Music was alternative to other HFS-tival fun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- Riding the Washington Metro on the way to the HFS-tival, 19-year-old Lynette Hoffman looked into the future: "It'll be really wet and dirty. People will stand on everything. They don't care."

From Dundalk, Lynette and her sister Laura, 22, and two friends were carrying a blanket -- a sign that they planned to claim space Saturday on the field of RFK Stadium, home to the sold-out HFS-tival, the sixth such alternative-rock fest sponsored by WHFS-FM (99.1).

It was a day of contrasts -- bright sunshine followed by a soaking electrical storm; professional outrageous person Courtney Love followed hours later by a suave Tony Bennett.

Since this was billed as an "alternative" rock festival, there must be a lot of people on the cutting edge -- more than 60,000 people came.

The field started to fill up by 11 a.m., and balls, flying discs and hacky sacks were everywhere. So was the smell of cooking meat -- and it wasn't just the people who forgot sunblock.

Bill and Tina Plank and their friends from Gaithersburg came prepared with suntan lotion -- a good thing, since they looked ready to bake under the watery sun. Women wore bikini tops and men no tops at all.

"By the time it rains, we'll probably be happy," said Larra Carpenter, 27.

Before the main-stage acts -- surprise guests Love and Bennett as well as Soul Asylum, the Ramones, General Public, Mike Watt, Juliana Hatfield, P. J. Harvey, Better Than Ezra, Bush, Primus and Shudder To Think -- the moshers were getting psyched to slam into each other. Jessica Gitlin and Corinna Harris of Silver Spring, both 13, were dressed the part in short, colorful, vintage '60s dresses and pink hair. ("Rose red," Jessica clarified.)

Bill Plank, 29, is a festival veteran. This one, he said, had "more people but the same kind of people. Everybody's out to have a good time."

Still, Tina Plank mused, "I think we're the most normal-looking people here."

There were people in black, of course, and spiked collars, lots of skin, lots of rings hooked into that skin, tattoos and hair every color of the rainbow. But there were just as many people in a sort of uniform -- particularly the guys with short-cropped hair, baseball caps and goatees.

"Everything's pretty expected," said Betsy Digges, 26 of the festival, adding, "It's not alternative. It's just a good reason [for some people] to get wasted." The best reason to come, said the Harford County resident, was for the music.

"We don't really consider ourselves to be alternative," said bassist Tom Drummond of Better Than Ezra, whose performance of the hit "Good" was a highlight of the festival. Still, fellow band member Kevin Griffin acknowledged that acts such as R.E.M. and Sonic Youth made commercial success possible for bands like theirs, which used to be considered marginal.

The clash between commercial and alternative was most obvious in the festival's exhibit areas just outside the stadium. There, vendors sold jewelry, rock memorabilia, new-age gadgets, food and tarot readings (your correspondent is destined to be a sex therapist, according to the cards), while nonprofit groups strained for attention. The pulsating Mutant Dance Party Tent, which was filled with techno fans and sauna-like heat by day's end, was sponsored by Dodge Neon.

The amusements, including Velcro Olympics and some virtual reality displays, were sometimes hilarious. In a huge, padded sumo-suit and sumo-hair helmet, 19-year-old Andrew Fitzhugh lunged at similarly suited 18-year-old Shane Cantrell, who neatly sidestepped him. Splat! Gravity works against the slow sumo wrestler. Both wrestlers live in Baltimore.

The exhibit area's stage featured lesser-known bands, with local connections.

Inside RFK, when the music was rocking, so was the stadium -- literally. And in front of the stage, the moshers went wild, passing body surfers around until they ended up in the arms of the yellow-shirted security guards in front of the stage, who reeled them in like fish, put them down and watched them run drunkenly back into the frantic ocean.

Ken Brooks, 23, said his Navy group volunteered to join the security staff so that the security firm would pay for their Navy Day ball. "It's good to see the concert for free," he said. That was before the moshing started.

Some moshers were taken away in stretchers. "We're seeing a lot of alcohol and a lot of heat," one paramedic said. "Down on the floor, we're seeing a lot of neck injuries."

A spokeswoman for WHFS said yesterday the station hadn't heard of any serious injuries.

Surveying the madding crowd from a platform above the stage while Primus played, WHFS DJ Neci said, "They were doing this with the Cranberries [at another festival], so I don't think Tony Bennett is going to be any different."

It was like the song, "Instant Club Hit (You'll Dance to Anything)," by the Philadelphia punk rock group, Dead Milkmen. These folks would mosh to anything, no matter how mellow -- though a few did some old-fashioned dancing when Tony Bennett came out late Saturday, swinging and singing, "stepping out with my baby . . ."

Courtney Love stole the show. She's a scene-maker, and true to form, Kurt Cobain's widow sang a couple of songs -- including her band Hole's hit "Doll Parts" -- and yelled at the crowd: "Shut up!" She took a dive off the stage to wild cheers, was manhandled by moshers and was hauled back up by security guards. Disheveled, she said a bunch of words we can't print and told everyone to have fun before bowling over a couple of photographers on her way offstage.

Willie Stevens, a 16-year-old from the Eastern Shore who was wearing a Kurt Cobain T-shirt, was thrilled. "I got a piece of her dress!" he said, holding up a tattered fragment of ivory-colored lace. "I thought it was really cool that she came out."

There were many memorable moments on stage: Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner playing a trumpet; P. J. Harvey leaping about in a skin-tight metallic blue dress; General Public singing about the rain in the rain. Off stage, the king and queen of the festival, WHFS contest winners Michael Haan and Catherine Buzzell, strolled around looking overheated in their red robes and crowns. And in the press room, America Online staff uploaded photos and sat band members down at a Powerbook so they could talk to computer users.

As a thunderstorm with spectacular lightning prompted a rain delay about 6:30 p.m., fans on the field ignored pleas to enter the stands and instead formed conga lines, pulled out yellow slickers, used tarps as giant umbrellas and danced free-form to the music playing over the speakers -- "No Rain" by Blind Melon and "Red Rain" by Peter Gabriel. The message on the electronic board: "QUICK, HOW DO WE SHUT THE SUN-ROOF?"

The sun did return, as did the music. And a slender moon later led the mob -- many of them wet and dirty -- home.

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