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Heart of Lollapalooza Is With Groups on the Fringes


Lollapalooza was born with ideals, but five years later, it's gotten over it. Lollapalooza '96 was just another rock 'n' roll star trek, committed to going nowhere boldly, but to the bank, surely.

Founder Perry Farrell's early talk of Lollapalooza as a marketplace for ideas and a common gathering ground for varied musical viewpoints has been confirmed as so much starry-eyed dreaming. Lollapalooza '96, with which Farrell is not associated, was just another Big Rock Show--no more, no less--and it followed the imperatives of all big shows: the biggest star bang to generate the biggest box office buck.

Heavy metal headliner Metallica upheld its end of the bargain Saturday as the tour began its two-day final stop at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. It filled the seats--along with Soundgarden, a strong, second-billed hard rock compatriot--and served up a performance that was state of the loud art.

The satellite stages, the one enduring remnant from Lollapalooza's idealistic infancy, afforded the most forward-looking and hopeful developments.

The best bands there--Soul Coughing, Satchel, Varnaline and Long Fin Killie--couldn't have been more unlike the generally hard-rocking main stage fare, which also included Rancid, the Ramones, Devo and Screaming Trees.

Playing to perhaps 200 fans, New York's Soul Coughing translated the strength of its new album, "Irresistible Bliss," with aplomb. The whole pastiche of elements came through with clarity and immediacy: crisp funk grooves and hip-hop catch-phrase-making of the highest order, strong alterna-rock hooks and a rich array of keyboard samples that were not decorations but an integral part of the musical substance.

Satchel has Seattle grunge connections--front man Shawn Smith also sings in the Pearl Jam offshoot, Brad--but its inspiration lay in Southern R&B. Smith's thin, fragile voice and balky falsetto couldn't match such apparent influences as Free and Leon Russell, but the simple grace of Satchel's melodies and the emotional directness of its idealistic lyrics were immediately winning. Some throaty, '90s-style guitar distortion added an up-to-date element.

With echoes of Wilco, Neil Young and Television, New York City's Varnaline was able to project the deep inwardness of its songs with garage-rocking impact. Long Fin Killie impressed, too, as Luke Sutherland's high, airy vocals rode atop a compulsive, angular, rhythmically thrusting attack that called to mind prog-rockers like King Crimson and Gentle Giant.

The second stage had its noise-bringers, too. The Melvins, forefathers of Seattle grunge, operated under the notion that no riff can be too heavy, no beat too pounding, no feedback onslaught too abrasive. It worked for a while, then grew as indulgent as Iron Butterfly. The Cows, from Minneapolis, spent most of their show horsing around with salacious theatrics.

The Detroit band Sponge drew a big, moshing crowd, but all it had to offer was a facility with catchy hooks to go with its derivative mix of mainstream alternative styles and silvery-suited singer Vinnie Dombroski's empty glam-rocker gestures.

Watching Soundgarden pound through a high-impact set, one wondered why as gifted a singer as Chris Cornell hasn't tried more to step out of the shadow of his big influence, Robert Plant. But on peaks like "Outshined," all that mattered was the urgency Soundgarden brought to the deep, deep blues played on a big, big scale.

Facing an audience that he couldn't count on to be entirely on Metallica's side, front man James Hetfield declared with amiable defiance that "we like to play heavy music." By that point, early in a 100-minute closing set, the scalp massage that Lars Ulrich's bass drums and Jason Newsted's barrage of bass had applied made the comment superfluous.

The band showed its true mettle down the home stretch, when it turned to more varied and melodic recent material that set aside its fundamental pounding wrath to make sonic space for Kirk Hammett's spooky, surf-noir reverb guitar on "Until It Sleeps," Hetfield's proud delight in the freedom of the road on "Wherever I May Roam" and the tenderness of the graceful "Nothing Else Matters."

Celebrating Hetfield's birthday, Metallica encored with a guest vocal appearance by Motorhead's singer, Lemmy, an icon to lovers of intelligent, stripped-down metal, followed by a cream-pie assault on the birthday boy. Big doings to end a Big Rock Show.

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