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And then there's the music. Obsessively retro, critics say. Others call it the last refuge for technically accomplished musicians with a penchant for improvisation (otherwise known as "jam bands") to make pure, live, rootsy rock 'n' roll. Or, as Blues Traveler lead singer and H.O.R.D.E. founder John Popper said in a recent interview, "Music that's inherent in your soul. Music to get drunk to and scam on the opposite sex with." Guess we know where his soul is, anyway.
But the common wisdom on H.O.R.D.E. isn't entirely wise. Sure, popular groups from H.O.R.D.E. past--Phish and the Black Crowes, for example--richly deserve any hippie-baiting thrown their way. And even this year's core main-stage lineup includes typically H.O.R.D.Esque acts like time-warped acid rocker Lenny Kravitz, touchy-feely world-folk rockers Rusted Root, and festival mainstay Blues Traveler. Yet Natalie Merchant--who's spacy and earnestly P.C., but not all that hippie or improvisational--is also on the tour. So is the Dave Matthews Band--a group that's indulgently improvisational but not retrofixed. And finally, there are country-rockers Son Volt--don't call them hippies, boy, or you might find yourself looking down the wrong side of a scatter-gun.
And consider this year's second stage: For every old-timer (Rickie Lee Jones, Taj Mahal, King Crimson) and groove band (Leftover Salmon, Freddie Jones Band, Fiji Mariners), there's a more unlikely choice: the confrontational R&B of Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello, the funk-punk of 311, the hard alternative rock of Super 8.
So what audience is H.O.R.D.E. tailored for these days, anyway? "I think it's more of an environmentally conscious audience," says Blues Traveler bass player Bobby Sheehan, who's part of the H.O.R.D.E. Corporation that organizes the festival. "It's also somewhat more of a pot-smoking audience, but I like to just call them live-music fans."
Last summer, though, H.O.R.D.E. seemed to have a direct line to the Grateful Dead scene, as evidenced by all the peddlers in the parking-lot open market (this year's press release refers to them as "alternative-lifestyle vendors"), all the drugs, all the white-boy funk, and all the vagabonds in sun dresses and ripped Guatemalan pants doing the Deadhead swirl.
And now that the neohippie universe has entered the post-Jerry epoch, it follows that H.O.R.D.E. would provide an easy way to keep the party rolling, at least for the sunshine months. Sheehan doesn't agree. "H.O.R.D.E. might be an avenue for some of those people to go and seek the same enjoyments they got out of the Grateful Dead, but it's a totally different thing. It's not as centralized a mission. When you were out with the Dead, it was all about Jerry and the Grateful Dead, and this is really such a boiling pot of different music and philosophies and themes that it really can't replace it."
What was it the Deadheads always used to say? "It's about more than the music, man"? Sheehan turns that adage on its head: "It's really just rock 'n' roll," he says of H.O.R.D.E. "It's not about a scene or piercings or something. We don't really like to stand on soapboxes."
Although the H.O.R.D.E. midway features a "Hemp Will Save the World" tent, an AIDS awareness booth and a "Rock the Vote" station, Sheehan says that when it comes to activism on the tour, "it's pretty much whoever wants to come. We put pro-life and pro-choice right next to each other. We don't try to slant the platform in any way."
And like last year's "traveling medicine show" design theme, Sheehan says this year's "space invasion" theme--complete with wooden spaceships and glowing stars in orbit--is "just neat stuff to look at, really no deeper than that."
So, Bobby, you wouldn't say the H.O.R.D.E. festival is a counterculture event? "Me personally? Nah, it's pretty, uh . . . the whole thing is kind of weird. To me, that is my culture. So I don't know. I mean, we're not getting up and going to work every day (pause), but I guess we are, though. That's an interesting question that I really don't know how to answer."
Maybe that's because H.O.R.D.E. is essentially a theme park--a self-contained, well-packaged, temporary utopia. It's the Disneyland version of a hippie-rock fest, with a few alt. rock side attractions designed to pull in kids who snarl at boomer nostalgia for Airplane and the Dead in Golden Gate Park. And it sells. Based on advance ticket sales and last year's gate figures, Desert Sky Pavilion operations manager John Sullivan recently estimated that 12,000 people will attend this year's Valley H.O.R.D.E. date (by comparison, fewer than 5,000 people went to Lollapalooza last year at the Pavilion). Natalie Merchant, Son Volt and Super 8 combined might pull in a couple thousand at best, but the majority of that draw is going to come from the patchouli-and-sage set, a mixture of professional neohippies and weekend Deadheads drawn to the promise of "one day of peace and music." H.O.R.D.E. may not be just for neohippies anymore, but it thrives because it sets the stage for an effective pseudoexperience, circa summer of love. The 'shrooms do the rest.
The H.O.R.D.E. traveling circus is scheduled to stop at Desert Sky Pavilion on Wednesday, July 24. The fun begins at 4 p.m.