Live Report: Tibetan Freedom Concert - Rolling Stone
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Live Report: Tibetan Freedom Concert

Downing Stadium, New York, June 7-8, 1997

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.

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