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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Movable Feast of Talent, Rock

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bands in flaming headdress, bands led by wrathful wild men who stomped on instruments or smashed stage decorations, midway attractions involving demonstrations of bile drinking--those were some of the interesting sights at Irvine Meadows back when Lollapalooza used to stop there.

But the famous attitude-rock extravaganza has skipped Irvine since its second run in 1992, electing to find more spacious digs elsewhere for its Southern California dates. In its place Saturday came H.O.R.D.E., a traveling festival where all the bands did was play. But boy, could they play. All four main-stage headliners--the Allman Brothers Band, Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and Sheryl Crow--turned in satisfying sets that dispensed with the attitude and laid on the talent.

Unlike the celebrated Lollapalooza, the eight-hour H.O.R.D.E. (for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) was a relaxed and relatively low-profile event, played to a half-capacity crowd of about 7,000 or 8,000 that looked more interested in tie-dye and handicrafts than body piercing.

Launched in 1982 by Blues Traveler, a band from New York City, the annual H.O.R.D.E. festival (which never reached the West Coast until Saturday’s show) has featured bands that like to stretch out and jam--hence the appeal to the Deadhead set.

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A little more than 20 years ago, the band occupying the most advanced horizon of jam-oriented rock was the Allman Brothers Band. A lot of things change with time. Two members of the Allmans’ classic early ‘70s lineup are long dead, the four surviving band members have been through two breakups and regroupings, and three new players now are on the scene. But not everything changes: the Allman Brothers still occupy the most advanced horizon of jam-oriented rock.

Their nearly 2 1/2-hour performance wasn’t quite perfection, but it was still magnificent. What was exhilarating was the sheer band-ness of the Allmans’ approach, the perfect interlocking of cooperative parts, providing a framework in which individuals could step forward and shine. Some people think that rock ‘n’ roll corrodes the fabric of our society, and maybe in some cases they are right. But a band like the Allmans is a living metaphor for the freedom amid cooperation that we want society to have.

Three drummers and a tremendously effective bassist, Allen Woody, set up a churning, tidal motion, underscoring that the band’s fundamental purpose is to journey, to take itself and its audience somewhere. Gregg Allman’s gusting organ tones accented and thickened the sound. It was left to two phenomenal guitarists, Dickey Betts and Warren Haynes, to decide where to navigate on this wave of possibility.

They went to some magical places. Betts, who left the band temporarily a year ago to enter an alcohol rehab program, is back in fine shape with playing both liquid and fiery. Haynes complemented him with a harsher-toned rasp from his Les Paul. The set’s first great peak came as they conversed during “Southbound.”

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First they finished phrases for each other, like only the closest of friends and relations can. Then, simultaneously, each played his own uninterrupted discourse, moving in different directions, yet never clashing: two free and independent equals. Finally came a joyful merging as they locked in harmony. It was early in the show, but around them, the band played with the relish and heat that most bands reserve for their closing kick.

(They probably could have done it even without Don Johnson, the “Miami Vice” star who used to hang with and even wrote a few songs for the Allman Brothers during the late 1970s. Betts summoned Johnson to sing on the choruses of “Southbound,” which the singer-turned-actor accomplished on-key and with respectable bluesiness.)

After that peak, the band settled into a quieter stretch. Allman showed his crusty, still-considerable soulfulness as he sang the new ballad “Soulshine,” which epitomizes the theme of troubles-endured that runs through the band’s latest album, “Where It All Begins.” Betts registered a warm lead vocal on another good ‘90s-vintage song, “Seven Turns.”

A 10-minute “Jessica” was so grand that Betts and Haynes kept searching for new improvisations, as if they didn’t want to let the song go. At 23 minutes, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” went a bit too far, although it was fine until the six-minute drum break kicked in. One could always kick back and watch the old-fashioned liquid light show play out on a screen behind the band. It was a good one, a collage of colored amoebic gobs and swirls of cosmic imagery.

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The encore, “Whipping Post,” was extraordinary for its headlong momentum, and for the way Betts and Haynes finally broke that momentum for a concluding guitar sojourn that seemed to be a long commentary on mortality--appropriate in a song whose baleful refrain goes “I’ve been tied to the whipping post, sometimes I feel like I’m dying.”

No sooner had Allman left off singing about a miserable death than the guitarists were slowing their pace and soaring, pointing to a heavenly vista with chirping-bird effects not unlike those Duane Allman used to evoke peaceful release at the end of the original “Layla,” by Derek and the Dominoes.

After this glimpse of the sublime hereafter, they plunged back to earth, and the whole band tolled with funereal finality in a closing crescendo. At least that’s the imagery I got out of it; someone else might paint a different picture. What each listener imagined is purely subjective; the main point is that the players had the skillful means to probe with their music, and the passion to let it transport them, pulling several thousand people along for the ride.

Blues Traveler also had the probing, adventurous spirit. A rhythm-oriented, gleefully energetic guitarist, a nimble bassist and a drummer who combined power with a good sense of tonal coloration provided the backdrop for some wide-ranging excursions. John Popper manned the foreground (and this tall, rotund John Belushi look-alike can occupy a lot of foreground) with reedy, chance-taking vocals and prolific harmonica playing.

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Popper doesn’t have the most trenchant or melodious voice, but it is pliant and distinctive, and he was adept at suiting it to the roles he writes for himself. He sounded convincingly wounded during an elegiac, as-yet unreleased song from the next Blues Traveler album, which is due next month.

(The band showed great--and justified--confidence by opening with that song, unfamiliar and melancholy as it was, before a crowd presumably eager to boogie. There was boogie enough to come.)

Popper’s comic instincts came through during “Go Outside & Drive,” a slacker’s epic that wryly portrays a character overcome by inertia (the long, undulating rendition included a well-placed snippet of Beck’s slacker-anthem, “Loser”). Later, the quest for new expressive means would find Popper tweeting like a bird and doing a rapper’s human-beatbox routine.

The show moved between energized, lighthearted excursions and ballad laments over lost love (“Alone”) or career frustrations (“Hope,” which will be the first single from the upcoming album). Overall, Blues Traveler projected a youthful optimism, an ability to shake off setbacks and to go chasing after the new possibilities suggested by its bright, excursionary music.

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Much of that brightness came from Popper’s harmonica playing. Instead of repeating the raspy blasts and low-down moans that most blues-based harmonica players draw upon, he would send forth flurries of sprightly, whistling, high-pitched notes. Sometimes his harmonica sounded like an Irish penny whistle, and it had a similar effect: instant merriment.

Popper qualified as the day’s eccentric. A buccaneer’s sword hung from his left hip while he performed; at one point he drew it with a flourish and punctured an errant beach ball.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters were considerably better in their 70-minute H.O.R.D.E. set than they had been in a much longer headlining show at the Coach House in March. The trio’s leader, Todd Park Mohr, cut down on his soloing, which tends toward routine, Hendrix-style wailing and is the weakest facet of his diverse game. Instead, he concentrated on putting over good, frequently wistful but still-muscular heartland rock songs, delivering them in a sturdy, husky voice like Bob Seger’s.

A more lyrical guitar accent would help (why not add a fourth member to provide it?). Mohr also needs to find a way to break through a reserved bearing and make his songs come to life more vividly.

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Sheryl Crow played a short but winning set. Downplaying the Rickie Lee Jones street-hipster mannerisms that often come through on her successful debut album, she seemed to be striving more for the warmth and direct quality of a Bonnie Raitt. Crow might have been the “singer-songwriter” entry on a bill of hard-driving instrumental groups, but she and a strong backing band managed to play some sinewy rock ‘n’ roll along with more inward songs about characters running from troubles.

Crow sang backups for Big Head Todd on “It’s Alright” and joining the Allman Brothers for a duet vocal on “Midnight Rider.” Popper also got into the interaction, lending his harmonica to the Allmans’ “One Way Out” and jamming on the festival’s second stage with April’s Motel Room, a band from Simi Valley.

The festival had six new or unsigned bands on its under card, playing during breaks in the main stage action. Cycomotogoat was the most promising, and the least congruous with the rest of the day’s acts. The trio from Hoboken, N.J. played heavy, distortion-laden rock akin to Soundgarden’s. But front man Crugie Riccio’s varied voicings--both as a singer and a guitarist--made this more than the same old grunge.

April’s Motel Room offered a Vedder-like lead singer but a less-than-persuasive grunge-lite attack.

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Ugly Americans, from Austin, were a winner, a splendid party band that played funk-accented Southern rock, a sort of Skynyrd-goes-to-N’awlins sound. Not content to play to folks lolling on their backs in the California sun, the band’s likable singer jumped off the stage and started helping people to their feet. The music took care of the rest as Ugly Americans touched off a rousing dance party.

The Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, from Nashville, played a more routine form of sons-of-Skynyrd Southern rock. Jambay, a foursome from Seattle that originally formed in San Diego, played a spirited set of angular, tempo-changing funk on the main stage that recalled Phish, a H.O.R.D.E. alumni band. The melodies were thin, however. The 2 P.C., from Los Angeles, showed ability but the band needs more woodshedding to conquer stiffness as it strives to put across a soul-blues-rock merger harking back to Hendrix and Blind Faith.

At some stops, H.O.R.D.E. organizers have instituted a third stage for featured players to conduct workshops, but none took place at Irvine Meadows.


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