Two Reviews of Terrastock

From the New York Times
From the San Francisco Chronicle

Happy Just to Listen, The Crowd Just Says No
N. Y. Times, April 22, 1998
by Neil Strauss

There was a strange contradiction at the Terrastock festival, a three-day marathon of underground psychedelic folk, pop, rock and experimental music that ended on Sunday at the Custer Avenue Stages here: the music celebrated drugs for an audience that didn't.

Mick Farren of the 1960's proto-punk band the Deviants began his set with a story about a time he had taken ''a whole lotta acid.'' Tom Rapp of the 60's acid-folk group Pearls Before Swine sang a new chorus he had written, ''Nothing wrong with marijuana/You should use it if you wanna.'' And Nick Saloman of the English rock band Bevis Frond, who publishes the magazine that sponsored the two-year-old festival, Ptolemaic Terrascope, introduced a song thus: ''This one continues the theme of drug-taking, and involves driving trains.''

Yet the audience at the festival, one of the few where bouncers and security forces weren't even a presence, seemed completely sober the whole time. Except for the gentleman who spent an hour videotaping a speck of dust on the floor, no one appeared to be on drugs or talking about drugs and there was no odor of marijuana smoke, a smell that is de rigueur at nearly any such concert. The audience and most of the bands Terrastock catered to were interested not in mind-expanding drugs, but in the musical exploration and the expansion of form that has resulted from musicians taking such drugs and trying to play their instruments.

Standing in front of immense, breathtaking video backdrops projected by Jeff Crane, performers played dense guitar jams (the bands Bevis Frond, Bardo Pond and Ghost), psychedelic folk (Damon and Naomi, Tom Rapp and Stone Breath), pop songs sabotaged by improvisation or nontraditional instrumentation (Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and Green Pajamas), rock music shot through with analog electronic instruments (Cul de Sac, the Lothars, Fifty Foot Hose and Silver Apples) and, the festival's specialty, minimal, droning, gently propulsive rock (Windy and Carl, Azusa Plane, Grimble Grumble and Roy Montgomery).

A few acts fit into no category, including the Spaceheads, an English duo that made bewitching abstract dance music using just trumpet and drums, and Kendra Smith, a reclusive former member of the Dream Syndicate who pursued her mystical, medieval, spiritual and Luddite obsessions through pump organ, a Bohemian lute and soft singing.

Perhaps because the music was somewhat retro, separated from its original cultural context, the audience was there just to listen (not to socialize or make a life style statement). After their performances, some band members expressed surprise that the crowd -- 800 people willing to spend as much as 14 hours each day in a warehouse watching nearly 40 bands -- was so quiet and attentive. Even most of the musicians who performed stayed all three days to listen to music and sit at tables in a back room selling their own CD's.

The message of underground music festivals like Terrastock can be summarized in two words: dig deeper. In some ways, the music at the festival, a mix of current underground bands and their obscure antecedents from the 1960's and 70's, wasn't any more experimental than elements of what the Beatles and John Lennon or Pink Floyd and its former leader, Syd Barrett, did. But as a rule it promoted the music that didn't get the acclaim, often because it was too bizarre or ahead of its time to win recognition.

Some performers at the festival stopped making music decades ago, thinking their time was up, and have gone in other directions. There was a musician-turned-lawyer (Mr. Rapp) and even a news announcer and ice cream truck driver (Simeon of the pioneering electronic hippie band the Silver Apples). Eddie Shaw of the Monks, a bizarre pre-punk concept band of American G.I.'s stationed in Germany in the 60's, was on hand to read from a book he wrote on the group. One of the most impressive aspects of Terrastock was the sheer perseverance of some performers. Bevis Frond has been making great psychedelic rock for 12 years; the Green Pajamas have been honing their bright pop songs in obscurity for 14 years, and the Young Fresh Fellows have been making quirky, eclectic pop and garage-rock for just as long.

Though their efforts have been rewarded by little more than a constantly fluctuating cult following, some of them still haven't hung up their dreams of success and all of them have songs capable of being hits. After all, it took similarly eclectic psychedelic-oriented bands like the Flaming Lips and the Meat Puppets more than a decade to score their first (and only) pop hits. Then again, it took the Silver Apples, Pearls Before Swine and the Monks over 30 years to build up just this tiny following.

But Terrastock is not a festival that rewards success. Popularity may disqualify a band forever from the hipster collector underground. Some see this as a sign of closed-minded obscurantism, in which the esoteric is lauded regardless of its merit. But the truth is that Terrastock and its audience are part of a necessary support system, because in a music business centered on the search for the next big thing, someone has to dig through record catalogues to discover the next good thing, or search the archives to rediscover the last lost thing.

Visiting Rock's Terra Incognita
Terrastock celebrates fringe of indie music

S.F.Chronicle, April 20, 1998
by James Sullivan

``Welcome to Terrastock,'' read a small hand-lettered sign posted outside Hunters Point's Custer Avenue Stages over the weekend. ``Mind your head.''

The advice had nothing to do with low ceilings. Instead, it was friendly forewarning of the mind- melting musical dreamscapes and experimental films taking place inside.

Beginning Friday afternoon and ending late last night, the second annual Terrastock festival celebrated the furthest fringes of indie rock, revisiting a time when hallucinogenic, psychologically daring music threatened to break into the mainstream.

From fairy-tale folkies to garage- rock bands with a penchant for feedback, Terrastock showcased the wide-ranging musical legacy of the Summer of Love. A benefit for the 'zine Ptolemaic Terrascope, an ``illustrated occasional'' from England specializing in modern-day music that conjures olde-time magick, Terrastock was inaugurated last year in Providence, R. I. This year, publisher Nick Saloman (of the veteran psychedelic group Bevis Frond) and editor Phil McMullen enlisted the help of San Francisco's Aquarius Records and local booking agent Kathy Harr to bring the event to the Left Coast.

Fiercely underground in their promotion of the sold-out event (700 badges were meted out months ago), the Terrastock organizers played reluctant hosts to reporters from the New York Times and Spin -- magazine. MTV was turned away.

More than a particular sound, willful eccentricity was the unifying force of the weekend's performers. ``If the Earth started losing its gravity, the first thing you'd see is a worm floating above you,'' mused Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum by way of introducing ``The King of Carrot Flowers.''

Perhaps the most highly anticipated act of the weekend, the critically adored fuzz-pop band turned in a characteristically euphoric 45-minute set early Saturday evening.

As Mangum furiously belted songs full of wonder and stubborn tunefulness, multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster knelt at center stage, wearing an old motorcycle helmet rigged with a tiny set of chimes, stretching the bellows of an accordion or bowing a singing saw or a banjo.

Both Koster and horn player Scott Spillane (trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn) performed double duty with the next band, Athens, Ga.'s Olivia Tremor Control. That group's hodgepodge of pet sounds by the Byrds, the Beatles and the Beach Boys was marked by an extended space-rock segment and some of the weekend's best visual accompaniment -- kaleidoscopic, candy-colored abstractions and old reels of black-and-white puppet animation. Fitting, considering the band's last album was called ``Music from the Unrealized Film Script `Dusk at Cubist Castle.' ''

Such sensory overstimulation was compounded by the organizers' keen attention to detail, despite the fact that they had to relocate at the last minute to this remote, warehouselike sound stage. The black walls of the venue's two main rooms were lined with dried sunflowers and white Christmas lights, and a third room provided a makeshift store selling T-shirts and records.

From grilled fennel-and-asparagus salad to big chocolate chip cookies, the fest's concessions were prepared with much more care than the typical rock-show greaseburger. With no permits for alcohol, the audience at Terrastock was mellower than might be expected; one guy in a bandana head wrap walked around with a joint tucked behind his ear.

On Friday afternoon, Terrastock got off the ground with a solo electric set by Brother JT, a portly guy in black shorts who hunched over his guitar on a folding chair and sang a Thirteenth Floor Elevators cover.

The song was well-chosen: That obscure 1960s group from Texas is the sort of collectors' obsession shared by the Terrastock badgeholders, whether they traveled to the festival from the Mission District, Memphis or the English countryside.

San Francisco's own Fifty Foot Hose -- one of several re-formed groups on the bill dating back to the late '60s, including fanciful songwriter Tom Rapp and electronic alchemists Silver Apples -- christened the venue's main stage with a wandering set of acid improvisation. Founding member Cork Marcheschi manned a workstation stacked with a bewildering array of electronic equipment he simply called ``the stuff,'' while new member Walter Funk the Third tinkered with unique, handmade percussion contraptions featuring springs, bicycle gears and other metallic debris.

Such innovative whimsy is at the heart of the Terrastock bands. To them, the human mind's capacity for making music is a lifelong science project. And this weekend, they had plenty of contented guinea pigs.

Visit the Terrastock page.