Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Peace Love Music

By now you should know that I'm enjoying being surrounded by lefties. This weekend I felt like I was finally a typical bay-area youngster, trekking into San Francisco for "Power to the Peaceful." This free concert, featuring various performers and speakers, is now in its seventh year. It started as an awareness event for Mumia Abu-Jamal, and has grown to a 20,000+ festival supporting a wide range of issues. This year the focus was on ending the occupation of Iraq and bringing the troops home.

I still haven't written up "My Dinner With Aaron; or, Chris's Continuing Adventures in Public Transportation;" that is a tale of comedy and tragedy that should be appearing shortly. Suffice it to say that I got all my mistakes out of the way and this time around it was smooth sailing. Caltrain left San Jose at 8:00 and arrived in downtown San Fran around 9:30. From there, the N line swept me out to the western portion of the city. I deboarded in the Richmond once I saw a sign pointing the way to Golden Gate Park, where the concert was to be held.

Now, as you probably know, Golden Gate Park is a huge park. Much like Forest Park in St. Louis, it is a mixture of green spaces and roadways that includes civic buildings, gardens and recreational lakes. I had a vague idea that I needed to go north and west to get to the concert site and figured that I could afford to amble over there. The event had started at 7:30 that morning with a yoga session, so I reasoned I'd probably missed a set or two.

Getting through the park proved more difficult than I expected. It is pretty densely forested, with fewer lawns than I expected, and the roads make lots of scenic twists and turns. Several times I realized I was now going south and east, and would retrace my steps to get back on track. Eventually, I saw a road blocked off from traffic. Moving closer I could hear an afro-beat soundtrack and made a beeline into the festival.

Although the event was free, they were asking for donations of "whatever you want to give" - I dropped in two Sacajawea coins. I then moved in to explore.

The space was at least ten times as long as it was wide, surrounded by trees on all side. Traffic naturally flowed through this chamber, surrounded on both sides by a variety of political booths. These tilted even further left than the ones I'd seen at Tapestry Arts, including "Solidarity International," "The 9/11 Truth Campaign" (which also had a huge presence in Kansas City), "The Socialist Party," and far more. They also had typical festival food booths, and some not-so-typical ones, including several vegan booths and one serving raw foods.

As I moved forwards I realized that the beat I'd heard was not coming from the main stage, but rather a smaller tent. Past that there was an open green filled with tall three-sided pillars. Each was devoted to a particular cause and had texts and images explaining its importance: Ending child labor, wiping out HIV/AIDS, ending world starvation, third-world debt relief, and more.

Moving onwards, the afro-beat faded and a new one took over. I moved towards the main stage, on which an awesome band named J-Boogie'’s Dubtronic Science was performing. The crowd was a little mellow, mainly lying on blankets on the grass. In these situations I tend to feel awkward if I'm by myself; I don't want to plop myself down between two large groups if I'm clearly alone. So I picked out a space a bit further back and sat down on my shirt. (Side note - I love that it finally makes sense to dress the way I've enjoyed dressing since high school [jeans, sneakers, t-shirt covered with flannel]. Layered clothing is absolutely essential here. It was chilly when I got off Caltrain and quite warm by the time I made it to the festival.)

Second side note - Garrison Keillor is totally rapping on Prairie Home Companion now. About Kansas. This is REALLY freaking me out.

Anyways. I was really getting into the mood of the set, and it was starting to bother me that I was too far from the stage to really see the performers. I saw that there were some people standing on the left side of the lawn; for whatever reason, I don't have the same hangup about standing somewhere by myself that I do with sitting. So I crossed over and moved closer to get a better look.

J-Boogie really was phenomenal. Their sound is hard to describe; the lead singer comes from the reggae/dub tradition, but the underlying sound is more like contemporary funk/hip-hop expressed through smooth house. The instrumentation was eclectic but it really worked. There was a great groove going, and I was a little disappointed that people weren't dancing. Actually, I was disappointed in the crowd size overall; it was a decent turnout, but in that huge of a space it felt overwhelming. Still, the music itself was all I needed to keep me happy.

It just so happens that I was standing behind a couple of young guys sharing a joint. I still haven't been here long enough to become inured to the sight of public drug use. (Yes, I am aware that this happens at concerts all the time. Still, because of the location, this felt very much like an open space, and they were totally visible from the walkway.) Still, I don't really mind it, so I hung around. At one point one of them caught my eye, came over to me, and sort of extended his hand so it jutted out a little bit at waist level. He didn't say anything, so I shook his hand, smiled, and said "Chris." He smiled and said "Ray." (Not his real name. Not protecting him, I just forget what he said.) He pointed at my shirt and said "Like your shirt." For the first time in ages I'd donned one of my high school standards, the 1998 Illinois Economics Challenge shirt with the cool Illuminati logo on the front. I laughed, and he went back to his friend.

Later, I came to wonder if there's some special handshake or something that drug people use. I felt kind of like he was seeing if I would do or say something special. Or maybe he was just buzzing and wanted to be friendly. Either way, it's cool. (If you have any light to shed on the topic, I'd appreciate your comments.)

J-Boogie finished their set to a lot of applause. In retrospect, they probably played the best music of the day, and it's a shame more people weren't there to hear it. I moved back into the sun when the speakers came on stage and walked around a bit. Throughout the day they had a good selection, including Robert Greenwald and the founder of Code Pink in addition to local activists and poets. I was impressed by the quality of the speeches; they were always brief, forceful, and on topic. Lots of people referenced the tragedy in the gulf coast, butGreenwald was the only person to really convincingly address the issue, talking about how it was revealing the morally bankrupt priorities in our country.

The next performer (who I believe was named Jean Grae) was unable to appear on account of a broken foot, but her DJ came and spun some tunes instead. It felt a little surreal - I don't know much about hip-hop, but recognized all but a few of his selections because they were featured in GTA: San Andreas radio play (Playback FM and Radio Los Santos). I didn't need stage access for this so I picked out another spot on the lawn and lay down. It was well past noon by now and the place was filling up. A couple of Asian girls put down a blanket on my right, and some older women on my left. In front of me were three generations of Studefellers (at least that was the name on their cooler), who listened to the music, laughed, ate, drank, and passed a bong around. There were dogs of all sizes, including a large, friendly Golden Retriever and two young chihuahas (sp?). All ages were in evidence; while the crowd as a whole skewed younger, some old-school hippies were in evidence, and many families had brought along their infants and toddlers (thoughtfully providing them with earplugs).

After the next round of speakers came the only band whose name I recognized, Anti-Flag. They are, as Dave Barry would say, "Very loud." Founded in 1988, this traditional heavy-metal band powered through a set of high-voltage songs. They didn't exactly turn on the crowd, but they got applause at the end of every song. They tried really hard to connect with the audience; at one point between songs the lead said, "You may have different musical tastes than us, but there's one thing we can agree on: George Bush is the worst president in the history of the United States!" THAT got lots of applause. They may have been the most courteous of the bands, regularly thanking the show's organizers and volunteers. After a strong finish they headed out and the show speakers reclaimed the stage.

It was about now that I realized I'd been under the sun, without any clouds, lacking sunscreen and a hat, for an almost uninterrupted four hours. Just last weekend I picked up a bad burn while at the beach and didn't want to face another week of peeling. I got up and went in search of shade, and was shocked to see that while my back had been turned half of San Francisco had descended on the park. When I had sat down there were maybe four rows of people behind me; now the crowd stretched all the way back to the social agenda pillars. Impressed, I carefully stepped past everyone and looked for relief.

I found it on a hillside closer to the entrance, under the shade of several large trees. From here I could see the mini skate ramp and could hear some extremely smooth beats coming from the tent I'd passed at the beginning. I spent about half an hour on the hill, reading through all the various literature I'd been passed and hoping I'd averted a burn. (No luck.) When I felt ready, I headed over to the music tent.

The scene here was excellent. The tent itself was very shallow, only holding the DJ and his sound system; in front of it, a sort of grass dancefloor had been marked out in rubber tubing, and a great cross-section of the Bay Area was grooving inside it. I'm pretty sure the music was House, but even if it wasn't, it was great. You couldn't help bouncing around. The floor was surrounded on three sides by rows of people (including me) looking at the dancers doing their thing. Every once in a while someone just entering the festival would wander into the floor, look startled, then smile and make their way to the other side.

I could have happily stayed here the rest of the day, but I knew the festival was drawing close to an end and wanted to at least hear the final band. Once more I trekked down the green to the main stage.

Here, I was greeted with a surprising sight: people here were dancing, too! Everyone was on their feet, and at least in the front, you could see bodies moving, hands thrown thrust skywards, and that infectious vibe spread through the audience.

The final set was by the headliners, Michael Franti and Spearhead, who founded the festival and are the primary organizers. The final hour is hard to describe in words, but I'll do my best. I've never been to a Grateful Dead concert, obviously, but I imagine it looked a lot like a lower-energy version of what I was seeing. Franti has long hair and is an enthusiastic force on the stage; every couple of minutes he would yell "I WANT TO SEE EVERYBODY JUMPING!!!" or "PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!!!" Occasionally helping out with vocals was Radioactive, a beatboxer and rapper who was on stage on crutches, having just left the hospital after a run-in with a drunk driver. About halfway through the set Marie Daulne, fresh off a plane at Mineta Airport, came to help with singing and dancing. They were backed by a multi-ethnic, multi-genre, extremely talented group of musicians. Franti played electrical and acoustic guitar. Several DJs kept the beats rolling. A free-form percussionist assisted with cymbals, bongos, whatever was handy. A bass, violin, and keyboard rounded out the band.

Often times, you'll hear the word "stage show" used to describe the lighting, props, and gimmicks that a band uses to enhance their overall performance. I can't use that phrase here, though, because the real show was happening out in the audience. I'm not sure how much was planned by Spearhead and how much came from outsiders, but enough was coordinated that you could discern an intelligent design behind the spectacle. Yes, there were beachballs and bubbles. There were giant Pogs, with the faces of famous people (Einstein, Gandhi, MLK, Margaret Mead, etc.) opposite their famous, pro-peace quotes. Giant dove puppets, each operated by five people, wended their way through the crowd. Several dancers elevated themselves on mobile platforms above the crowd and grooved for all to see.

The show nearby was fun, too. I was right on the periphery of the most enthusiastic group of people, so there was a mixture of individuals who were really getting into it and those who merely tapped their feet and swayed. As I gradually worked my way closer (a technique I've largely perfected in other standing-room-only events), the joy grew even greater. This is where I wanted to be. Of course, you can dance anywhere, and you can jump up and down whether the people around you are doing it or not, but at heart I'm a conformist and it's when I'm surrounded by such people that I can relax, forget about what others might be thinking and just have fun.

The jam just kept on going, each song bleeding directly into the next. The music never stopped; even when Franti wanted to talk about something like Katrina ("A message from our Mother Earth that we need to listen to."), he would keep on strumming or let someone in the background keep up a simple beat. Like all great frontmen, Franti has a voice that is an instrument itself.

It felt to me like there were three parts to the set. The first you could call "Joy": lots of energy, constant exhortations (cheerfully obeyed) to dance, and a voluminous outpouring of information, challenges, creeds and ideas. The second you could call "Peace": while still encouraging people to move around, it felt more subdued, and the drive was more towards reflection than expression. In one song, Franti chanted "We all got freedom of speech, but we're not listening to each other." This was a time for calm and recharging. The set ended on three phenomenal pieces that I call "Love": he directly addressed our love for family and friends, love for the earth and all mankind, that needs to power us. The music fit this part as well, returning to a more upbeat tempo but seeming to grow more radiant and warm. Towards the end of the second-to-last song, he said:

"Everyone who came here with a family member or a friend, put your hands in the air. Now take the hand of that person and hold on to them. Let them know you love them. And if you're by yourself, grab hold of someone near you, because we're all in this together." The bearded young man next to me (who had a dog that looked exactly like Ein from Cowboy Bebop) grabbed my shoulder and pulled me in. I put my arm around him and everyone swayed as we sang "Don't Fear Your Best Friends". Yeah, I know, corny. But it was a sweet gesture, and seemed heartfelt. When the song ended we smiled at each other and moved back apart as Franti launched into the final song.

As with all great experiences, I didn't really want it to end. Still, it was an incredible feeling and it's still with me now, twenty-four hours later. The sense of community remained intact once the music ended. Power to the Peaceful was a leave-no-trace event, and everyone spent a minute picking up all the trash (plastic, cigarette butts, cups) from the lawn and placing it all in the right container (compost or recycling). People gradually filtered out through all the exits.

At the festival they'd been promoting the Power to the Peaceful Afterparty. I was sorely tempted to go; held at 1015 Fillmore, it would run from 9pm-4am that night, featuring three levels of music including concert performers. I was most attracted by the upstairs, which was to feature a DJ Showdown between local House and Breakbeat artists. I'm pretty sure that House is my second-favorite sub-genre of electronic music (though, as I've observed in an earlier post, I'm not always sure whether what I'm hearing is actually House or not). Plus I was in a mood that I wanted to prolong. In the end, though, that would have meant going until 4am and then waiting another four hours for a train back home. Also, I didn't know where 1015 Fillmore was, or how to get there, or what kind of neighborhood it was in. So I regretfully decided to make my way west, towards the ocean, to pick up the end of the Judah line.

Going out was just as confusing as coming in. I eventually hit the southern end of the park and decided to just walk through the Richmond rather than re-navigate it. The streets were rather quiet with just the occasional car going by. While the houses in this area weren't beautiful like the Victorians further east, everything looked well-maintained and livable. I trekked generally westward, occasionally cutting south, until I reached the end of Judah street where three streetcars were lined up.

Having some time to spare, I decided to keep on going, and got my first proper look at The Pacific Ocean via San Francisco. WOW. You cross a busy street (that will be familiar to anyone who's played San Andreas... heck the whole city will be familiar to you) and walk up something that's not even really a hill, just a bump in elevation. Then, BOOM! You're at The Ocean. No development as far as you can see, just sand and water and sky. Even more impressive is the wind; I walked into a gale stronger than anything I'd ever felt in Chicago, just an enormous force ripping eastward off the water. I'd donned my long-sleeve after the concert, and almost had it ripped off my body again by the force. Everyone was enjoying it, though... nobody was swimming, obviously, but you could see people running their dogs, folks lying down and talking, or just strolling near the surf. The sand was blowing everywhere, but never rising more than a few inches. I just marveled at it for a while, then turned around and headed back to the streetcar.

The ride back home was pleasant. I was happy to notice that I wasn't the only person to give up my seat for a woman when we entered the busy stretch between Castro and Embarcadero. I reached the Caltrain station with ten minutes to spare, and had some pleasant cell-phone conversations while taking the ninety-minute journey back to San Jose.

In all, this was yet another fantastic outing. I got to hear great new bands that I didn't know existed, had a warm and fuzzy shared experience with many fellow human beings (crowd estimate was between 20 and 50 thousand), saw a good chunk of the city up-close and personal, and ate a really excellent gyro. Good time, and something I'll definitely look for next year.

UPDATE 9/13 8AM PST: I'm posting this on Tuesday after writing up on Sunday. As mentioned in my previous post, I'm having Internet issues. I'm not as angry now, though. Turns out that I wasn't being singled out for particular abuse; nobody in my entire complex has Internet access. I actually saw the Space Age technician and chatted with him a while last night. Sounds like SBC screwed them over... they need to travel over an SBC trunk, Space Age fried a piece of equipment, only SBC will sell a replacement, and they can't get it until later this week. So, while that stinks, I now have an explanation and can continue doing what I do best, thinking bad thoughts about SBC. I'm HOPING that, once they fix this, my static IP will magically start working; most likely, I'll start my pestering cycle over again.

On a note more related to this post: I think that, if it wasn't for my expensive taste in electronics, I could happily live life as a hippy. Oh, and if you're curious, Spearhead has posted a video with clips of last year's Power to the Peaceful. You can also check out tracks from J-Boogie via the link in the story above; as with most of these bands, though, you really need to check them out live to get the experience.

Also, a friendly warning: Don't use Blogger's spellcheck if you're using Firefox! I just found that out the hard way, it messed up my post. Apologies for any messiness I haven't found.

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