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Not the Outside Lands Festival

August 26, 2008

I've been careful to avoid Golden Gate Park in San Francisco this weekend. A big part of me wanted to hear Radiohead perform at the first ever Outside Lands Festival in the park. But I've never been one for crowds and the thought of spending a minimum of $85 on a ticket and standing in the fog for hours with 160,000 people was a bit of a turnoff.

Instead, I spent Sunday wandering around the East Bay, where the comparatively miniscule, vastly more esoteric and largely free Downtown Berkeley MusicFest was taking place all weekend, also in its inaugural year.

It was a delightful, quintessentially Berkeley day, characterized by sunshine, organic mango lassis and a melee of unkempt beards, tie-dyed muumuus and patchouli. Over the space of a few hours, I heard four different acts. Sat on the patio at Jupiter's brewery listening to the laid-back blues riffs of slide guitarist Pete Madsen (pictured left). The musician was playing with a slide made from a wine bottle by one of his students. Madsen jokes about the slide being a little too upscale for the kind of music he played: It was culled from a bottle of Napa Valley Pinot rather than some homespun moonshine. His music was perfect for a hot day. It span in my head and made me think of parched hills and dusty country roads.

At a hole-in-the-wall venue on University Avenue, the OneWorldWalk Center, I heard the early music quartet, The Galileo Project, performing works for Baroque fiddles, cello and harpsichord by such composers as Corelli and Matthew Locke. The audience was sitting literally inches away from the performers in the cramped performance space, which was really little more than a stairwell with a few seats stuck along the walls. It was thrilling to be so close to the players. I could read the first violinist's music along with him. I could see the way in which the harpsichordist bunched up her hands to play the complex ornaments in some of the passacaglias and chacones.

Back at Jupiter's, an acoustic Americana troupe consisting of fiddler, guitarist, mandolin, banjo and vocalist, performed some wild bluegrass music that alternately made me want to slug beer and get up and dance.

The only group I heard that I wasn't completely won over by was Ya Elah, a world-religion-inspired all-female vocal troupe. The ensemble's program of "Bulgarian Village Songs and Middle Eastern Melodies" was just way too nutty-crunchy-granola for me. I appreciated the interactive moments, where the singers had the audience join in on the chorus in one song and clap and yelp in another. I also loved harpist Diana Rowan's contribution on the Celtic harp. The songs in which the harp accompanied the vocalists were not only better in tune but also more richly textured. What bothered me most about the group's effort was the endless commentary that went along with the playing. I just wanted to hear the music. But instead they insisted on giving a lecture before each number about the message of each song, which invariably was to do with peace, love and happiness or how we're all part of the same great, divine, human race and that god is within each of us etc etc. By the time we got to the "Hari Krishna" song at the end of the program I was ready to scream. Still, Ya Elah's music seems to resonate quite strongly with the Berkeley crowd.

I loved the wide range of acts at the festival as well as the way in which audiences were encouraged to meander from venue to venue. In some ways, the event felt rather like a small fringe theatre festival. I'll most likely be coming back next year.


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