H.O.R.D.E. stands for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere. In the fourth annual H.O.R.D.E. tour's stop Saturday at Cal State Dominguez Hills, the horizon-seekers went mainly for retrograde developments and wound up spending lots of time in the rock 'n' roll past, circa 1972-75.
Playing to a capacity crowd at the Olympic Velodrome, the four bands on H.O.R.D.E.'s main stage offered lessons on the use and abuse of rock history, with Wilco the ablest user, the headlining Black Crowes the worst abuser, and Blues Traveler and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers somewhere in between.
Wilco, an unpretentiously dusty bunch of country-rockers occupying the opening slot, excelled because of singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy's ability to steer well-chosen musical models down melodically rich and emotionally evocative byways. When somebody in the crowd asked Tweedy to "play one for Jerry," he responded with melancholy ballads that Garcia himself might have enjoyed singing. Wilco showed it could rock, too, on chunky Stones and Replacements-style songs in which the band didn't let the frustrations detailed in the lyrics get in the way of bash-it-out fun.
The Black Crowes' singer, Chris Robinson, offered vocally overwrought and compositionally undernourished answers to the question: What if Rod Stewart had joined the Rolling Stones for "Exile on Main Street"? There's nothing wrong with hewing closely to a Stones/Faces style, but Robinson's brittle, harsh singing didn't allow for the essential personal spin that can make borrowed styles resonate anew. Going for large-scale, throaty blues belting, he replicated the basic tone and mannerisms but missed the warmth and nuance of a Stewart. There's still some hope for the Crowes, though: The band set aside its strident approach on "Wiser Time," in which a weary, chastened mood and floating rhythms yielded a rewarding, beautifully played moment.
Blues Traveler, the band that has spearheaded H.O.R.D.E. since its humble East Coast-only beginnings, has grown along with the festival: It delighted the crowd with its breakthrough hit, "Run-Around," a song that borrows cannily from both "La Bamba" and Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita." Frontman John Popper and mates made it a double scoop of tasty '70s stuff by using War's harmonica-driven nugget, "Low Rider," as a lead-in to "Run-Around." Less rewarding was a version of John Lennon's "Imagine," which received a stiff, overly reverent treatment from Popper.
Blues Traveler's success is well-deserved: borrowed bits notwithstanding, the double-platinum success of its current album, "Four," stems from improved, catchier songwriting. In keeping with H.O.R.D.E. tradition, however, the thrust was jams over songs, and Popper's whistling and hurtling harmonica improvisations sometimes seemed played more for their wind-tunnel effect than for melodic appeal.
Reggae traditionalists Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers compensated for tepid new material by paging back through the songbook handed down by their dad. "Get Up, Stand Up" was the turning point at mid-set, setting the show on course for a lively second half. Before that, the four Marley siblings and their sharp seven-piece band had kept bodies bobbing, but that was about all. A second Bob Marley song, "Could You Be Loved," helped fuel the good vibrations, and the Ziggy originals, "Tomorrow People" and "Look Who's Dancing," held up well alongside his father's work.