At the kickoff of the sixth annual H.O.R.D.E. Festival on July 11, the big question wasn't why the seemingly strong bill failed to sell out San Francisco's Shoreline Amphitheatre, a venue the all-female Lilith Fair had easily filled just a few days before. That could have been attributed to the absence of Beck and Blues Traveler, who will join the tour for select August dates. Nor was it whether H.O.R.D.E. would hold its own against this year's lame Lollapalooza, which reportedly failed to fill even half of New York's Downing Stadium that same day.
No, the big question at the newly dehippified, suddenly hip H.O.R.D.E. was what would happen when angst- ridden alterna-kids infiltrated what was once the crunchiest of summer concerts. With a Neil Young-topped bill that adds alternative-radio successes Primus, Ben Folds Five, Morphine, and Squirrel Nut Zippers to more traditional H.O.R.D.E. jammers like Big Head Todd & the Monsters and Leftover Salmon, the traveling love-fest broadened its scope. Would hanger-on hippies get bummed out by all the negative energy? Would purple-haired skate kids pelt peaceniks with Hacky Sacks?
Well, no. In fact, the audience as varied as the show's lineup seemed surprisingly open-minded, cheering more enthusiastically for quirky second-stage acts Morphine and Ben Folds than for the terminally bland Toad the Wet Sprocket and Big Head Todd, whose main-stage sets were witnessed by barely a third of the crowd. Sure, there were plenty of confused crusties trying to noodle- dance to Squirrel Nut Zippers' imitation swing (trust me, it doesn't work), but at least they were trying, right?
Perhaps the good vibes shouldn't come as such a surprise. While more diverse than at previous H.O.R.D.E.s, this year's lineup still shared one important feature: The groups are inspired, to a large extent, by sounds of the past. From the '70s-style piano pop of Ben Folds Five (beautifully complemented by a string quartet) to Squirrel Nut Zippers' silly-but- fun ersatz prewar jazz to Primus' prog-rock self-indulgence (a drum solo!), the bands' styles were as anachronistic as the Lionel trains that ran around an exhibition tent just outside the amphitheater.
But the night belonged to the one artist on the bill who's actually part of history, not just paying homage to it. Despite some noteworthy sets, the alt-rock undercard was clearly outmatched by headliner Neil Young. After opening the show with an unscheduled second-stage acoustic performance, Young returned seven hours later to close the fest with a brilliant, primarily electric set on the candlelit main stage.
Blazing through a familiar list of concert staples (''Like a Hurricane,'' ''Helpless'') and newer tunes (Broken Arrow's ''Big Time'' and ''Slip Away'' were particularly moving), Young's unflagging energy and gorgeous guitar work showed vastly more heart, conviction, and passion than any of the younger bands on the bill. After a long day mostly devoted to old-fashioned sounds, Young whose two sets contained a good chunk of songs originally recorded before much of the audience was even born seemed like the only performer who wasn't likely to burn out or fade away any time soon.