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H.O.R.D.E. Cuts a Wider Groove

Pop music: Dynamic sets by Lenny Kravitz, the Dave Matthews Band and, especially, Rickie Lee Jones, give the alterna-festival a rush of new energy.

July 29, 1996|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't expect the H.O.R.D.E. festival to carry the groove-rock torch forever. Let the unwashed masses of neo-hippies take their wooden ships elsewhere, if need be. If Saturday's tour stop at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion can be believed: H.O.R.D.E. is branching out.

Not that tour founders Blues Traveler seemed particularly anxious on Saturday to stretch beyond their blues-rock comfort zone. But the 6-year-old festival, begun as a groovy alternative to Lollapalooza, has grown to include the dynamic retro-rock of Lenny Kravitz, a sharper Dave Matthews Band, and, most memorably, the jazz-rock-country-grunge(!) of Rickie Lee Jones.

Some of the new energy came from acts on the festival's second stage, from the hard funk of Super 8 to the countryfied noodlings of Medeski, Martin & Wood. And veteran troubadour Taj Mahal played joyous, organic folk-blues with infinite ease and warmth on H.O.R.D.E.'s "workshop" stage.

Looking more like an unlikely grunge godmother--in her T-shirt and baggy fatigues--than a jazz-pop chanteuse, Jones sang in a voice as subversively sweet and knowing as ever, but embarked on musical tangents even some of her most ardent fans couldn't have expected.

Ignoring her best-known material, the singer led her four-man band through a too-brief, 30-minute set on H.O.R.D.E.'s second stage that included Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and a handful of edgy new songs.

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At times, Jones shared more with the likes of recent Patti Smith and Courtney Love than with anything on her recent albums. That was most dramatically clear as she closed her set with a song injected with some jazzy, beatnik finesse, singing, "I dreamed that black churches were burning / they called a congressional commission, but nobody called the fire department."

The spectacle of Jones singing with biting humor and self-deprecation on society's failures and the contradictions of pop stardom and personal responsibility--plus the presence of three little girls playing percussion--somehow echoed the formidable new mother figure of Smith. That it was delivered so casually only rendered it more powerful. Not angry, just wise.

Lenny Kravitz remains the dedicated follower of '70s fashion, but with enough contemporary energy to keep things in motion. If that wasn't always enough to connect emotionally on Saturday, fans were still moved to sing along to the aching ballad, "Can't Get You Off My Mind."

Long criticized for merely aping the finest riffs and moves from the rock 'n' soul canon, Kravitz is at least playing music that fits him well.

A junior icon working hard toward full rock 'n' roll legend status, Kravitz is master of the grand, rock-star gesture, and was fully in his element in front of the H.O.R.D.E. thousands. As he took a messianic jog through the crowd in his dreads and bell-bottoms during the euphoric "Let Love Rule," Kravitz showed that even if he hasn't yet found his own unique vision, he already shares much with his larger-than-life heroes.

The Dave Matthews Band offered more punch in its eclectic mixture at Blockbuster than it managed at the Palladium last year. Though offering some of the most complex and interesting arrangements of the day, Matthews and company could also focus on a tighter musical groove in the rumbling funk of their hit "Too Much."

Dressed in baggy shorts and sneakers, singer-guitarist Matthews led the quintet through clever twists of jazzy R&B and punched-up folk rhythms, plucked by violinist Boyd Tinsley just as a H.O.R.D.E. hot air balloon floated above the cheap seats.

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