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H.O.R.D.E. Delivers the Goods Soggy

Pop music: Rock festival tour kicks off in the Wisconsin rain with a consistent, although not supercharged, lineup.


SOMERSET, Wis. — The H.O.R.D.E. rock festival is not about being hip or being neo-hippies. It's not about having hit singles or best-selling albums. It's about "delivering the goods live," says fest founder John Popper, leader of Blues Traveler.

The fifth annual edition of H.O.R.D.E. kicked off its 40-city tour Saturday in front of 17,000 in an open field at River's Edge Park (45 miles from Minneapolis) with an eight-band lineup that is more consistent than the lineup of Lollapalooza '96 but with fewer high points.

Nothing at H.O.R.D.E. (which comes to Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion on July 27) is as galvanizing as Soundgarden or Metallica at Lollapalooza. But the festivals are as different as body-surfing and dancing the Grateful Dead dervish by yourself.

At the recent Lollapalooza stop in Des Moines, fans moshed and body-surfed to every main stage act, including bemused special guest Waylon Jennings, who helped pioneer alternative country 20 years ago. At H.O.R.D.E. on Saturday, only Lenny Kravitz, the super-charged retro funk-rocker, could awaken the latent moshers--and air-guitarists--on a grand scale.

The pattern at H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) was for sets that were compact, instrumental work occasionally long winded and performances generally effective--even in the rain. And it did rain for much of the first half of the 7 1/2-hour affair.

Equipment was covered with plastic, but few fest-goers were prepared or cared. With no place to retreat, they partied on. Many young men were shirtless and women wore bikini tops; many camped at the site, where summer people ride inner tubes down the Apple River.


Red Thunder, a spiritual-accented Native American band, tried to chase the rain away with its opening set. By the time Natalie Merchant, an extremely high-profile opener on the main stage, followed, it was pouring. She has added a saxophonist-trombonist and backup singer to bolster her modern-day Edith Piaf art-rock sound outdoors, and she danced more feverishly than usual to reach out to the throng.

Merchant playfully ad-libbed an a cappella verse of the Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain" as it was pouring. The most memorable improvisation was having Popper, who had just met Merchant backstage, join in on harmonica on Jimmy Cliff's "Sittin' in Limbo," a spontaneous moment that seemed to spark the crowd despite the rain.

Then, lightning in the horizon turned Merchant's wet feet into cold feet, and she left the stage after only 50 minutes.

"It was crazy. I was standing in a puddle," she said backstage. "And there was rain on the microphone and on the piano. I only had one more song to do."

Popper said later that his harmonica was "clogged with rainwater," but he enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to adapt his usually energetic style into Merchant's slow, infectious grooves. Then he set his sights on his next undertaking: getting H.O.R.D.E.'s hot-air balloon off the ground since the rain had stopped.

Actually, the balloon was tethered so it would rise only about 150 feet, but even that's more exciting than Lollapalooza's Ferris wheel.

The booths at H.O.R.D.E. are not dissimilar from Lollapalooza's: Rock the Vote, Greenpeace, rain rooms (in which to chill out with mist sprayers), ear piercing (but not body piercing like at Lolla), make your own T-shirt (rubbing crayons over an exotic carved wooden pattern) in the Horde o' Culture Tent, and the Greatful Shed, which sells clothes made of hemp and jewelry.

There was a distinct Dead vibe at River's Edge Park. T-shirts saluting the Dead or Jerry Garcia seemed to outnumber H.O.R.D.E. shirts. Tie-dye was everywhere. At the Deluxe Trading Post, Dead bumper stickers turned out to be the bestsellers. And Blues Traveler's closing performance had many of the qualities of a good night with the Dead. Guitarist Chan Kinchla and Popper and his harmonica love to noodle around.

When fest-goers were on the same wavelength as the musicians, the results were often wondrous. People danced joyously--by themselves, but somehow as one.

They held lit matches and lighters as Blues Traveler encored with a version of John Lennon's "Imagine," with Popper's quiet harmonica filling the solo spaces and his voice sounding more genuinely soulful than it had on any of the original material--including the hit "Run-Around"--that he had sung in the previous 85 minutes.

Blues Traveler, like the seven bands before it, had delivered the goods live.

* The H.O.R.D.E. tour's Southern California stop--with Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band, Lenny Kravitz and Rusted Root on the main stage and a second stage line-up topped by Rickie Lee Jones--takes place July 27 at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, Devore, 4 p.m. $32.50 in advance, $37.50 day of the show. (909) 886-8742.

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