Last year's Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco may have boasted a higher-octane lineup, with the Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the bill, but what Saturday and Sunday's concerts lacked in star power, they more than made up in defiant eclecticism. As artists including Rancid, Sonic Youth and Ben Harper took to the stage to fight for Tibet's right to freedom, some of the most prominent names in alternative rock took decidedly low-key approaches to their sets.
Jokingly explaining that the rest of his band "was caught in traffic," Oasis' guitarist Noel Gallagher was the first major act to offer an understated take on his music in a Saturday afternoon performance. After nodding in approval to the crowd's cheers for "Wonderwall" and bristling through a hymnal "Don't Look Back in Anger," an in-pitch Gallagher stole back the song U2 stole back from Charles Manson with a dead-on reading of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter."
On Sunday morning, Pearl Jammers Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready gave the weekend its only major surprise appearance, running through restrained versions of "Corduroy," "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Rockin' in the Free World" in a 15-minute set for a handful of lucky, early bird festival-goers.
But most informal of all was the Sunday afternoon set by Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of R.E.M., who performed a few songs from "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" before inciting the show's sole all-star jam. Joined onstage by McCready, Patti Smith bassist Tony Shanahan and Beastie Boy Mike D on drums, the assemblage blasted through a raucous cover of Suicide's "Ghost Rider" that segued into "The Passenger" by Iggy Pop.
Performances by U2 and Alanis Morissette also offered insights into the minds of multi-platinum artists heading in different directions. A few eyebrows were raised by U2's solid but unspectacular set, which found the band stripped of its larger-than-life "PopMart" persona and concentrating on songs instead of image. In contrast, Morissette's melodically self-assured acoustic performance of old and new material was surprisingly effective, as her genuine candor seemed to better engage the audience.
Despite such stripped-down superstars, it was a rare performance by '70s punk-poet Patti Smith that galvanized the two-day benefit. Smith howled through the festival's only really thematic set, which ranged from "People Have the Power" to "1959," a song she co-wrote about China's violent suppression of a demonstration in Tibet. After eulogizing Jeff Buckley with "Beneath the Southern Cross," Smith turned her vitriol on the powers behind the scenes. "It disturbs me that the people who paid money are behind barricades," Smith said, chastising the concert's organizers. "This is not the people who put up the barricades' rock & roll. This isn't MTV's fuckin' rock & roll. This is your rock & roll. This is about freedom," Smith cried before launching into a transcendent "Rock n Roll Nigger."
Though last year's concert was almost exclusively American, British rock had a significant presence this year, with appearances from Gallagher, Blur and Radiohead. The latter won this Battle of the Brit-bands with an impassioned set that led many in the audience to wonder who they were watching. Blur also got the masses bouncing, rolling, and even moshing, and frontman Damon Albarn would have been happy to know his band aptly evoked Pavement's discordant performance from earlier Sunday.
Sets by Taj Mahal and Ben Harper sifted through the past and future of the blues. Harper, who had the unenviable task of opening the two-day event, turned in an impressive set of Jamaican-flavored jerk rock and Ry Cooder licks -- courtesy of Harper's revved-up Weissenborn. Blues legend Taj Mahal took a more traditional approach with a few R&B classics, including "She Caught the Katy," on which he was accompanied by Blues Traveler's John Popper on harmonica.
But with the good, there also came the bad and the ugly. Bjork's listless attempt at romantic techno ground Sunday's proceedings to a halt, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's sonic boom was a little out-of-place removed from the cramped confines of the bars and clubs the band typically plays. Porno for Pyros stumbled through a set that could best be described as near-disastrous, as even the group's entourage of exotic dancers seemed slightly embarrassed by the group's antics.
Hip-hop acts didn't fare so well either. De La Soul canceled, Biz Markie's appearance was half-hearted at best, and A Tribe Called Quest's threats against the audience to help work to free Tibet were painfully incongruent at a concert that emphasized non-violent resistance. But KRS-One did an admirable job of retaining an audience that started for the turnstiles after a Foo Fighters performance marred by technical trouble. Appealing to the hippie mentality that lies at the heart of alternative music, the rapper's set emphasized what he called "a hip-hop culture," complete with "rhymin', breakin', MC-in' and philosophisin'."
Closing the show, the Beastie Boys had the sold-out second-day crowd kicking up a literal duststorm. Splitting their hits-filled show between rapping over pre-recorded mixes ("Sure Shot" "Root Down") and accompanying themselves with their own instruments ("Sabotage"), the Beasties, adorned in red jumpsuits, used their beats to keep the crowd moving and their freestyle rhyming to keep it thinking. And the Boys were at their most irreverent with the concert's final number, a hardcore detonation of Billy Joel's "Big Shot."
The effect of benefits like this can be difficult to gauge, as the money raised and petitions signed hardly compensate for the violence endured and the lives lost by the Tibetan people. But Adam Yauch and the Milarepa Fund he helped co-found understand that while consciousness raising as a social tool makes for some spirited music, the almighty dollar.