Great vibes at Now & Zen
Five top-notch bands give crowd their fill at Alice festival 'feast'
by Randy Cohen
ALICE radio promised that Sunday's Now & Zen festival would be a feast for eyes, ears and spirit. If this is the long-awaited Age of Aquarius, sign me up.
Not only was the sold-out afternoon festival at Sharon Meadows in Golden Gate Park long on amenities like good food, fun booths, socially-conscious information stalls and such, but the music was uniformly great - all five bands.
KLLC, better known as Alice@97.3 on all its many banners, chose wisely: five bands from five different genres, but all palatable to a general audience. No screaming-banshee punk acts, no metal rap. Just good quality acts from the stable of pop.
Headlining was art-rock icon Beck, joined by '80s sensations the Go-Go's, underrated power-poppers Tonic, melodious Britpoppers Travis and up-and- coming rockers Dogstar.
The latter was the biggest surprise, turning in a taut, tuneful set drawn from their new album "Happy Ending." Once the audience got over the fact that the bass player bore a heavy resemblance to mega-star Keanu Reeves - because he was - the music seemed to speak for itself.
Reeves was the silent one, playing efficiently in the corner, while frontman (and Bay Area native) Brett Domrose captured center stage with his engaging persona and hard playing.
Backstage, Reeves was pleased at the crowd response. "I think because we've been around a little while now, people are starting to pay attention to the music, which is good."
Backstage was quite the happening hotspot. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, enjoying his last days of tranquility before the band's much-buzzed-about new album comes out in a week, socialized with Beck, Reeves and Travis' pinup boy Fran Healy, and played with his toddler son. Arion Salazar of Third Eye Blind also hobnobbed.
Travis, superstars of British pop, inexplicably played the second set (I guess they're not yet as famous on this side of the pond), which vied with Beck for high point of the long afternoon. The Scottish foursome filled every song with utter conviction and emotion, and their set was flat-out stunning. Especially transcendent was the hit "Turn" - the song Oasis wishes they had written - and the lovely "Driftwood."
Tonic, the L.A. band that has enjoyed moderate success despite several memorable singles, also turned in a terrific set. Gifted with a lead singer (Emerson Hart) with a gorgeous voice and a guitarist (Jeff Russo) who's just plain gorgeous, Tonic's music is perfect for the kind of warm summer day The City was enjoying. They played from their recent album, "Sugar," including the hit, "You Wanted More," as well as their bittersweet earlier hit, "If You Could Only See."
The all-female Go-Go's were another pleasant surprise. Never a big fan, I expected them to turn in the same cutesy show they made famous in the '80s, when they busted through the male-dominated wall of rock and established themselves as New Wave contenders.
But they seem to be reestablishing themselves as relevant - with a new album in the works and touring on the docket - and Sunday's set proves they still "got the beat." They rocked hard, and sounded tight as a drum. Belinda Carlisle (still looking mah-velous) never had a great voice, but knows what to do with what she has, sounding girlish but always in charge.
They played a healthy helping of hits, from "Vacation" to "We Got the Beat" to "Our Lips Are Sealed," which featured a surprise solo verse by Greenday's Armstrong, whose appearance took the audience completely off-guard.
It was all a warm-up, though, for Beck, who rocked the house down with his horde of merry pranksters. Looking healthy and happy (perhaps his new romance with Winona Ryder is responsible?) Beck was in rare form, even for him. Karate-kicking then dropping to splits, moonwalking and leaping up onto speakers, the pop icon held the audience in thrall.
"New Pollution" was space-age madness, followed by a gut-punching "Loser," which seems to be back on his playlist. "Mixed Bizness" was a drawn-out funk-fest, and a new song, "Salt in the Wound," was the hardest-rocking thing he's done in a while.
But all the clowning can't obscure the fact that Beck is an extraordinary musician - something he illustrates best when, in mid-set, he picks up guitar and harmonica to perform alone, like the busker he once was. "Nobody's Fault But My Own," the beautiful, heart-felt ode from "Mutations," soared over the crowd just as the sun was beginning to set, and it was magic.