In theory, the weekend celebration marking the opening of the $250 million Experience Music Project in Seattle was all about honoring rock & roll's history -- and the Pacific Northwest's rich contribution to that legacy. There were moments that rose to the occasion, such as the performances by rock legends like Patti Smith and Bo Diddley as well as underrated Seattle grunge rockers Screaming Trees; but far too often they were underscored by the heavy influence of MTV and VH1, as evidenced by the hottest ticket of the three-day party: Friday's Metallica-headlined bill that also included Dr. Dre with Eminem and Snoop Dogg, the Chili Peppers, Kid Rock and Filter.
At a general admission stadium show, the music is often secondary to the spectacle. Opening act Filter, who turned in an effective version of the infectious hit "Take a Picture," quickly learned that as its thirty-minute set became white noise to the crowd streaming in and finding their places in the bleachers and on the field. Kid Rock changed that with a powerful set that packed a wide array of styles into his allotted half-hour. That Rock got the youthful crowd fired up with his rambunctious hard rock sound is no surprise. More surprising, and very impressive, was that he held the crowd's attention just as intensely with the soft "Only God Knows Why," a track similar in tone to Bob Seger's classic "Turn the Page" (Seger and Rock are fellow Detroit natives). Rock and his band also included a bit of blues and even an occasional twang, which went over just as well as the hits "Cowboy" and "American Badass."
Simultaneous to the Memorial Stadium bill was a free show at Seattle Center's Mural Amphitheater (all shows took place at Seattle Center) by the legendary Patti Smith and her superb band. Smith, a huge Jimi Hendrix fan, got into the EMP spirit by opening with a cover of Hendrix's "Hey Joe." She followed that up with a powerful, defiant "So You Want to be a Rock & Roll Star," during which she forgot the words and then proudly declared, "I don't need the damn words." And she didn't. All she needed was the snarling inflection of her voice during "Dancing Barefoot," the sensual rhythms of "Because the Night," and the compelling message of the rocking "Glitter in Their Eyes." Smith delighted the younger fans in attendance with a slow, tortured cover of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box." She closed her nearly ninety-minute set with a rousing "People Have the Power" that reinforced her role as one of the most inspirational figures in rock.
Those who couldn't get into the VH1 show at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, headlined by Matchbox Twenty over No Doubt, Alanis Morissette, Beck and the Eurythmics, still had options. At the Flag Plaza, several local acts championed by EMP got a chance to win over new fans. Making the most of this opportunity was Seattle faves Maktub, who mix a jam band sensibility with frontman Reggie Watts' soulful R&B vocals. During their opening tune, "Just Can't Make it Without You," Watts did a long scat-style solo in which he simulated a scratching turntable. At the finale of the solo, the rock star-to-be smiled a winning grin and said, "Hey, I'm just trying to get it warmed up." Judging by the number of people in the surrounding area who ran over to check out the band, he succeeded, turning the heat up even higher throughout the great R&B groove of "Love me Like Before" and a cover of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter."
Over at Mural Amphitheater, a line-up of rock legends, including Johnnie Johnson and Bo Diddley, was packing them in. Johnson's high-energy boogie-woogie piano delighted fans, while Diddley proved that even at seventy-one, he can still deliver his patented blues/rock guitar stylings.
Sunday's main show was a Memorial Stadium roster of Seattle-area rock stalwarts, ranging from the Fastbacks to Queensryche. Heart's Ann Wilson turned in a hit-and-miss set, highlighted by a lovely version of "Dreamboat Annie," though the preachy "You're the Voice" was melodramatic and overdone. Built to Spill followed with a covers-heavy set. While the group's indie power pop was initially lost in the stadium, they did eventually turn it around and got a very positive response from the crowd.
Former Nirvana member Krist Novoselic came out to introduce the Screaming Trees, saying, "This band helped put Seattle on the map." While that may be true, the group has become somewhat of an afterthought to the early Nineties Seattle legacy. On Sunday, however, they stormed back into fans' consciousness with a stunning hour-long performance that rarely let up in its intensity. The group was tight as hell musically, with guitars and drums roaring through the entire stadium. The instrumentation on the psychedelic-tinged rockers was matched by frontman Mark Lanegan, whose commanding vocals bordered on revelatory to those who'd forgotten about the raw power of his voice. Lanegan relied exclusively on his vocals to keep the audience enraptured, as he rarely opened his eyes while singing in an almost trance-like state.
Friday's Memorial Stadium concert was taped to air on MTV this week. It's too bad, though, that the bands who get that valuable airtime are determined by sales, not by worthiness. Because Screaming Trees, among others, could use the exposure a lot more than Filter or the Chili Peppers, and they earned it.