The free rock concert Sunday afternoon at "Uncle Tom's Summer Camp"--the name given by some of the musicians to the downtown L.A. site the city set up for the homeless--was about as far away as you could get on the benefit scale from the Live Aid extravaganza.
No big-name rockers flew in from London to play drums. No MTV cameras prowled the grounds while giddy VJs described the action. No movie stars made well-meaning but naive speeches from the stage.
And rather than tens of thousands of fans, only a few dozen of the 800 people in the campground even seemed to pay much attention to the music. The entire canopy that covered the proceedings--bands, crowd and all--would have fit on the Live Aid drum riser.
Yet for the handful of homeless--ranging from young children to a 97-year-old World War I veteran--the scale was just fine. The four-hour show, organized in part by homeless activist Ted Hayes and the band the Butchers, featured four local rock bands (the Butchers, Paper Bag, Universal Congress of and the Leaving Trains) and local rap act Electro-Shock.
"They make music and they're supporting us and I think that's great," remarked camp resident Fred Lee as he sat having his hair braided by Annette Williams, who also lives in the camp.
Lee, who appeared to be in his late 30s, admitted that he had never heard of any of the bands and that he was not particularly fond of their punk style, but that this did not diminish his enthusiasm for the event.
Added Williams, who seemed slightly younger than Lee, "There ain't too many people that are trying to help."
The concert was originally organized to protest the camp's closing, which had been scheduled for Monday. But with the city having agreed to extend the camp until Sept. 25, some of the event's potential impact was lost. Still, Hayes--a tireless if controversial promoter who founded Justiceville, one of the four sectors of the camp--turned the day into a celebration of the homeless-aid bill recently passed by Congress as he spoke between performances.
But not everyone at the camp was thrilled by the event. In fact, only about two dozen residents even bothered to wander over to the music area, where they joined the musicians and a couple dozen of their friends. Throughout the afternoon, people walked around the camp with boom boxes to their ears, trying their best to ignore the raucous, often jarring punk, rock and jazz sounds.
During a quiet moment in Paper Bag's set of jagged improvisations, one camp resident asked, "Do you guys know anything by (R&B; star) Frankie Beverly?"
And one Latino woman, in her mid-30s, complained that the event distracted from the real needs of the homeless.
"This is just a prop," she said of the music. "I don't get nothing out of this. What am I going to have, the music? Can they promise me something tomorrow?" Pointing to the rows of tents that have been home to the homeless since the camp opened June 15, she said, "Help them out. Help the families that need it. Food is what it would take. Music we don't need."
Later, though, the same woman danced jubilantly to the edgy jazz/blues of Universal Congress of and to the raging hardcore punk of the Leaving Trains. She even stepped up to a microphone during a break to make a call for unity within the camp, which is divided into four sometimes feuding sections.
Hayes, told of the woman's comments, agreed. "She's absolutely right. This is a show; I don't deny it. We're showing to our supporters what we can do. We want the homeless people to see these people come down and show interest. Whether it's the kind of music we want to hear or not, it shows support."
Tom Bolema, of the Butchers, who has released a funk-punk benefit single called "Justiceville" and who organized the concert with help from the SST record label, echoed Hayes' comments.
"This is all we can give them," he said. "We hope that other people will notice and do their part."
Some of the musicians even expressed hope that coverage of the event would not focus on them at all. "The music's secondary," said Leaving Trains singer Falling James. "It's almost irrelevant."
Hayes, despite his enthusiasm for the proceeding, admitted that the movement would benefit from the involvement of big names and that other styles of music might have drawn more of the homeless to the show.
"It'd be fantastic if David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder were here," he said, acknowledging the distaste that much of the camp's population had for the music of the day. "But these are the bands that came down."