Harmony Festival: Having your CAKE and eating it too

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By Molly Freedenberg

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Skaters dropped three stories before hitting this 18-foot vert ramp in the Rude Boyz Eco Cup Zone. Photo from the Harmony Festival blog.

Like most of us, I had a hippie phase. I wore Birkenstocks. I lived on a commune ... ahem ... in an intentional community. And I frequented festivals that featured jam bands and booths full of rasta-colored beanies. Then I graduated from college.

Some of my other interests and habits from high school remain with me: punk rock, cigarettes, skater boys. But my interest in festivals like last weekend's Harmony went the way of baggy jeans, ankh necklaces, and smoking pot. That is, simply, it went away. Until now.

This year, the annual Santa Rosa event expanded its usual granola-and-glow-sticks offerings (no offense to those of you who went for Michael Franti or The Orb) to include punk bands and a skate park. Be still my 16-year-old heart ... Dead Kennedys? Thirty-year-old men in low-slung shorts who dedicate their lives to a wooden stick with four wheels? I had to go. Plus, Cake - one of my all-time favorite bands - was headlining Friday night.

Upon arrival, I was struck first by how many booths there were. I remembered these festival being part concert and part mall, but it seemed Harmony was especially heavy on the latter. Too bad I wasn't in the market for a tie-dyed halter dress, rasta-colored wallet, or new cell phone plan. Still, all the vending made for plenty of eye candy, and at least the lay-out was based more on the idea of mini villages than a simple modular street plan. There were also plenty of resources for those interested in moving their lives towards a more healthy, holistic, or eco-friendly place. I might've spent more time in the Well Being Pavilion or in the Non-Profit Zone if I hadn't been so distracted by beer. (OK, probably not.)

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I want Sequoia and Gita's clothing to be in harmony (ha ha) with my wardrobe.

There were several vendors/locations worth noting, however. I was particularly surprised and impressed by the Peace in Medicine Healing Center, a traditional Moroccan-tent dedicated to education about, and (legal) consumption of, marijuana. Though I wouldn't go within six inches of the door for fear of getting a contact high, I could appreciate the lush interior -- and the importance of recasting this useful substance as something requiring an Rx, not 12 Steps. Nearby was Ray Griswold, a metal sculptor who displayed the most inventive masks and fire tools I've seen in years, including a set of wings meant to be worn while burning. (Inexplicably, he doesn't have a Website. But you can email him at ray_c@tribe.net.) A booth in the Eco-Village (where experts gave lectures on fermentation and composting, and Julia Butterfly Hill spoke inside a geodesic dome), featured great deals on hemp clothing from Wildlife Works as well as gorgeous, whimsical, circus-inspired jumpsuits, corsets, and jackets from Sequoia and Gita. And near the main stage, Kucoon offered a dazzling new collection of soft, detailed, and well-tailored dresses and pants, along with gorgeously crafted feather earrings. (As for the food, beverage, and service vendors: $1 a minute for a massage is still too much, $8 for a beer is still way too much, and I don't care what flavor your oxygen is -- I'm still not going to buy air until it stops being free.)

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Every purchase from Wildlife Works, like this yoga tank, helps protect wildlife habitats.

The best part, by far, was the skate park -- a terrifying tall ramp (30 foot drop) connected to an only slightly less impressive half pipe down which lithe, athletic, and probably certifiably insane skateboarders rode, jumped, and, almost inevitably, slid on their knees. Smartly separated from the rest of the booths and stages, this area - with its black clad teenagers and rock like Rage Against the Machine piped over the P.A. - was a welcome respite from all the "health" and "harmony" everywhere else. And this, of course, also was where Dead Kennedys (back from their hiatus) played.

How were they? Well, we all know Skip Greer is no Jello Biafra, so we'll get that argument out of the way. But I was reminded again how well he can hold his own, managing to maintain the integrity of the band's ethos and sound without simply mimicking Biafra's famous voice and antics. And yes, East Bay Ray and Klaus Flouride are aging. But their playing, if not their clothes or their stage presence, is still as fresh and energetic as it ever was. Judging by the crowd of enthusiastic (though a bit, well, polite) moshers, the new DK did not disappoint - particularly when they launched into a rousing version of "California Uber Alles." (Side note: Die-hard DK fans should definitely get the re-release of "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables," particularly the DVD extras featuring footage of the original line-up. Check out my 2006 review.)

As for CAKE, the final main stage performance before the festival was turned over to electronica and mayhem (otherwise known as Harmony After Dark), they were exactly as could be expected: musically flawless and emotionally antagonistic (again). I still don't understand why John McCrea feels the need to mock the very people who've made him rich and famous. If he's so angry people only know the band for hits like "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" or "Distance," then why play them? More devoted fans certainly wouldn't mind hearing less popular songs. How about "Grand Piano"? "Mr. Mastodon"? Or, if that doesn't do it for you, then why keep playing at all? I'm not ungrateful for the chance to hear such an inventive band live - but I've had just about enough of McCrea making fun of the crowd.

Still, all was worthwhile. The fairgrounds were gorgeous, especially at night. My favorite bands did a great job. The people-watching was engaging. And I managed to leave without a single stick of nag champa. All in all? A success.

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