Stage Fright

The mood was surly in a dressing room inhabited by the Deftones, the ninth of ten bands scheduled to play at the 1996 U-Fest, an annual rock festival that erupted into a riot, causing a reported $150,000 in damage to Desert Sky Pavilion on October 5.

The Deftones, a rap-flavored heavy-metal band from Sacramento, California, had been touring for 16 months, and were scheduled to stay on the road through December. The band members complained bitterly to their manager about the backbreaking schedule.

Singer Chino Moreno--the man TV news reports would later blame for inciting the riot--was feuding with drummer Abe Cunningham. "Everyone's nerves were obviously frazzled," a source close to the Deftones says. "Every time Chino came in the room, you could feel the tension."

The musicians were also drinking heavily. Several sources said that the four Deftones and two roadies went through a fifth of Malibu rum, a liter of Captain Morgan's rum and "a cooler full of at least 30 Budweisers" in the hours leading up to the band's disastrous, three-song performance.

"They were in no condition to walk onstage," says Joel Grimes, a critic for an online music magazine who went backstage just before the Deftones began to play. "Chino was pretty polluted."

From all reports, their playing was well below par. "They sucked," says Patrick McCleary, 36, an "old-school punk rocker" who was near the stage. "The lead singer was so wasted he was stumbling, and they were sloppy. But I wasn't that interested in their music . . . I was more concerned with the crowd at that point."

Paid attendance at the U-Fest, which is sponsored by radio station KUPD, topped out at 11,228, and the crowd got rowdy early. About three hours before the Deftones went on, teenagers in the grassy "cheap seats" set several fires during a set by the Hunger. (The U-Fest is infamous for crowd behavior. Last year, several dozen people stripped naked, and several bonfires were set during a headliner performance by the band Korn.)

During the Hunger's set, a member of the band called for the kids in the cheap seats to hop the metal barricade separating them from the reserved seating and VIP areas beneath the pavilion's canopy.

"Hundreds surged over the gates and made it to the front stage area before security could get the crowd under control," says local music writer Emma Tenney. "People in the VIP section were waving and encouraging the gate crashers to join them."

About 30 minutes later, a gang of teenagers launched a raid on a concessions tent and ran off with a keg of beer. The drained keg was soon seen being "crowd surfed" in a mosh pit close to the stage.

McCleary says many among the mostly under-21 crowd were obviously intoxicated. "I've never seen so many shit-faced teenagers . . . except for maybe at a Rolling Stones concert 15 years ago."

The Deftones went on at 9:45 p.m. and muddled through two songs before Cunningham stood up from his drum set, kicked over a cymbal and stormed offstage.

Moreno took the drumsticks and played a meandering percussion solo for several minutes before Cunningham returned and the band launched into its final song. During that number, a fan climbed over a wooden barricade and tried to get onstage. A security guard--one of more than 160 that Desert Sky officials say were on hand--tried to drag him back, but Moreno ran to the foot of the stage, grabbed the mosher's outstretched hand, then helped pry the security guard's grip loose.

A sound man cut the Deftones' power, and all hell broke loose. According to a written statement by Desert Sky Pavilion, the stage monitors were turned off because ". . . the Deftones had performed their entire prearranged 30-minute set. It is customary at the conclusion of a band's set to turn off the stage monitors in anticipation of the set change."

Moreno didn't see it that way. "He yelled, 'Fuck that shit, we're going to keep playing,'" says Grimes. "Their manager was trying to get them to just get off the stage, but [Moreno] wouldn't leave."

What happened next is the subject of debate. Evidently, the stage monitors were cut off--so the band couldn't hear anything onstage--but the main speakers were still on. Grimes, who was on the stage, and Tenney, who was in the crowd, both say they heard Moreno yell something akin to, "Come on and help us trash this place."

But McCleary, photographer Craig MacNaughton, and Joey Nugent, a former Deftones roadie, all say they heard Moreno yell something like, "Okay, these guys are being assholes. Come help us show them what assholes we can be."

In any case, the kids stormed the stage--a few dozen at first--and began kicking over monitors and gesturing wildly for more to join them. More did.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse