H.O.R.D.E. Fest Offers Atypical Sonic Feast

Paula Cole and other performers are veering from the tour's signature rock and blues.

HOLMDEL, N.J. -- Deadhead-like seaweed dancing it was not.

Shaking her head with such fervor that she seemed on the verge of a breakdown, stormy singer/songwriter Paula Cole shrieked, "Got a piece of my heart on the sole of your shoe" during her tune "Mississippi" (RealAudio excerpt).

On more up-tempo songs, she danced around the stage with Michael Jackson-like robotic movement and twisted her body around suggestively.

Her onstage antics Friday night at the tour's stop at the PNC Bank Arts Center in New Jersey offered further proof that the venerable H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival has strayed far from its Woodstock-hippie musical roots.

Cole's music -- a sultry, mercurial mixture of pop, soul and rock -- was nothing like H.O.R.D.E. headliners and founders Blues Traveler's harmonica-led improvisations. All told, her set was a far cry from the rocking jams and fiery blues of more traditional H.O.R.D.E. artists. What's more, throughout the show, the cry was echoed by such non-blues acts as Barenaked Ladies and Marcy Playground.

Set on two stages, the tour -- which began July 10 and will wind down Sept. 5 -- boasts a lineup that also includes Ben Harper, Alana Davis, Jiggle the Handle, King Norris, the Getaway People, Catatonia and Gov't Mule.

During Cole's set, what really must have come as a shock to the throngs of teens and 20-year-olds used to Woodstock-era music was how the singer was dressed during her closer, "La Vie en Rose." From a sleek, modern vixen -- her look throughout much of the show -- she transformed herself, Madonna-like, into a blond chanteuse, complete with a short wig, feathers in her hair and a long, flowing boa.

That song's cabaret style departed not only from the H.O.R.D.E. standard but from much of the rest of Cole's own set. But the one-hour performance, which touched on the emotional balladry of her breakthrough album, This Fire, included some other surprises. One was a reggae number -- a sonic reflection of the stage decoration, which included a plush chair supporting a framed shot of reggae legend Bob Marley.

Even Cole's most shining moment -- her concert-opening rendition of John Lennon's stark statement of alienation, "Working Class Hero" (from his classic 1970 album, Plastic Ono Band), was atypical of the H.O.R.D.E. norm.

More in keeping with meat-and-potatoes H.O.R.D.E. music were Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals.

For much of Harper's set, he rocked out from a sitting position, unleashing wailing, psychedelic sounds from his slide guitar that, along with his Innocent Criminals backing band, would have made Jimi Hendrix proud. The title track of his recent The Will to Live album was particularly satisfying, with his high-pitched, passionate vocals perfectly suiting the track's desperate lyrics.

Another break with tradition came in the form of one of the hottest groups in the nation, Barenaked Ladies, whose exhilarating show deftly mixed their hip-hop- and traditional-pop-laced rock with high comedy and even a touch of the burlesque.

Wearing a black-striped white shirt and nerdy rectangular glasses, Ladies frontman Steven Page ruled the roost like a young Elton John. The hefty Page put on a pair of oversized shorts thrown from the audience and shook his ass, did the twist and kicked his bare (except for white socks) legs in the air like a Radio City Music Hall Rockette.

"We have a new album -- it's called Van Halen III," Page joked. He also continuously traded barbs with the Ladies' other lead singer, Ed Robertson, in Abbott and Costello fashion.

The Ladies' music is even more witty than their banter. The band has perfected an amazingly fresh sound that relies equally on Robertson's rapping (which at one point included plugs for many of the festival's food vendors) and Page's sweet voice -- one of the most finely tuned on the current pop/rock scene. The band's latest smash single, "One Week" (RealAudio excerpt), was a great showcase for these multi-talents. The number had many dancing in their seats and in the aisles.

Page shook his head and rollicked on "It's All Been Done," another song from Barenaked Ladies' new, top-5-charting album, Stunt.

As the crowd sang along to "If I Had a $1,000,000," all five members of the band danced Boyz II Men-like at the front of the stage, and Page and Robertson sang portions of kitschy soundtrack and showtune classics such as "Fame," "Flashdance" and "Memory" (from "Cats"). They ended the song and their part of the festival aping the "Titanic" theme, "My Heart Will Go On," and the Police's "Every Breath You Take."

While the Barenaked Ladies combined their crowd-pleasing antics with consummate musicianship, Blues Traveler, in contrast, relied, as usual, on their expertly played, but long, jamming.

This, in turn, emphasized the monotony of John Popper and company's onstage style.

Their first few numbers, including "Carolina Blues," all seemed to blend together. It wasn't until Blues Traveler tried a cover of the Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" that the crowd got a much-needed break from the blues.

Harper returned to sit in -- literally -- with the band, trading slide guitar licks with Blues Traveler members Chan Kinchla's guitar and Popper's harmonica on such numbers as "All in the Groove," which Popper said the band hadn't played on the East Coast in eight years.

Funksters Marcy Playground's set, on the festival's second stage, drew a large crowd and some wild moshing as the lanky band played its hit, "Sex and Candy" (RealAudio excerpt), and other cuts off its eponymous debut album. Although they didn't sound as good as they do on the radio, Marcy Playground impressed 28-year-old New Jerseyan Heather Barnfield, who had only heard their single before the show.

"I'm enjoying myself," Barnfield said. "[Marcy Playground] sounds fine ... [and] the groove of the whole [festival] brings people together."

Barnfield said she came to see this year's H.O.R.D.E. mainly because she's loved Blues Traveler since the early '90s.

But for young artists such as Marcy Playground, Barenaked Ladies and the evening's soulful mainstage-opener, Alana Davis, a good listen from Blues Traveler fans such as Barnfield is a great reason to be on the roster of the formerly rootsy fest.