Rock musicians with a message Review: For some in the stands, maybe it was the music. But for the big-name talents who graced the stage at RFK Stadium, the Tibetan Freedom Festival was a chance to do some good.

June 15, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- Tickets for the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert said the event would take place "rain or shine." They said nothing about lightning, though, and it was lightning that changed the shape and schedule of the two-day festival at RFK Stadium this weekend.

A fast-moving thunderstorm swept through the region Saturday afternoon, and lighting struck RFK twice. Eleven people were hit, with four requiring hospitalization. The worst-injured, an unnamed 24-year old woman, was in serious but stable condition yesterday, after being moved from D.C. General Hospital.

In a statement read before yesterday's concert, Erin Potts of the Milarepa Fund -- the Beastie Boy-founded group sponsoring the benefit -- said, "Our thoughts and wishes are with the injured concertgoers. The Tibetan monks and nuns in attendance began praying for them immediately."

Saturday's concert was canceled a little over an hour after the storm stopped the show at 3: 45, leaving fans grumbling and the line-up in tatters. Many of the acts scheduled to play Saturday were crammed into yesterday's lineup, including R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Saturday's scheduled show-closer, Radio- head. But Beck, Patti Smith and Tracy Chapman had other commitments, and were unable to perform. (Kraftwerk canceled.)

None of that diminished the audience's enthusiasm yesterday, as some 60,000 fans tried to help free Tibet by dancing, moshing and/or singing along to acts ranging from Wyclef Jean to Blues Traveller. Unlike the previous day, the weather was almost perfect, hot and dry, with just enough breeze to keep the sun from seeming too oppressive.

Bikini tops and cut-offs were the order of the day for most of the largely white, college-aged crowd. Politics was clearly in the air, but it was no more an overriding presence than the incense or marijuana smoke that occasionally wafted through the air. One teen-aged fan turned up wearing a blue "Dalai Lama for President" T-shirt, with a picture of the Tibetan Buddhist leader, while another walked by in a shirt showing a U.S. warplane and the less-than-nonviolent slogan, "Democracy: We Deliver."

For the musicians, playing the festival was seen as a way of putting their fame to good use. "Even if most people are coming to hear the music," said Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, a co-founder of the Milarepa Fund, "the music creates a forum for a message that's more important."

Maybe so, but music was in the foreground for most of the afternoon -- and for good reason. Even given the show's all-star lineup, the music at the Tibetan Freedom Concert was uniformly excellent.

Because it was cut short, Saturday's show was short on star-power. Money Mark, Mutabaruka and KRS-One may have had their points, but big hits were not among them. Still, the crowd got into it, even to music that must have been relatively unfamiliar, such as the sinuous, sophisticated funk of Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters with their classic jazz-fusion groove tunes like "Watermelon Man" or "Chameleon" (though the latter was given a new twist by rapper Guru, who sat in with the Headhunters).

In any case, the first big star to hit the stage Saturday was Live. Sporting an expanded line-up (featuring a keyboard player and a second guitarist), the group generated more than enough energy to put a mosh pit into motion. But a murky mix reduced the band's sound to an undifferentiated blur, robbing the material of deeper impact.

But at its full potential, it's doubtful Live would have generated even half the joy the Dave Matthews Band induced. Though the band performed just six songs (one of them a cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower"), it wrung the utmost from each, bringing breadth and majesty to the music.

Some of that has to do with the tunes, which offer far more dynamic range and harmonic possibility than the average pop song. As inventive as Matthews' writing is, though, his band's playing is even more impressive.

From the spacious, playful groove of "Rapunzel" to the utterly infectious pulse of "Too Much," the Matthews Band had no trouble keeping the happily dancing crowd in step. At the same time, the band could fully indulge its penchant for improvisation, slipping sly, jazzy extrapolations into the groove without losing a beat. It was music for both head and booty.

Sunday's reorganized show had much bigger names and many more highlights. Jakob Dylan led the Wallflowers through a set that included both the group's current single, a cover of David Bowie's "Heroes," and a spirited version of "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Sonic Youth whipped the moshing crowd into a frenzy with the churning guitars and orchestrated noise of "The Ineffable Me," while Wyclef Jean wound his way from the throbbing funk of "Ghetto Superstar" (with guest rapper Pras), through a spirited, Chuck Berry-style guitar rocker, and into the melodic melancholy of "Gone 'Til November."

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