band jammed on “Alive,” waves of arms beckoned Vedder to take the plunge. He stood atop a monitor, beaming in 180-degree wonder at the audience acceptance before dropping onto the sea of hands – though two stage hands maintained a firm grasp on his ankles. The frenetic metal of Soundgarden, though tired and formulaic to my ears, ignited a mosh pit on the grass that absorbed hundreds of bodies. It looked from a distance like an exuberant storm on Jupiter, swirling, turbulent and colorful.
After dark, the twin beacons of Ministry and Red Hot Chili Peppers shone from opposite ends of the alternative continuum. Ministry mounted a stage dense with animal skeletons and portents, video screens and diatribes. Vocalist and wizard Al Jourgensen strode like a black-leather Wotan with ram’s-head staff, bringing down torrents of three-guitar cloudbursts and bolts of white strobe lighting. His cohort stood their ground and focused on their instrumental attack, letting performance chores be assumed by three writhing dancers and projected images of decay and political betrayal.