Rock in Rio Festival: For Fun and a Better World  


RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan. 16 - The third installment of Brazil's huge Rock in Rio festival began on Friday with the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira playing
"Also Sprach Zarathustra" as drummers pounded out samba-style breakbeats and a D.J. scratched in rhythm. At the height of the pomp, three fighter planes, leaving a ceiling of smoke in their wake, dived over the heads of the audience of 85,000 (which grew to more than 200,000 by the end of the

Then the music abruptly stopped while the crowd (along with some Brazilian radio and television stations) fell silent for three minutes to meditate on
the theme of the festival: a better world. As it did so, the throng lifted white handkerchiefs given out at the entrance gate, waving them silently from side to side above their heads. It was a beautiful moment marred only by the America Online logo emblazoned on every one of those handkerchiefs.

And so it went for the first weekend of the two-weekend festival, which ends on Sunday: the moments of beauty (and there were plenty of them) came
blemished. If one were to sit down and make a list, for every item of praise for the festival, which in Week One featured a mix of American stars
(R.E.M., Oasis, Sting, Guns 'n' Roses), Brazilian favorites (Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Daniela Mercury, Barão Vermelho) and international acts
(from Finland's Varttina to Cameroon's Henri Dikongue), there would be a complaint. Rock in Rio III was at once impressively organized and a complete mess; a music-booking triumph and a musical insult; a social-improvement project and a giant corporate advertisement.

The contradictions of the festival were perhaps best epitomized by the many stations where representatives for America Online spritzed hair spray in the colors of the Brazilian flag on the heads of thousands of acquiescent audience members who became symbols of national patriotism and advertisements for American corporate imperialism. As Oasis overcame sound problems to blast its enjoyably derivative pop, even speaking a few words of Portuguese (an effort, for them, equivalent to that of Sting speaking almost entirely in Portuguese during his set), a different scene was unfolding nearby on a world-music stage. "Can you hear me? Can you hear the band?" the Zairian soukous innovator Ray Lema asked over and over as the British siblings, on a main stage set far too close to the festival's world-music and Brazilian-music stages, threatened to drown him out. Finally, unable to hear himself play, he groused: "In Congo, when we invite someone, we let them speak. And the big stage is crowding me."

As at most American festivals (the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival being a notable exception), audience members griped about difficult circumnavigation, expensive yet inedible food, oceans of litter and messy portable toilets. Ticket buyers who came in from all over the country also felt slighted that every night was headlined by three American or British acts while the Brazilian musicians, many of whom outsell the headliners, were stuck playing early in the day. Yet the Brazilian acts are familiar faces while many of the North American acts, including R.E.M., Beck, Oasis
and even Neil Young, had never played in the country before.

The first Rock in Rio, in 1985, made waves as South America's largest rock festival, opening up pop promoters' eyes to a new continent on which to book international tours. The festival galvanized Brazil's metal scene with Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC, and then, in the midst of the noise, threw James Taylor into the mix with surprising success. This year was in some ways a rerun: Iron Maiden and Guns 'n' Roses (from Rock in Rio's 1991 sequel) were back, as was Mr. Taylor, who performed the song he wrote after his 1985 experience, "Only a Dream in Rio." In 2001 the best way to replicate the cultural impact of the 1985 heavy-metal show would have been to bring leading rappers like Dr. Dre and DMX into the country for the first time. Yet outside a booty mix by original-school DJ Kool Herc in the dance tent, the rap and rhythm-and- blues that is fast becoming America's most passionately embraced musical export was not represented at the festival.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty to remember from Week One. Mr. Taylor was practically weeping tears of gratitude as the crowd sang along with
"You've Got a Friend." The audience members were not so friendly to the multitalented syncretist Carlinhos Brown, pelting him with garbage when he
asked them to take it easy and then growing even more outraged when he added that a crowd in northeastern Brazil would not respond in this manner. Mr. Gil and Mr. Nascimento were greeted more warmly when, segueing between their sets, they shared the stage for subtle, powerful duets of their hits from their new soul-churning "Gil e Milton" album.

R.E.M., jubilantly speaking of beautiful Rio, the night sky and sugar cane-alcohol cocktails, previewed uptempo new songs from a record due this summer. Liminha, the former bassist in the seminal psychedelic band Os Mutantes, showed up in a faithful surf-rock band the Silvas, joined by the rapper Gabriel o Pensador (Gabriel the Thinker) and the rock singer Branco Mello. And Rio's breast-baring tomboy agitator Cassia Eller snarled versions of songs by everyone from the late Chico Science (whose backing band Nacão Zumbi also performed) to Nirvana, with a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that sent the crowd into a frenzy that wasn't matched until Nirvana's former drummer, Dave Grohl, took the stage with his band the Foo Fighters later that night.

By far, the most anticipated act of last weekend was Guns 'n' Roses, which took the stage at 2 a.m. for a two-hour-plus set. With his Brazilian
assistant Elizabeta Lebeis translating his speeches into Portuguese, Axl Rose tentatively and then confidently returned to controlling the beast
that, outside a New Year's Eve warmup show in Las Vegas, he hasn't seen in more than seven years: an audience.

The band's recorded audio opening strayed slightly from the "better world" festival theme, praising hate and ugliness and infidelity, but the band's new guitarist, Robin Finck (formerly of Nine Inch Nails), put the message back on course by humoring the crowd with a metal version of the Brazilian soul standard "Sossego" ("Tranquillity").

Mr. Rose had few kind words for his former band mates (whom he accused of having "worked very hard to make sure that I could not be here tonight"); for the battling brothers of Oasis, which snidely dedicated its song "Rock and Roll Star" to him ("I am hurt and disappointed that unlike Oasis we could not all find a way to get along," Mr. Rose said of his former band); and for the review of his Las Vegas show in The New York Times, which he interpreted as criticizing him for playing his old songs.

The truth is that Guns 'n' Roses is now two bands in one. The first is a very effective Guns 'n' Roses cover band that happens to feature the original singer and keyboardist; the second is a very eclectic new band that if judged on its own merits would be one of rock's most interesting current acts.

Featuring the nimble, flawless leads of the science-fiction funk guitarist Buckethead, Guns 'n' Roses unveiled one of its best new songs, "Madagascar," which with strains of classical, metal and sampling sounded like a Big Audio Dynamite remix of Iron Butterfly's "Ball" album. Coming on like rock's Odysseus, Mr. Rose sang, "I can't find my way back anymore."

Flush from the success of more than 200,000 fans' enthusiastically embracing versions of classic Guns 'n' Roses material like "My Michelle" and "Sweet Child O' Mine," Mr. Rose even held court with fans and press at his hotel swimming pool after the show, where he took the opportunity to further disparage his old band mates.

NY Times / Thanks to: Leandro






Copyright © 2001 Jarmo Luukkonen