A few hundred feet away from the massive stage at the Electric Highway festival was the B.F. Goodrich tent. Stuck out in the middle of an empty field in Chandler's Compton Terrace, the tent was connected to an open 10-wheeler truck that housed Goodrich reps. In front of the truck stood a company display. It included two TV sets, one showing live footage from a techno concert, the other showing race cars lapping around a track, equipped with Goodrich tires. Inside the tent, as tribal breakbeats blared from nearby speakers, radial drag tires were mounted on display. Something told me this wasn't going to be a typical rave.
For weeks, tour organizers voiced their hope that Electric Highway would be an inclusive, welcoming affair, an event that wouldn't be intimidating to rave neophytes. From its inception, the tour was meant as a healthy compromise. The big spectacle of a festival show--four massive video screens spewing out a dizzying array of digital animation--connected to the grassroots muscle of local rave organizers. Pushing raves out of the warehouses, pulling concerts into oddball sites like Compton Terrace.
For Goodrich--a tour co-sponsor along with the more logical Spin magazine--it meant a radical break from its advertising m.o. by attempting to show young techno fans that tire companies don't have to be stodgy. For the acts involved, it meant accepting corporate sponsorship so that ticket prices would be reduced. To that end, the $25 cost was relatively reasonable, but no bargain.
Electric Highway also represented a compromise of aesthetics, an event that combined the elements of a conventional concert and a rave. At a rave, the DJ may be the catalyst, but the real center of the action is the dance floor. Conversely, at most concerts, the performer demands to be the focus of attention.
At its worst, Electric Highway suggested that the two sensibilities don't mix easily. The opening band, the British trio Arkarna, unwittingly demonstrated everything that's dangerous about compromise. With its second album on the verge of release, Arkarna is being pumped as the great lite hope for techno, a crossover act that can push this music to the masses and get radio airplay. All of that is true, and pop fans who like a bit of melody and an occasional chord change with their ambiance might respond warmly to these guys, as British listeners already have. However, at Electric Highway, they occupied the wrong stage at the wrong time.
Symptomatic of the hybrid nature of the show, Arkarna featured a real, live drummer (bolstered by samples), two guitarists (one playing an acoustic!) and the chirpy vocals of Ollie Jacobs. The band recklessly veered from genuine trance beats to extremely conventional pop songs, leaving most of the audience unsure whether to watch the band or dance. Worst of all, the music didn't prove satisfying as either techno or pop. "The Future's Overrated" sounded like the Vaselines' "Son of a Gun" as performed by Roxette. By the time the band hit the absurdly chirpy "So Little Time," the few twirling glow sticks on the fringes of the crowd had ceased moving. Three teenagers sat in the middle of the crowd. The guy on the left repeatedly shot both of his middle fingers at the band, in perfect time with the music.
The mood brightened considerably when Gary Menichiello took over DJ duties between sets, aided greatly by enthusiastic band introductions from local hero Z-Trip.
The show didn't really hit true rave euphoria, however, until Uberzone took the stage. A one-man tour de force featuring sequencers, keyboard samples and wild drum-pad percussion fills, this L.A. act--unlike Arkarna--put the emphasis back on the beats. Uberzone's utter lack of visual appeal and showmanship actually worked to its advantage, by not distracting ravers from their mission.
Crystal Method raised the stakes considerably. The Las Vegas duo dropped a dense, turbulent mix filled with deranged vocal samples over fast, furious breakbeats and a deep, bone-rattling bass. This set offered an implicit message to Arkarna and other techno-pop aspirants that electronic music could conform to song structures without compromising its identity.
Around 2 a.m., halfway through the nine-hour spectacle, the Goodrich people began to shut down their sparsely visited display. Neither the Bombshelter DJs nor Terry Mullan had taken the stage yet for their sets. It was an hour at which most raves are just beginning. But it was pretty late to be selling tires.
Plugged in: Local power-pop heroes the Jennys got a positively glowing review for their latest album Dandelion in the new issue of Amplifier magazine, currently on the stands. Critic David Bash seemed particularly drawn to lead singer Stephen Easterling's lyrics, saying they "cogently illustrate life situations that many of us can identify with." Bash concluded by saying that Dandelion "is a highly recommended second effort by a band who will eradicate the stigma that catchy pop music doesn't heft any lyrical muscle."
Sir Duke: In response to the tragic death of local blues legend Duke Draper--who was hit by a car while crossing the street July 26--a variety of local venues are participating in tributes to him this month.
The biggest show happened at the Rhythm Room on Monday, August 11, when 50 local blues and jazz performers joined forces to benefit Draper's family. Draper, one of the last of the old-time blues shouters, is widely credited with crossing racial barriers in the '50s by taking the blues into Scottsdale venues. The hugely successful Rhythm Room show included emotional performances by Draper's sons and two of his granddaughters.
The final Duke Draper tribute shows this month will be Sunday, August 24, at American Legion Post No. 65 in Phoenix; Monday, August 25, at Memphis Blues & Barbeque in Mesa; and Sunday, August 31, at AmVets Post 66 in Phoenix.
Juiced up: After two weeks of frustration, the Electric Ballroom had its liquor license reinstated Friday, August 15. State liquor director Howard Adams had temporarily revoked the license on August 1 because of a sexual-abuse complaint against the club's former manager.
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Who's in town: For those drawn to goofy, ska-inflected, superhero rock, the Friday, August 22, Aquabats show at Boston's in Tempe fits the bill.
Roots-rock fans won't want to miss the Tuesday, August 26, Rhythm Room show by the Derailers, one of the rising stars in the genre.
For anyone unwilling to believe that Swedish rock comes any harder than ABBA or the Cardigans, the all-girl quartet Drain S.T.H. will pound some eardrums at Zia Record Exchange on Thunderbird Road in Phoenix on Sunday, August 24, at 3 p.m., followed by shows at the Mason Jar Sunday evening and Monday, August 25. Call 956-6271 for showtimes.