Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Solar Power, Day 2

By Julie Birnbaum

JULY 28, 1997:  When last we left our trusty Alibi reporter, she was watching the stars appear as night fell on the longest day of the year, while Robert Mirabal finished his set and made way for the day's finale, Spearhead.

KTAO-FM, the solar-powered radio sponsor of the festival, has received more requests for Spearhead's music this year than any other band. The group's hip-hop/reggae/rap sound is decidedly urban, and even they seemed surprised at their popularity in the rural area of Taos. When the festival's director first contacted the band about playing, frontman Michael Franti told the crowd, grinning, he thought, "What's this old hippy want with Spearhead?"

Spearhead was just what SolarFest needed. Like some of the earlier bands, they're high-energy and optimistic, but Spearhead's optimism is rooted in '90s realism; their songs are about moving forward with the wisdom gained from past injusticies. Their performance was incredible, with a sound somewhere between Arrested Development, De La Soul and Phish--not at all for the Phish aesthetic but for the fact that Spearhead was the first hip-hop band I've heard that jams, taking several themes and weaving them into a vital, improvisational piece of music.

In one of the most amazing moments of the festival, a Taos Pueblo elder went onstage in the middle of Spearhead's thudding bass and sang a traditional song for the solstice. The meeting of such dissimilar cultures was incredible, and it was more than superficial--the K-Taos festival was the first time that the town and the pueblo of Taos worked together to put on a musical event.

The next day, I arrived in time to see Eliza Gilkyson, who thrilled the small crowd of early arrivals with her gentle folk sound and intelligent lyrics. If Nancy Griffith embodies Southern folk, Gilkyson embodies its Southwestern counterpart: Her music is inspired by the vast beauty of the desert and Native American culture.

Drawing a big crowd to the secondary, solar-run stage, Ed Hamell, aka Hamell on Trial, turned folk on its head with his rapid-fire style of acoustic guitar. Watching Hamell perform is like watching a punk band funnelled into one person. With tremendous energy, he strums his guitar in fast-forward, face contorted. Half-speaking, half-singing, he unleashes torrents of lyrics, both furious and hilarious. His songs are mainly personal narratives, delivered with unflinching irony, about everything from being shoved into his idol, John Lennon, to the death of his mother. The audience almost couldn't help but be riveted by the wild intensity of his performance, demanding an encore.

Just before the sun set, Rattlecats played the solar stage. Their version of blues, with its fun, New Orleans festival feel, got the crowd shaking their hands in the air and swinging each other. Performing both traditional blues standards by Muddy Waters and the like and original compositions, they claim that they're "not afraid to jam out," and they absolutely kept to their word. As a band, Rattlecats is new, but the musicians, one of whom is Chris Dracup, were obviously experienced: The music they made together was high-quality blues rock, with a great groove.

At last, the final act of the festival took the stage: the BoDeans. The roots-rock band has been on the scene since the mid '80s, but they weren't heard much on mainstream radio until their single "Closer to Free" was used as the theme song for Fox TV's "Party of Five" a few years ago. Perhaps it was because of the incredible lineup of lesser-known, higher-energy bands that came before them, but the BoDeans music came off as over-commercialized in comparison and a little tired. The songs were more "unplugged" sounding than their radio counterparts, which was nice, but I heard several audience members shouting: "Bring back Boxing Gandhis!"

As a whole, the festival was one of the best I've been to, for the incredible, friendly vibe of the crowd present, the educational aspect of the Solar Fair and the eco-friendly Earthships and the great collection of performances. I expect the second annual K-Taos fair to be bigger and even better next summer solstice.

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