Apparent festival line-up, in general order from openers to headliners: Terri Nunn, Dogs D’Amour (?), Circle of Power, Low Pop Suicide (?), Blind Melon, Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Porno For Pyros, Ogre of Skinny Puppy, Alice in Chains
Then-current albums: …naming them all would take a while
Back of ticket ad: “The Academy of Radio Broadcasting — FREE Voice/Talent Test and Career Seminar.” It’s a change, at least.
I need to start by noting that this is not in fact a show by the band Medicine — I’d already seen them the previous year and would again later this same year — at the same venue in fact, and also as part of a multiband lineup. But I’ll get to that later.
As for this very odd little festival show…nobody can seem to agree on it.
My memory banks don’t turn up all the bands. There are definitely some bands I remember, others I don’t — but when trying to find more information on who was there online, things get fragmented. A seemingly definitive review by Pleasant Gehman for SPIN indicates that the Dogs D’Amour and Low Pop Suicide both played there, but I honestly don’t remember either of them. A concert tracking site removes Dogs D’Amour from the lineup but also removes Circus of Power, who definitely played, and adds My Sister’s Machine, who I don’t remember at all. I don’t remember Blind Melon being there either but a recording of the band from the show is available. No general reminiscences seem to be around, no flyers for the show have been scanned to my knowledge.
It’s a little weird, this lack of commentary or agreement, given the reputation of some of the bands involved already to that point, weirder given those reputations that were about to go sky-high (and which have remained there). Shows like this weren’t new of course, the idea of benefit festivals having been long since established. The whole idea behind this show was to raise money to protest against animal testing and vivisection, a sound cause. I had to have heard about it through a combination of friends, ads, reports somewhere. The timing was also good because I was just a couple of weeks away at that point from my trip to the UK for August, after which time I would head south for grad school in Irvine. So either I bought a ticket in advance or got one at the door, who knows, but I do know that there were a slew of people excited about it; I went with about three, maybe four other people piled into the car.
I had heard as well that it would be an acoustic show or at least partially so, so I was intrigued by the idea of Ogre from Skinny Puppy doing a show like that alone. At the same time, nearly everyone in the car were talking about one band in particular. Rage Against the Machine were a group I’d only just heard of or had never heard of and apparently they were utterly amazing — they only had a demo tape out and it either wasn’t in the car on the way over or we were listening to something else. I think the latter because I do remember seeing the cover of the demo for the first time that evening, a match taped onto a photocopy of a stock market report. Pretty sure I thought something like “Pretty obvious” but at the same time the folks I was with spoke so highly of the band that I was pretty well prepared to have my socks knocked off.
It was another lovely summer day and we got to the Palladium, parked, went into the darkened theater and…I’m not sure what happened next. I almost think we walked in on Terri Nunn’s set, but it could be that she started first and I’m conflating events. I have no sense of the crowd at this show other than the fact that it was pretty well packed if not sold out, though it would only grow more so as the evening progressed. If there was a benefit T-shirt sold at the show I don’t have it — would almost be the only way to track who really was actually there, it seems — and I spent most of my time on the floor about two thirds of the way back. So with that as a set-up, let me go through what I can recall…
Terri Nunn’s set was, um, curious. So she did the acoustic/unplugged thing (and keep in mind this was still in the relatively first flush of the whole MTV-driven idea, the show was just a couple of years old at that point), but at the same time nearly everyone there, myself included, probably thought “Well wait, why is she on this bill anyway?” Which is a little rude to think, perhaps, but given that her work with Berlin was seen as this already distant sampling from another time/place where most everyone else on the bill was in-the-moment, I couldn’t but think there was a little opportunism in her being here. That was probably the case with a lot of the bands on the bill, though, but there was an air of strange, ragged desperation in her case. She did versions of “Sex (I’m a…)” and “Take My Breath Away,” perhaps inevitably, along with a new song that she said was inspired by the Rodney King verdict and its aftermath a couple of months beforehand. I can’t say it was deathless.
Circus of Power or Tool might have been next though I almost think that Blind Melon must have gone even earlier, even though, as noted, I don’t remember them being there at all. “No Rain” would at least have been played without anyone thinking of bee girls, given that video was a year off. Let’s say that Tool were next, if only because I seem to remember them being a first-half-of-the-show thing. I had the Opiate EP by this point and had heard they were a pretty good bunch, but I otherwise didn’t know what to expect, though I was amused to see Henry Rollins joining them on stage. In fact, I was just amused by them period — for all that it was a short, weird set, or because of it, it perfectly captured their blend of seriousness and humor. They did do an acoustic setup, all five of them counting Rollins in line, though I can’t remember what if anything he was playing. Maynard in the center filled in some dead time as they set up by announcing, “Okay, this is a little song called “Maynard’s Dick,”" and then did some random singing of said phrase — that it actually was released as a song years later seems appropriate. The whole feeling was initially pretty goofy, which is why I was a little startled when they launched into a song that I would discover a year later (when it appeared on their first album Undertow) was “Disgustipated,” a steady percussion punch with Maynard singing a couple of phrases over and again like an endless command. It lasted something like ten minutes here, Maynard going into the “LIFE FEEDS ON LIFE!” bit while everyone else played and then systematically destroyed their instruments as they played. And that was it, when they finally wound down and finished the song they left the stage. It wasn’t Mr. Bungle’s amazing art-terrorism earlier that year but it got my attention, and I definitely became a fan of theirs from that point until this very day.
Assuming it was Circus of Power next — and in fact assuming it was them at the show to start with — the guest starring continued. It actually became a bit of a theme of the evening — Grace Slick appeared at one point between sets to encourage donations and activism — so I was a little surprised but maybe not overtly so that Ian Astbury ended up sitting in with the band. Circus of Power themselves though — pretty anonymous. They were one of those clutch of bands from around that time that weren’t LA glam, hadn’t figured on being alternative, didn’t bill themselves as straight up metal…it was as if the space opened by groups like Jane’s Addiction just didn’t quite know what to do with themselves. There was a bit of dramatic gothiness in their performance, again all acoustic from what I remember, and given Astbury’s presence the inclusion of a cover of the Cult’s “Brother Wolf Sister Moon” seemed about right. (To Astbury’s credit, though, he didn’t take the lead vocal — he seems pretty good about this sort of thing, consider that new EP with Boris where a member of that band actually sings the one Cult cover on it.) The set ended, that was that.
I’m guessing, I think, that Rage Against the Machine would have been next. I do remember that the crowd was definitely getting a little more fired up at this point, the floor more packed. Cool, I would have thought, there’s a sense of catching something big before it goes big. I honestly can’t remember if they had acoustic instruments for this one but I think they did, though they weren’t coming out looking ready to play easygoing folk jams. Cheers were going up, I was psyching myself up a bit — okay, bring it on! And they started in with a wallop and shout and the place exploded.
I’ve rarely, maybe never, been left SO immediately cold by a band, so immediately turned off. Perhaps, with retrospection, part of this was driven by the fact that being in the middle of a swathe of people really getting into it was just pissing me off even more. But they just did NOT work — and keep in mind again that I only knew their name and nothing else about them, nothing else about what they sounded like or were standing for or talking about, what bands they’d performed in before, none of it. I was taking them without any preconceptions on that front and…they failed for me. Hating them in general from that point forward was pretty simple because if you’re not making me happy then I really don’t want to hear you go on.
Of course, as mentioned, in that crowd I was in a decidedly minority opinion. The rest of their set is a trudging blur to me, but at some point they wrapped up and then somewhere along the line a band I had a lot more potential interest in played their set. It wasn’t the debut show of Porno for Pyros — that had happened in the same venue a couple of months beforehand for another benefit concert — but the Jane’s Addiction fan that I was really, really wanted to see Perry Farrell’s new thing, hopeful as I was that this new band, which also had the earlier group’s great drummer Stephen Perkins, would hopefully be equally great. Well, we all know how that turned out, but on the evidence of the set I was still kinda hopeful, I suppose — Perry didn’t too much in the way of his random lectures and rants, the songs sounded okay…but it wasn’t surprising at all that the song that got the biggest response, understandably so for an acoustic themed show, was “My Time,” which had surfaced in similar form on the band’s initial live album. Who knows, maybe the endless reunions were already in place in his head.
Up until this point I don’t recall any of the bands or performers saying or doing much with regard to the general theme of the show, supporting anti-vivisection activities. That definitely changed with Ogre’s appearance, given Skinny Puppy’s own core interest in the horrors of the subject and corollary examples of the human animal at its worst having driven any number of their songs. I had been looking forward to his spot the most, really — I had, annoyingly, just missed Skinny Puppy playing the Palladium a couple of weeks beforehand (with Godflesh opening! still kicking myself a bit over not seeing that combination, especially since I think Robert Hampson might have been touring with them at that point) and still had never seen Skinny Puppy live at all. And as it turned out, I never did in that lineup, given Dwayne Goettel’s death a couple of years later. Point being, this was kind of it for me, and I was admittedly curious and intrigued at what an Ogre acoustic set would be like.
He came out with a friend on guitar and ended up only doing two songs, to my disappointment. The first, either titled “Ode to Groovy” or “Groovy’s License to Kill,” was low key and straightforward enough, a steadier reflection and, I’d guess, condemnation. After some brief remarks, he then launched into the song I kinda knew he would end up doing, “Testure,” his lyrical delivery being this obsessive spiral downward, done just to the accompaniment of his friend’s guitar. If it lacked the full arrangement impact of the song as most well known it was no less harrowing in the end, and if I had to take away any one song from that night as truly representative of what it was supposed to be standing for, it would be that.
That pretty much left Alice in Chains, just a couple of months away from the release of Dirt, to close it out — they’d already released their first acoustic EP Sap the previous year, so the idea that the group could do the unplugged thing was already a familiar one, and along with their weird, compelling way around harmonies is what lets the band be such a strong one still in the memory, however distant now, however much there were questions of them supposedly being ‘fake grunge’ swirling around them at the time. I think it was Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers who said the following year that the band was a lot greater and more individual than anyone realized, and while I wouldn’t go completely as far, I was closer to that than some, still am, even if I haven’t listened in a while. It was definitely a change to see Jerry Cantrell playing under what I remember were very low lights, when a month before he had been having ridiculous fun doing the guitar soloing on a song with Spinal Tap.
The whole band was very quiet, almost still, even as the floor had filled up again and there were many cheers. It too was a short set, two songs I seem to remember, with Ann Wilson from Heart, who had appeared on that earlier EP, joining them for a song. Layne Staley did a pretty solid job, I seem to remember, but any assumptions you could make about who in the band was or wasn’t on something at that point might well have been true. It was murky but not imprecise, something that was a definitely theatrical performance without them moving at all. A hint of a real darkness that somehow suited the show’s stated purpose, however indirectly.
I don’t remember much after that, it all wrapped up, there might have been some complaints about the shortness of the final sets but it had been a long evening already. I kinda wish there were more clear memories around about this show on the net, there are gaps in my head about it all still as noted.
Not about Rage Against the Machine, though. Alas.