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ADVENTURE TO NOWHERE

Judged on the most superficial level possible, KTCL's Big Adventure, a music festival staged on June 3 at Fiddler's Green, was a good deal. The show featured fifteen bands, most of whose performances were generous and energetic. Moreover, the ticket price (around $12) was exceedingly modest. If nothing else, it was nice to check out so much largely unknown talent for so little money, even if the weather was less than ideal.

But underneath the surface of this apparent bargain were depressing signs that the booming popularity of modern rock is resulting in the homogenization of an exceedingly vital art form. Most of the bands on the bill (particularly those signed to national companies) proved adept at aping formulas but were totally lacking in new ideas or personal visions--which are the very qualities that made punk rock and postpunk so invigorating in the first place. Today, so-called alternative music is more popular and prevalent than the biggest-selling styles it once opposed; heavy metal, jazz and classical are the real alternatives right now. Realizing this, major labels are using the same marketing techniques that were used to squeeze the life out of other genres on this one--and if the Big Adventure is any indication, the methods are working again.

Whether the thousands in attendance at the Green knew it or not, the concert was more about commerce than music. According to a front-page piece in the music-trade publication Billboard, there's been an explosion of modern-rock events like the Big Adventure over the past couple of years. Billboard reporters Brett Atwood and Carrie Borzillo note that there are currently 89 modern-rock stations in the U.S., compared with 40 at this time last year, and plenty of these outlets are staging fests this summer like those pioneered by WHFS-FM in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles's KROQ-FM. As a result, labels have designated certain "baby bands"--that is, newly inked acts with relatively low profiles--to play the modern-rock-festival circuit for next to nothing. In quid pro quo fashion, the stations then reciprocate by giving the groups significant airplay. The arrangement certainly worked this way locally. As soon as the Phunk Junkeez, 311 and numerous others whose songs KTCL seldom or never broadcast before agreed to visit the Big Adventure, the situation reversed itself. The tunes started spinning with great frequency, and the acts' names were mentioned in station promotional spots every hour on the hour for weeks. In short, it was a publicity bonanza for groups label execs hope to break.

Unfortunately, the majority of the combos being pushed fit into already crowded musical pigeonholes; they were given a shot at the big time not for their individuality, but because of how much they sound like somebody else. They're examples of the high-concept mentality currently plaguing the movie industry--the equivalents of The Flintstones, Maverick and Casper. From the labels' perspectives, they're not intended to move audiences or change any lives. They're meant to sell, period. And since fresh approaches jeopardize their investment far more than the tried and true, the money men fear innovation above and beyond anything else.

They used to fear punk, too, but now that Green Day and the Offspring have shown that millions of people enjoy it, they've decided it's wonderful as long as there are no surprises in it. And there were few from the Big Adventure punksters. For all practical purposes, Face to Face and No Use for a Name, who played at the same time on separate stages, are the same band. While their respective sounds are perfectly pleasant, they so closely mimic Bad Religion and the like that they're really no different from the least imaginative rockabilly revival bands, whose notion of success is to seem indistinguishable from their models. By comparison, Butt Trumpet was more raucous; with cuts like "Party 'Til You Puke," the four-piece is a good-humored but obvious junior high joke--like a band created by sitcom producers for a special episode of Coach. Skiploader mixed speedy punk tempos with melodic passages a la Husker Du to produce another kind of banality, and God Lives Underwater chose to engage in that oh-so-fashionable ennui rather than explore the textures of its fairly interesting EP. Sublime came off better simply because the trio interspersed its by-the-numbers punk with reggae and dub excursions. There's nothing revolutionary in that, of course (the Clash did the same thing in 1977), but in this company, it was appreciated. A one-trick pony is better than a nag that just stands there.

The other favorite Big Adventure cliche was punk funk. The Phunk Junkeez were fourth-rate Beastie Boys impressionists, 311 was only slightly better, and the Mudsharks came across like the ska nostalgists they are. That left only a pair of national bands--Pretty & Twisted, fronted by ex-Concrete Blonde Johnette Napolitano, and Ohio's Ass Ponys--that couldn't be easily categorized. Is it any surprise that they put on the two best shows?

As expected, locals shone considerably brighter. From a musical standpoint, funk-punk rappers Sick and Hippie Werewolves are very 1991--which is to say that they're not all that musically radical, either. But they were also passionate, and they clearly cared a great deal about their work, in contrast to many of their visiting peers. In addition, Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass showed off its muscular new lineup to exciting effect, while the Christines gave their dreamy college pop a good ride. And even though the Samples delivered the usual supply of icky, VH1-ready political correctness, they did so on their own terms.

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