If you give the keys to UCLA to Sonic Youth for a weekend, what do you get?
Performances by some of the leaders in non-mainstream music, from Japanese noise band the Boredoms to New York experimental music avatar Tony Conrad to modern jazz giant Cecil Taylor, are among the highlights of All Tomorrow's Parties, a three-day festival being curated by the members of Sonic Youth, the influential New York avant-rock band.
But you also get Eddie Vedder debuting new, non-Pearl Jam songs with a small backing band.
Vedder, who performs Oct. 19 at Ackerman Ballroom on a bill with Stephen Malkmus, Unwound and others, is the biggest name of the more than 40 acts--which include Stereolab, Jon Spencer, Cat Power and an evening of spoken-word artists--that will appear at the Oct. 19-21 event at several campus sites, with the complete lineup being announced and three-day passes going on sale Aug. 2. (Single-day sales begin Aug. 16.)
But organizers are hoping that people drawn by the rock star will experience the full range of offerings.
"We toured with Pearl Jam last year and there were a couple of nights Eddie went on before us with an acoustic guitar and it was great," says Sonic Youth's guitarist, Thurston Moore.
"So when we started to do this, we thought it would be great to ask him to do that or something other than Pearl Jam music. If it was that, then you'd just be catering to Pearl Jam fans who have little interest in seeing anything else."
Mixing someone as well-known as Vedder with a wide range of challenging performers was exactly what the event's organizers had in mind when they asked Sonic Youth to curate.
The festival is a spinoff from an English series of the same name, itself a spinoff from the annual Meltdown Festival at London's Royal Festival Hall, which has been overseen by such figures as Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and Laurie Anderson.
When David Sefton, former chief of contemporary culture at South Bank Centre/Royal Festival Hall and the founder of Meltdown, moved to UCLA to become director of performing arts last year, he saw the campus and the L.A. community as the perfect setting for similar approaches.
His first event was the recent two-evening tribute to the late folk-music archivist and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith, and he also recently inaugurated a yearly artist-in-residence program, naming Costello to serve the role for the coming season.
"We're trying to do things with an edge," Sefton says.
"For me there's loads of great things that have happened before here, and I want to maintain that but add to it. That's what I did at the Royal Festival theater. We've not deliberately tried to alienate an audience. This is not an esoteric art festival."
Barry Hogan, promoter of England's All Tomorrow's Parties, was brought over to oversee this one. When he asked Sonic Youth to curate, he says, his guidelines were very simple.
"I just said, 'Pick good stuff,' " he says. "I asked them to try not to alienate an audience by picking stuff too obscure that no one will come see it. But they've been around so long, I figured I could leave them to their own devices."
Moore says his guidelines to the artists were similar, trusting that they will all want to use the setting to do something distinct from their usual presentations.
"We would never dictate to people what they should bring to the concert," he says. "But look at the bill that's come together and it's pretty intense."
NEW ECONOMICS: We don't often hear about bands signing record deals because the money offered was less than they might get elsewhere, but that's the case with Sense Field. The L.A. band, which languished after signing a relatively sizable deal with Warner Bros. Records in 1996, had other priorities this time in signing with Nettwerk Records, home of Coldplay and BT.
"The money was small enough," says guitarist Chris Evenson. "I'd rather take less money upfront and then they can spend money on other things that will help the band in the long run. What was really important was getting a record out this year, and we knew that wouldn't happen if we went to the majors. They'd say the time wasn't right. And actually being able to make money on a record rather than going in debt [due to big advances from the record company] is wonderful."
So after five years of label upheaval in which the only release from the band was a 1996 reissue of its independent debut, Sense Field returns Sept. 25 with its belated follow-up, "Tonight and Forever."
For Nettwerk label head Terry McBride, it's no problem giving an act less money. But it's a philosophy he believes in even when wearing his management hat--he reached prominence managing Sarah McLachlan (co-creating Lilith Fair with her) and Barenaked Ladies, and is currently riding high with Dido and Sum 41--and taking less money himself.
"Sense Field's problem throughout this whole business is how deals are cut and the process of cutting them," McBride says. "It leads to expectations that are rarely met, doesn't allow a band to develop, and a lot of these bands get hurt. With Sum 41 we actually cut the money down [that had been offered upfront] and took it instead in the form of tour support and video production."
SMALL FACES: Following up his acclaimed "If I Could Only Fly," Merle Haggard is finishing his second album for Epitaph Records' Anti label, recording mostly songs associated with Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. Working with him has been guitarist Norm Stephens, a veteran of Frizzell's and Williams' bands who last played professionally before serving in the Korean War in the '50s. The album, titled "Roots," also features three Haggard originals and is due Nov. 6....
Loudon Wainwright III has a new album, "Last Man on Earth," due from Minneapolis-based Red House Records on Sept. 25. Additionally, the singer-songwriter, who had a regular role on an early season of the TV series "MASH," has a recurring part on Fox's new collegiate comedy, "Undeclared." ...
With her tour with a new version of the Motels wrapping up, Martha Davis plans to showcase new songs in a residency every Tuesday in August at the Knitting Factory Hollywood. *