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.