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Cultivating a Common Denominator : Ian Astbury's 'Dream' Concert Unites Contemporary Music Forces

October 04, 1990|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman is a free-lance writer who regularly covers pop music for The Times.

Surely you've played that little mind game of dreaming up the perfect concert, the one with all your favorite acts on one bill regardless of genre and style.

Ian Astbury has.

"I was sitting in the front of the tour bus one day with my notebook, thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could take the records in my collection and see a festival with some of the best acts?' " the lead singer of the British hard-rock band the Cult recalled while sitting in his manager's Beverly Hills office. "Why not an event where you could see all this great music?"

But where most people's fantasies remain just that, Astbury's dream is coming true. He's the force behind "The Gathering of the Tribes," a two-city/two-day festival bringing a diverse roster of rock, rap and pop acts--and their various audiences--together, first on Saturday at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in the Bay Area community of Mountain View, and then Sunday at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa.

Among those who will perform are rockers Iggy Pop, the London Quireboys and former Sex Pistol Steve Jones, rappers Public Enemy, Ice-T and Queen Latifah, and more folk-oriented Michelle Shocked and the Indigo Girls.

While telling how the event came to be, Astbury, an amiably chatty 28-year-old from Birkenhead, a town across the Mersey from Liverpool, leaped up and grabbed one of several notebooks he had with him--each labeled "Brain Bible"--and found the original entry he had made last December.

"Anticipate the moment of freedom, a festival of youth . . ." he read. ". . . Representatives from four corners of the world. . . . Relies on the commitment that we need a common ground of communication."

A neo-hippie vision indeed--Astbury readily acknowledged a fascination with the 1969 Monterey Pop Festival, which brought together rock musicians the Who, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, soul man Otis Redding and Indian musician Ravi Shankar. Astbury's journal entry even suggests Monterey as the site for his dream concert.

But Astbury knew it was just a dream. The logistics and politics of such an event would probably be prohibitive. Still, he remembered a 1988 editorial by Spin magazine Publisher Bob Guccione Jr. bemoaning the segregation of popular music communities and was pleased to know that he was not alone in his thinking--he even cut it out and pasted it in one of his notebooks. That was reaffirmed when earlier this year he saw Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn's piece echoing the same thoughts that rock had run out of steam, largely because of cultural fragmentation.

Along the way Astbury had casually, but enthusiastically, discussed his idea with several associates, including his agent, Bill Ellison of International Creative Management.

"It's a quality-of-life thing," he said. "I thought it would be great to put a diverse bill together and see if it could happen and introduce all the segregate groups to each other. But it was nothing more than a conversation really."

But unbeknown to Astbury, Ellison mentioned the idea to others, including Bay Area promoter Bill Graham, who operates the Shoreline Amphitheatre, and Alex Hodges of the Nederlander organization, which runs the Pacific Amphitheatre.

"Bill came back to me and said, 'Your festival's on,' ' Astbury said, re-creating the look of disbelief he wore at that time. "I said, 'What do you mean?' '

And the dream crossed into reality, warts and all.

"I was given a great challenge and just jumped in with both feet," Astbury said. "And the next thing I knew I'd spent two months on the phone."

Soon Astbury found that he wasn't going to be able to assemble his original fantasy lineup, which included the likes of Neil Young, Tracy Chapman and Tom Petty. But he was tenacious.

"At one point, I was putting a lot of pressure on Guns N' Roses and the Red Hot Chili Peppers," he said. "I had one vision, and any excuse was not good enough. Guns N' Roses should be doing it, but can't due to commitments. Tracy Chapman should be doing it. Living Colour, Ziggy Marley, Julian Lennon should be doing it."

When the rejections started coming in, Astbury became frustrated.

"There was a point in this that I became terribly cynical and said, 'Accept your situation and walk away,' " he said. "But I said, 'I don't accept this. Give me a damn good reason why not: Your legs have fallen off and your brain's exploded is good. You're caught on the industry treadmill is not.' "

And the lineup started to come together in a way that recalled Monterey but without seeming an exercise in nostalgia.

"You can't re-create an entire decade that happened 20 years ago," Astbury said. "You have to define your own decade."

Key to that is the rap representation.

"The rap community has been the best and most responsive," Astbury said. "The rap revolution is on par with the electric guitar in the '60s."

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