Ringing in the first day of the second annual Tibetan Freedom Concert, Jon Spencer slithered across the stage in front of a wailing theremin. “If there’s anyone here who wants to get with it, get involved and free Tibet, I want you to hit me!” he howled over the gutbucket blare of his band, the Blues Explosion, testifying like James Brown on crystal meth.
A half-hour earlier on the same stage, a passel of Tibetan monks recited a Buddhist prayer to bless the concert area. The cultural paradox of the Blues Explosion’s sonic violence coexisting with the monks’ ancient pacifist traditions – not to mention an Über-hipster ironist like Spencer preaching social responsibility – proved to be the weekend’s norm. By that reasoning, it made perfect sense for a festival arranged by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch to draw attention to the Chinese government’s genocidal oppression of Tibet.
The two-day concert, which benefited the Milarepa Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to freeing Tibet that was co-founded by Yauch and executive director Erin Potts, alternated 27 acts with little pause across two stages at New York’s Downing Stadium. In the process, the organizers artfully mixed alt-rock royalty (U2, the Beastie Boys, Alanis Morissette and Foo Fighters), hip-hop stars (A Tribe Called Quest), native Tibetan musicians and wonderfully esoteric acts like dub-reggae master Lee “Scratch” Perry. Members of Oasis and R.E.M. also performed, and even Pearl Jam‘s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready overcame their aversion to Ticketmaster – the seat peddlers for the occasion – to put in a surprise set.
At times, the all-star lineup threatened to overshadow the consciousness-raising aspects of the event. As a Tibetan speaker described atrocities that he had experienced, one ignorant punter blurted out, “Why does he have to speak in that language?” The concert also got hit by the drought affecting nearly all of this summer’s music festivals: While Sunday’s show sold out, more than 8,000 tickets went unsold on Saturday, despite the presence of U2, whose PopMart Tour has been playing venues nearly double the size of the 27,500-person-capacity Downing Stadium. As a result, 1997’s edition of the show attracted less than half of the 100,000 who attended last year’s event, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
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Still, this year’s model worked hard to raise awareness of China’s human rights crimes against the Tibetans, 1.2 million of whom have been killed since 1950. Indeed, the festival’s political message infused every detail of the festival. One couldn’t walk 10 feet without seeing a volunteer bearing a petition to sign (the first day even found a bearded Vedder collecting signatures from mosh-pit hoi polloi). The concerts were alcohol-free, and, when possible, vendors with ties to the United States-China Business Council were not used (that includes Coca-Cola – as a result, RC Cola became the festival’s “official” caffeinated beverage).
Accordingly, the event quickly became a lightning rod for a variety of causes. During U2’s set, Bono called out onstage for “Irish human rights”; A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip spent the weekend drawing attention to human-rights abuses in Kashmir, a region perched between Pakistan and India; and a placard calling to Riot for rent control popped up in the mosh pit. The focus quickly returned to Tibet, though, whenever Palden Gyatso, a Buddhist monk imprisoned by the Chinese government for 33 years, hit the stage. It was hard not to be moved as Gyatso, speaking through an interpreter, recalled his interrogators’ torture techniques.
And, of course, there was the music, which found the British Invasion faring especially well. Early on Saturday, Radiohead turned in a powerful, arena-ready set that included songs from their new album, OK Computer. The next day, Blur showed that Brit pop can hit as hard as any Yank rock, raucously climaxing with “Song 2,” which inspired mass crowd surfing and “woo-hoo” sing-alongs. Of the Americans, Porno for Pyros’ Saturday spot stood out: Littering the stage with garlands of flowers, Perry Farrell oozed pagan mysticism, transfixing the crowd as he undulated like a shaman to swirling epics like “Black Girlfriend.”
The best music of the weekend, however, came from Saturday’s hip-hop triple shot. One-third of the way through the overcast afternoon, A Tribe Called Quest got the crowd really moving for the first time: As they blended socially conscious freestyles with syncopated dance steps, the inveterate showmen got nearly every fist in the air by the set’s end. Later, though, KRS-One nearly snatched Tribe’s crown, rocking the stage with furious energy on rap classics like “South Bronx.” When he yelled out, “If you want to see democracy in Tibet, make some noise!” he made the quest for world peace seem like nothing but a party. It took Biz Markie to end the day with a hilarious yet appropriate Tibet-Woodstock connection: Bursting onstage in an Afro wig with a Day-Glo guitar, he human-beat-boxed a marble-mouthed approximation of Jimi Hendrix‘s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Other artists took the opportunity to display new material in a special context. Late on Sunday afternoon, Alanis Morissette sat barefoot, clutching an acoustic guitar to try out new Joni Mitchell-style songs like “King of Intimidation” and proved that her soaring voice can easily command large festival spaces. Morissette was a hard act to follow, but Björk – seemingly the festival’s most beloved performer, judging from the mass cheers that followed her entrance – managed admirably. Like Morissette, Björk unveiled some new cuts during an evocative set of dance grooves backed by an eight-piece string section. Despite the unfamiliarity of the songs, the crowd became audibly distraught at the lack of an encore, lustily chanting “Björk!” after she left the stage.
Many of Saturday’s highly anticipated performances, however, fell short of expectations. U2’s lethargic five-song set was low on recognizable hits, causing the crowd to break into cries of “Bullshit!” as the band walked offstage. Patti Smith‘s spot was hampered by tantrums against photographers and MTV (which resulted in another spontaneous audience chant: “Fuck Kurt Loder!”). Her feral intensity on the set’s highlight, the classic anti-authority anthem “Rock & Roll Nigger,” redeemed any lost momentum when Smith yelled out, “The Dalai Lama is a nigger!” It was a moment of rock & roll transcendence. Foo Fighters followed up, but energetic stage antics couldn’t cut through the worst sound mix of the weekend. Despite the setback, pumping crowd pleasers like “Monkey Wrench” still inspired the event’s most manic crowd surfing.
The next day, the duo of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Michael Stipe also failed to catch fire – that is, until Vedder and McCready joined them onstage for a cover of Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Long Road.” The new blood, along with Patti Smith bassist Tony Shanahan and Beastie Mike D on drums, tore through covers like Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” and Iggy Pop‘s “The Passenger,” to which Stipe added an aggressive sexual menace sorely lacking in the R.E.M. songs.
The climax the weekend had been building to occurred when the Beastie Boys – Day 2’s final act – came on, causing a rush of sweaty bodies to the left stage. Turning in a triumphantly funky set, the Beasties played fast and loose, mixing up “Planet Rock” beats with old-school jams like “Paul Revere” and getting the entire crowd to sing along on the bass-heavy “Sabotage.” Best of all, though, were the bizarre hardcore covers of the Ramones‘ “53rd and 3rd” and the finale, Billy Joel‘s “Big Shot,” which provided a perfectly irreverent end to the event’s idiosyncratic blend of the sacred and profane.
The concert’s message of liberation actually hit home most powerfully during Rancid’s blistering pre-Beasties set, when they covered the Jimmy Cliff reggae classic “The Harder They Come.” “I’d rather be a free man in my grave,” singer and guitarist Lars Frederiksen ranted with punk fury, “than living as a puppet or a slave.”
This story is from the August 7th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.