Big trouble in Little Tibet

Gavin McNett reports from the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert

Published June 17, 1998 12:51PM (EDT)

There was a moment early Sunday when I found the crucial tableau, the
event-in-miniature that would define Tibet '98. The main force of
spectators was just pulling into the parking lot when some jokermobile
started blasting "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at stun volume. A couple of horns went off,
and kids leaned out of their car windows, laughing and flashing peace signs.
"Woo!" the tableau would've been inscribed. "It's a gas, gas, gas!"

I laughed, despite a twinge of pique at the nerve of it all -- 'cause
Saturday was not a gas, nor, for that matter, was it much like the canned
rock 'n' roll tragedy that appeared on the news. The facts as reported, in
case you haven't already heard, are like this: A storm swept through the
Washington, D.C., area on Saturday afternoon, uprooting trees and knocking
down power lines. At the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert in RFK
Stadium, during a set by Herbie Hancock, lightning struck the crowd,
throwing a spectator 20 feet in the air and injuring a total of 11
concertgoers -- four critically. The concert was then canceled and the
audience removed from the arena, with no word as to whether the next day's
tickets would be honored.

So after all that, it was great to see high spirits reigning once again
on Sunday,
which came off beautifully, with ace performances by a huge spread of
bands. Most of
the canceled sets from Saturday were shoehorned in somehow, and the
organizational side of things went even more smoothly than before. Let God
try to kill Herbie Hancock some other day. We'll have a blast all on our

But we're getting ahead of the story. Day One: Big trouble in Little Tibet.

The day started off with a likable set of alt-rock by Money Mark and a
stageburner by Mutabaruka. 'Baruka has a Kingston Prophet/Dub poet thing
going, with
his Ethiopian cape and ankh-shaped microphone. The band absolutely killed, with
stop-on-a-dime style vamps and a ceaseless procession of showoff maneuvers,
like the old play-with-your-teeth trick. It's amazing how tight and
polychromatic any good reggae unit will be, compared with even the best
rock bands.

Take Live, for instance. After 'Baruka basically blew up the stage behind
him, they came out in a great, tidal whoosh of guitars and bluster. It
sounded like pavement -- not the band; I mean the flat, hard grayish
stuff -- and the crowd made a perceptible start, like, "What's this terrible
noise?" By the second song, "I Alone Love You," Live had found their
footing, and the crowd was with them. But they're on the cusp of becoming a
nostalgia act: The excitement they generated was of the reverent sort, not
the gee-whiz variety that Mutabaruka managed to whip up.

Chaksam-Pa, a trad-Tibetan act, came out after them. The audience here was
gamer than last year. Then a crowd-scan would've yielded about a
thousand dudes mocking the singer or aping the masked dancers, but this time
there was peace in the arena -- and even a good bit of applause. Still,
Chaksam-Pa -- or any unfamiliar, and therefore demanding, sort of music -- can
be testy arena fare. The sound system this weekend was blurry and honky
throughout much of the stadium, to the point where it was often difficult to
know what you were hearing unless you could anticipate the changes (Sonic
Youth's set would suffer because of that as well). It was great, once again,
to see Chaksam-Pa sharing a bill with big-time rock acts, but you generally
couldn't tell what they were up to. It must've just come off as a bunch of
weird, nonsensical foreign mummery to the white ball-cap crowd, replete with
shrill tonalities and voodoo dancing. Which is precisely the reason they
should hear authentic music in the first place -- to get them to understand
that it's real and interesting, and not just a multi-culti spectacle of the

Dave Matthews performed his spectacle of the familiar, whipping the
crowd into a frenzy. It's not that Dave isn't good at what he does: He's got
a great, tight band and a sort of blankish, glowering charisma that lends
him considerable appeal. But why is he such a god-popular live act? I asked
the guy standing next to me, and he said, "Dave's just ... The best sort of
thing of the kind of thing he is, right now. Since Jerry's gone, I mean."
Which I guess would mean that he's .38 Special in a world starved for
Skynyrd. Fair 'nuff. They ended with the traditional closer, "All Along the
Watchtower," and the gingery-looking guitarist reeled off a smoldering solo.
Seemed like it would've been great in a small club.

I forgot KRS-One, who came between Dave and Chaksam-Pa. He blew up the stage
as well, with his old-school Bronx hip-hop revue. Hard beats, crazed
break dancing and KRS-the-peacemaker presiding over the whole head-spinning
carnival. It was the kind of performance that just leaves you gaping. "Hell,
yeah," I thought. "I forgot: Hip-hop rules!" KRS reeled off a long quote
from the Dalai Lama and boomed at the crowd, "Peace and Respect -- that's
all hip-hop has to say to you today. Everything else is just that street
shit." Behind him, a guy in a jumpsuit was spinning like a dervish with
another guy splayed out on top of his head. For chrissakes, what are people
doing buying Puff Daddy CDs while this giant walks the earth?

After KRS and Dave, word had filtered out that Patti Smith had
canceled. At that
point I decided to skip Herbie Hancock and go check out the tent bazaar

- - - - - - - - - -

About 20 minutes later, winds and showers started whipping across the
grounds, and a thunderous crash came from somewhere high in the stadium.
"Uh-oh, lightning," I thought. "And Herbie is next to all the electrical
equipment." But the video monitors outside showed him still playing away.
A while later, I nudged back into the media area. The festival staff was
dashing around with walkie-talkies, and a mild, tentative sort of chaos had
taken hold of the compound. "Everybody out! The press has to move!" A woman
ordered. "We don't want to be held responsible if this tent
goes!" Goes? What? "If anybody's hurt, we don't want to be responsible!"
she explained. "Everybody must go to Gate B!"

There I got the story from an MTV producer. "A guy was struck by
lightning up in
the stands," he said. "A girl freaked out, and the whole crowd turned around
and watched while Hancock kept playing. They brought an ambulance in through
the crowd. It was weird: Some of the people took advantage and pushed their
way up front -- like all right!" Then he asked me how he could upgrade his
shitty media credentials. "Do you know where I could score a photo pass or

"Try dating a publicist."

After scurrying around for a while, I ended up backstage. It was panic
back there. A phalanx of policemen was ejecting VIPs from the stage, and a
gang of security guards came bursting out of the loading area. One shouted,
"They're robbing the till!"
I tailed the guards back up to the VIP compound and watched as they hauled
off a mob of spectators who'd crashed the gate and were looting the
catering trucks.

Nevertheless, Milarepa issued a press release the next day saying the
concert had been evacuated smoothly and that no incidents had occurred.
Not so. But if anybody out there really did rip off money from the
concert, that lightning bolt was rightfully yours -- and I hope another one
gets you soon. If you just ripped off food from the VIP area, remember what
they say about times of crisis: When order fails, as it did on Saturday,
and people are faced with that crucial existential moment of choice between
dignity and swinishness, it becomes plain how things really stand and who
falls on which side of the divide.

Sunday, again, came off beautifully. Buffalo Daughter and Sean Lennon
opened, each putting in pretty good, though unspectacular, sets. Pulp upped
the ante a bit, with Jarvis Cocker poncing around like the last of the
playboys. And Blues Traveler, the Wallflowers, the Beasties and on and on.

Radiohead is in serious ascendancy. Where last year they were a scrappy
Britpop band for the import crowd, this time they're nearly fledged rock
gods. Tight, tight set, as usual. The "OK Computer" cuts got huge roars, and
Michael Stipe came on to sing "The Bends," just to drive home the point a little
more. They ended with "Creep," which is sort of a concession to American
tastes. But it was obvious, as it wasn't last time, that they don't need to
ride on the song in America anymore.

R.E.M.'s set showed Stipe coming on in an attractive sweater-and-skirt
ensemble, with Johnny Ray earpiece still in effect. They opened with a
bells-and-beatbox piece, tore through some hits ... and there's Radiohead's
Thom Yorke, taking on some of Stipe's vocals. He does a good Stipe, in fact. The set
ended with "Man on the Moon," which can seem insipid on record, but is
somehow ungodly rousing in concert.

So, strangely, was Pearl Jam, who are riding their second wind farther than
anybody would've thought even a few months ago. They opened with "Corduroy" and worked into the newer material, with
the crowd exploding for each new song. But there were dissenters. The
priceless Eddie Vedder moment of the evening came when he admonished a couple of
water-bottle throwers with the old "You know who you are" rap. "But," he
said, "the rest of y'all have been really good." Then WHOP! He gets it
right in the
face with a projectile. An audible "Oof!" came thundering from the speakers,
and Pearl Jam had once again earned their place at the forefront of rock.
Priceless Vedder Quote: Called President Clinton a cunt. Nice
language, Ed.

But the best part of the festival came after Pearl Jam, the headliners,
had wrapped it up and said goodnight. Their equipment was still humming on
the stage and the field was emptying when the Red Hot Chili Peppers bounded on and
tore into "Give It Away." The crowd, caught totally off-guard, came
storming back and went mad to a three-song mini-set. The Peppers had
borrowed stage time (and equipment) from Pearl
Jam -- it was a great surprise gift for the audience, who'd had to deal
with a lot on the previous day. For those of you who sank to the occasion,
like Eddie said, you know who you are. For everyone else, I've kept off
politics so far, but here's a link to the Milarepa Fund's Web site. Please go there
and check it out right now. See what the news is.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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