Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Maybe $10 Is Too High for the Beach

The rock event called the Festival of Hope, which took place at Roosevelt Raceway last Saturday and Sunday, was at least as pleasant as a weekend at the beach. It was also somewhat more exciting and somewhat more expensive. Which sounds like a left-handed putdown and isn't. The festival was fun, and I hope I can attend again next year. We gathered in little enclaves of chairs and blankets, met new friends we may or may not meet again, and participated in a large common experience. We played frisbee, we made out, we got high, we feasted on all manner of junk, and every once in a while we were immersed in something as thrilling as the briskest surf.

I belabor the metaphor because it is apt. The Festival of Hope was a lot of things, most of them good, but because it took place in Nassau County, it was not a rock festival--it felt more like . . . an outing. This distinction is not about those nasty old urban (or suburban) vibes. Sure, it was a small bummer to see all the blankets and sleeping bags spread over an expanse of asphalt when the green grass of the infield was on the other side of a brand-new 12-foot cyclone fence the Raceway had insisted that the festival construct. It was a bummer to observe the Nassau County Police Department (also at the behest of the Raceway) march in when the fence came down during Jefferson Airplane's climactic first-day set. But festivals thrive on adversity--some have even survived an almost total lack of music. The Festival of Hope had nothing to thrive or even survive about. It was just there, all by its unpretentious self. For, when the music was over, everybody went home. Forget the smattering of out-of-town campers, forget the locals who would have liked to crawl into their sleeping bags between programs--this was a gathering of commuters. Commuters, we know, simply don't form fertile communities, and a successful rock festival is about community, in all its exuberance and garbage. So it wasn't a rock festival, not really. Yet it wasn't just a concert, either, not even in the festive post-Woodstock sense of an enormous audience joined in loose fellowship for an evening of music. The day was too long, and the ecstatic release that is the aim of almost all rock events had to be achieved gradually, organically.

Musically, the festival was superb, especially on Saturday. James Brown and Chuck Berry were both below their incomparable best, probably because they went on first and didn't get anything like their fair share of feedback. Elephant's Memory lived up to its power-boogieing reputation and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, veering crazily to the far sides of rockabilly--all the way from pseudo-trucking songs to "Sea Cruise"--provided one of their notorious and literally off-beat triumphs. The Airplane seems finally to have coalesced around Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, with all the newcomers--guitarist David Freiberg, fiddler Papa John Creach, and drummer Johnny Barbata--locked into the most cerebral, anti-funk hard-rock format this side of Jethro Tull.

But the most gratifying revelation was provided by the return of Stephen Stills from artistic limbo. The double album that Stills recorded with his new group, Manassas, is mostly filler, but in concert he and Chris Hillman provide a complete reinterpretation of the Los Angeles rock tradition to which they are so central, setting great songs from the Byrds and the Burritos and the Springfield and Stills' more recent ventures into a perfectly conceived multi-percussive contest. Stills seems to have outgrown some of his old arrogance. He even danced a little for the people--a significant trend--and it was fitting for him to join the Airplane on their final encore. He belongs in the best company once again.

Sunday wasn't as good. While some marveled and other slept, I did the crosswords through Billy Preston, and solutions kept coming to me during Bo Diddley's disappointing set. But the point of the outing was that there was no need to attend everything. Lighthouse has evolved from the annoying contrivance of their early arrangements into jazz-rock that manages to be simultaneously bland and arty, but so what? More crosswords. On the other hand, when the Shirelles came on I could move through the relaxed crowd for a closer look at Shirley Alston, who was once the finest female singer in the music business, and dance for old times sake. That was the way it went. Ike and Tina Turner would have been better spotlighted in the dark, but they got everyone going anyway. Dr. Hook was a funny surprise, Sha Na Na a not-so-funny surprise, and Sly and the Family Stone gave the best set I've ever seen them offer.

Of course, this catalog of judgments and prejudices is at least half irrelevant, because what happens at a gathering like the Festival of Hope happens not on stage but in the crowd. Since I knew more about the band than 95 per cent of the crowd, I enjoyed Commander Cody from the start, but I enjoyed them a lot more when the Commander himself shambled out from behind the piano for "Hot Rod Lincoln," the group's Top 10 novelty, and the crowd went wild with simple recognition. It's easy to be snobbish about the propensity of audiences to love what they know, but the process is a natural one. The first task of any artist is to infuse his work with identity. He can accomplish this cheaply, or honestly, and his audience is better or worse for his effort, that's all.

The greatest virtue of stretched-out events like the Festival of Hope, in fact, is that they permit identities to develop--the Commander and Elephant's Memory will be starting off a lot more propitiously the next time they play Long Island. One would hope some similar advantage would accrue to the large proportion of black acts that appeared. Even though only one of the seven, James Brown, appeals primarily to a black audience, it seems that this year, at least, the failure of white audiences to identify intensely with black artists was one reason the Sunday show drew so poorly. Not even Sly and the Family Stone inspires the kind of excitement among white kids that makes ventures like the Festival of hope economically feasible.

For that's the rub. What was undoubtedly the finest two days of rock music ever to take place on Long Island didn't really draw. Attendance figures are unclear, but 25,000 Saturday and 15,000 Sunday (in a 40,000 capacity space) is an extremely generous estimate. The Nassau Easter Seal Society, which produced the festival, can offer lots of reasonable excuses. The advertising could have been better, several of the biggest attractions have been around a lot lately, and false rumors of bust and sell-out proliferated as usual. But, in the end, maybe the problem was simply that the festival was too pleasant, too professional, too unclimactic. If the Airplane and Stephen Stills can each sell out, say, Nassau Coliseum at $6.50 per seat, why can't they draw 32,000 fans between them when for an extra $3.50 fans will get six additional acts? Maybe because even the best of days at the beach just doesn't seem to be worth 10 bucks.

N'day, Aug. 20, 1972