Energy unleashed at festival

Festival: For bands, singers and those who filled the field, Woodstock was still crazy after all these years.

July 26, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

ROME, N.Y. -- In 1969, one of Woodstock's memorable moments was the tortured scream of Jimi Hendrix's guitar as it incinerated "The Star Spangled Banner." In 1999, it was the sound of silence, as the P.A. system cut out just as Limp Bizkit started to play its current single, "Nookie."

Up till that point Saturday, Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst was doing his best to take the crowd's energy -- a heady cocktail of pent-up fervor, rock show-anticipation, and chemically fueled craziness -- and channel it to a single moment of release.

Once the power came back, some of the musical momentum was restored but the group's set ended up seeming thwarted. Limp Bizkit wanted to take Woodstock to the edge, and Woodstock wasn't going.

That was typical of Woodstock '99, which ended yesterday at Griffiss Park in upstate New York. The festival was, by most standards, a roaring success, bringing an estimated 225,000 people together for three days with no major problems (although a 44-year old man from Massachusetts succumbed to cardiac arrest early Friday).

Still, despite a star-studded bill featuring acts ranging from Willie Nelson to Metallica, from DMX to Jewel, from James Brown to Fatboy Slim, the performances offered little in the way of revelation. For the most part, Woodstock '99 was about entertainment -- safe, predictable, crowd-pleasing rock and roll.

Crowd's fault

Limp Bizkit's sound of silence was, to a certain degree, the crowd's own fault. When the power went out, the group had been playing to the largest and most volatile audience the three-day festival had seen. Singer Durst had been doing his best to get the crowd pumped. During the song "Get Up," he coaxed more than 100,000 listeners to bounce, fists in the air, to the refain. Then he exhorted the audience to expel its negative energy during the final chorus of "Break Stuff."

Unfortunately, a few fans decided to take the tune's title literally, and tore some plywood panels from a sound and lights tower. The wood was protecting transformers for the concert area's power grid and, rather than risk exposing the crowd to the possibility of electrical shock, the sound crew turned the transformer off, temporarily taking the P.A. with it.

Limp Bizkit's set was the first event in what many fans viewed as the Saturday trifecta -- a three-band crawl from the Bizkit through Rage Against the Machine to Metallica. All three are loud, aggressive, hard rocking bands guaranteed to get a crowd going. Yet the combination never quite lived up to its potential.

On the plus side, Rage Against the Machine was magnificent, playing with such power and confidence that even a slight shift in the band's dynamics sent ripples of reaction through the crowd. Even though the rock/rap quartet stuck close to its best-known material -- politically charged numbers like "People of the Sun," "Viet Now" and "Bulls on Parade" -- it brought fresh energy and ideas to the arrangements, thanks in large part to Tom Morrello's otherworldly arsenal of guitar sounds.

Best of all, Rage carefully built on the muscular momentum of the rhythm section to generate a deep, visceral groove. It served almost as a form of physical persuasion, drawing the audience in so completely that, by the end of the set, the crowd reacted almost as a single organism. It was by far the weekend's musical high point.

Despite having the plug pulled, Bizkit's playing was first-rate throughout, and its much-delayed rendition of "Nookie" was lean, funky and compelling.

Metallica got a wild response, playing three encores and still leaving the crowd screaming for more. Even so, the band's playing was surprisingly uneven. Some songs, like the set-opening "So What?" and "Master of Puppets," were delivered with awesome ferocity and precision, others detoured into self-indulgent vamps and stagnant riffing.

So why did the crowd go wild? Mainly because Metallica's set stuck so close to familiar turf. The fans at Woodstock '99 may have been adventurous when it came to attire or personal behavior, but they were pretty conservative when it came to unfamiliar music.

Being polite

Many worthy bands were greeted with polite response at best. Saturday morning, Tragically Hip -- one of the most popular live acts in Canada -- failed to get Americans in the audience excited, despite having given a memorably dramatic and poetic performance. Still, at least the Hip had an audience, which was more than could be said for risk-taking roots rockers Los Lobos, which played to a small-but-appreciative crowd at the West Stage while alt-rock diva Alanis Morissette entertained a much larger crowd at the East Stage.

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