Terrastock: The Ptolemaic
Rogue Lounge, Providence,
By Jim DeRogatis
By the time they got to Terrastock, they were about 600 strong. I mention this up top because the small but dedicated crowd that gathered for three days of peace, love, and modern psychedelic rock in a 200-year-old red-brick mill building in Providence, Rhode Island, could in no way be considered part of a major cultural shift or a burgeoning youth movement or slapped with any of that other come-on-people-now-smile-on-your-brother hoo-ha that springs to mind whenever you call something anything ending in "-stock." As one of the Providence fire marshals assigned to the happening commented, upon looking over a table of works by Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, and Baudelaire contemporary Gerard de Nerval (set out by small-press owners and Galaxie 500 founders Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang), "I just don't understand what any of this shit has to do with anything else."
Well, as Ken Kesey used to say, you're either on the bus or off the bus. Thing is, nobody at Terrastock wanted to get on the bus either: the bands, attendees, and sponsors of the festival (officially known as the Ptolemaic Providence Perambulation, after the Ptolemaic Terrascope fanzine it was intended to benefit) all seemed loath to use the word psychedelic to make connections among the many sounds and philosophies in evidence. You can't really blame them: Inspired by his experiences with mescaline in the 50s, British author Aldous Huxley coined the term from the Greek psyche (soul) and deloun (to show), and its original meaning was about as open-ended as you could imagine. But 30 years after the much-ballyhooed Summer of Love, many people feel unjustly limited by the word, tainted as it has been by tie-dyed T-shirts, Cheech and Chong, the latter-day Grateful Dead, and now the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which in its newest exhibit has sealed "The Psychedelic Era" into a neat four-year envelope, the better to sell it to aging boomers.
No, in this age of irony (not to mention alternative-rock careerism), it just ain't hip to talk about striving to transcend the everyday and connect with something deeper and more spiritual. But that's exactly what the 30-some Terrastock bands were trying to do. Their specific approaches varied wildly--and maybe more widely than at the festivals of the so-called psychedelic era--but they nevertheless fell into one of two broad categories: hypnotic, droning, improvisational walls of sound whose lineage could be traced from avant-garde artists such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and La Monte Young through rock avatars such as Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, and the German bands of the early 70s; or ornate, emotional, introspective Technicolor pop songs in the tradition of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the Beatles' Revolver, and Love's Forever Changes.
Sympathetic as I am to these efforts (hey, I wrote a book about 'em), I can't say that each and every band sent me hurtling into orbit. There were plenty of yawnworthy moments, including the indulgent, sub-Santana guitar wankery of the Bevis Frond (whose sole constant member Nick Saloman is publisher of the Ptolemaic Terrascope) and the disappointing U.S. debut by Flying Saucer Attack (Dave Pearce's gentle picking and blissful "rural psychedelia" was overpowered by guest guitarist Jim O'Rourke's white-noise chaos). Still, I had two genuinely transcendent experiences, one on Friday evening, the other on Sunday afternoon--and both without chemical assistance, thank you very much.
Friday's came in the form of a 45-minute set by the duo of Windy Webber and Carl Hultgren. Since 1995, the pair has released three albums (Portal, Drawing of Sound, and Antarctica) on three different indie labels (Ba Da Bing!, Blue Flea, and Darla), all of them pleasant but certainly not earthshaking four-track ambient excursions. The band's live show was much more intense. It wasn't that there was more to look at--Webber and Hultgren are painfully shy record-store clerks from Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and they displayed no discernible personality, staring at their feet and barely speaking to the audience. But Hultgren's cascading waves of chorused guitar and Webber's simple but massive bass drones and lilting, seemingly wordless vocals filled the cavernous loft space like a 40-member orchestra. The songs were hypnotic, rich, and evocative of the visions described in the titles--"Antarctica," "Sunrise," and "Firebursts"--and damned if I wasn't lifted right out of Providence and dropped in a stranger and more colorful place.
Sunday's heroes took a very different tack. Currently based in Athens, Georgia, the core duo behind the Olivia Tremor Control grew up in Ruston, Louisiana, about five hours north of New Orleans. Bill Doss and Will Hart used to make and trade weird four-track tapes with their friends, and the cassettes were always marked "Property of the Elephant 6 Recording Company." Today, there are three Elephant 6 bands--Neutral Milk Hotel, the Apples in Stereo, and the Olivia Tremor Control--that all record on their own as well as playing on one another's albums.
The Olivia Tremor Control is by far the most intriguing. It debuted in 1996 with Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle (Flydaddy), a ridiculously layered double concept album about an earthquake in a mythical kingdom. (The first 2,000 came packaged with a bonus ambient disc, making for a debut triple album.) At Terrastock, Doss and Hart were joined by eight other members of the Elephant 6 gang. Looking like a surreal high school talent-show entry, this crowd of energetic twentysomethings jumped up and down nonstop as they assaulted an array of instruments that included guitars, bass, two drum kits, vintage analog synthesizers, two theremins, electrified accordion, banjo, clarinet, and trumpet, not to mention four or five vocals at any given time. The result was that jug-band ditties and silly little pop songs such as "The Opera House" and "Jumping Fences" were transformed into elaborate soundscapes that brought to mind the Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles playing the Lovin' Spoonful or the Monkees. It was simply impossible to watch without being seduced into bouncing and singing along, regardless of the occasional twists and turns.
Over in Cleveland, the Hall of Fame's psychedelic exhibit is raking in the dough by honoring the same tired heroes: the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Janis Joplin. Even as a small-scale fund-raiser, by contrast, Terrastock was a dismal flop: just before the concert started, the Providence fire department shook the organizers down for more than two grand to pay for overtime for the four fire marshals who spent the weekend monitoring a space that held fewer people than attend a sold-out show at Metro. But the event accomplished something more important in a way--proving that psychedelic rock is as vital a genre in 1997 as it was in 1967. As they used to say then, the Man can't bust our music.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Carl Hultgren and Windy Webber by Charles Peterson.