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Live Report: Tibetan Freedom Concert

RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C., June 13 & 14, 1998

If the vibrant, nacho-devouring leaders of tomorrow are truly
concerned about someday freeing Tibet from Chinese military
oppression, they might be better off actually listening to the
leaders of today instead of endlessly pelting one another with
spring water bottles.

Of course, that was just one — and certainly the grumpiest —
of the observations culled at the ultimately disappointing Tibetan
Freedom Concert, the much-hyped two-day event that saw its first
show shortened by wrath-of-God lightning — several audience
members were struck and critically injured — and the bulk of its
second show hampered by frustrating equipment glitches. But the
most positive aspect of the event was also its most important: More
than 120,000 tickets — not to mention mountains of T-shirts,
programs, and jewelry — were sold to benefit the Milarepa Fund,
which promotes international nonviolence and is involved with
ending China’s fifty-year occupation of Tibet.

Just hours before Saturday’s start, the nation’s capital was
being pounded by torrential downpours. Weather reports were grim,
yet when Live kicked-off the show, the sky was a cloudless blue and
a naked sun boldly baked the masses. Bald and bounding Ed Kowalcyzk
led his band through a seamless thirty-minute set — “I Alone” and
“Selling the Drama” were perfect for getting the crowd jumping —
and finalized matters with a touching (and overtly foreshadowing)
“Lightning Crashes.”

After a brief, translated speech by Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan
monk who was tortured by Chinese soldiers for more than thirty
years, KRS-One and his crew of wiry, double-jointed breakdancers
exploded onstage to the sounds of “The Real Hip-Hop” and worked
their call-and-response revival. KRS-One would prove to be one of
the most inventive and satisfying of the weekend’s performers, with
fellow hip-hop acts Wyclef Jean and A Tribe Called Quest also
swiping a share of the limelight. (The reason for their success was
obvious: They cared just as much about entertaining ticketholders
as educating them — an important tip to remember when playing for
restless, teenage crowds.)

Two massive stages were set up at RFK, and when KRS-One left as
boldly as he entered, the sea of fans occupying the vast infield
shifted like prodded cattle when the Dave Matthews Band showed up
stage left. After working through “Don’t Drink the Water,” “Too
Much,” and DMB devotees’ anthem “Tripping Billies,” Matthews
chirped about “an old Bob Dylan song.” As the band hopped into an
angry, jam-oriented “All Along the Watchtower” — lanky violinist
Boyd Tinsley obviously pissing off someone in the heavens with his
unique plucking — the skies darkened to a charcoal grey.

By the time Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters were funking up
the stage (as part of the group’s twenty-fifth anniversary
reunion), a fat rain was falling. Just as Hancock introduced
special guest Guru (from Gang Starr) for some free-form jazzhop, a
bolt of lightning slammed into the crowd. Herbie & Co. were
quickly ushered from the stage, ambulances searching for wounded
weaved through the infield, and folks in the stands for some reason
decided it was time to do “the wave.” After an hour of no official
announcements and further surreal audience behavior — come on,
guys, shirtless coed rugby? — the calm voice of Michael Stipe
announced the show’s cancellation. “Just remember that this is a
benefit, and we love you,” Stipe said to a shower of boos and water
bottles.

(Brief intermission: The weekend’s best music was found not at
RFK, but a few blocks away at the 9:30 Club. On Friday night, the
Red Hot Chili Peppers joined Money Mark and the Jungle Brothers for
a surprise set, and on Saturday night, just past midnight, Michael
Stipe — who recited lovely a cappella versions of Bread’s
“Everything I Own” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” — Pulp and
Radiohead played for a couple of hours.)

So Sunday had to be better, right? No rain, no lightning, no
problem? The Tibetan Freedom Concert, so wonderful in previous host
cities San Francisco and New York, would be saved, correct? Yes and
no.

With the exception of just a few performances, the lead
microphone on both stages was cutting out, causing confusion in an
already impatient mob. (The Wallflowers did manage to make it
through their set unscathed, yet most of their songs sounded as
stale as “One Headlight.”)

Sean Lennon, Pulp and Sonic Youth received very little audience
response during their muffled sets, and it wasn’t until Radiohead
showed up, originally scheduled for Saturday, that the fans started
enjoying themselves. Lead singer Thom Yorke was masterful, offering
chilling takes on “Karma Police,” “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and an
extended (reportedly impromptu) “Creep,” a song stricken from
recent performances. Stipe joined the band to sing lead on “Lucky,”
perfectly capturing the spirit of such a hot-ticket event.

Wyclef Jean earned the award for the weekend’s best entertainer,
mixing three back-flips, a half-rap, half-rock version of “Blue
Suede Shoes,” and some Jimi Hendrix showmanship (he played guitar
behind his back) with hits from his debut album. Blues Traveler
reworked “Imagine,” complete with John Popper’s puckish harmonica,
and the Wallflowers’ only redeeming moment was a messy yet
energetic cover of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Luscious
Jackson, when you could actually hear them, provided a “Naked Eye”
take with a jungle backbeat.

R.E.M.’s set was destroyed by malfunction, and only “Losing My
Religion” and “Man on the Moon” were intelligible (although the
sight of Stipe in a sheer wraparound skirt was strangely
diverting). The Beastie Boys, the perennial hosts of the Tibetan
Freedom series, were loud and hyped-up, but messy. Their saving
grace? Ending with a fun, nasty “Sabotage” after a performance
diluted by bad sound and some instrumental punkfunk.

Much of the crowd, either tired from heaving projectiles or
nauseous from warmed-over Cheez Whiz, filtered out of the stadium
before the weekend’s final act Pearl Jam showed. Their moments came
early, with a surly Eddie Vedder growling out “Corduroy,” “Even
Flow,” “Wishlist” and “Better Man” before giving up the stage for
Drepung-Loseling monks and, as a mildly enjoyable surprise, the Red
Hot Chili Peppers for a short, but energized group-hug goodbye.

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