Tibet Fest Crowd Mingles With Eddie Vedder, Tibetan Nuns

Much of what made the concert tick took place offstage.

EAST TROY, Wis. -- After his afternoon solo set at the Tibetan Freedom Concert on Sunday, Eddie Vedder headed into the crowd.

The Pearl Jam singer turned up near the volunteers' staging area with a video camera in hand and beckoned 17-year-old Christina Luckett and her 18-year-old boyfriend, Rick Posey, over to him. He proceeded to interview them about their work gathering signatures on Free Tibet petitions.

The once-in-a-lifetime Q&A left the two young fans from Washington, D.C., visibly giddy as they recounted the experience in whirlwind sentences.

"To really see somebody like this come out and get to know volunteers, it shows people that admire and respect them that they aren't superficial," Posey said.

As diverse as the music was at the Tibetan Freedom Concert show here -- it ranged from the hip-hop of headliners the Beastie Boys to blues from Otis Rush to Vedder's veteran grunge act to the unclassifiable work of Cibo Matto -- much of what made the event tick was the crazy quilt of sights, sounds and spectators offstage.

Some 31,000 fans crowded the steeply slanted hill that stretched from the stage to a pavilion atop a ridge far above. Some came just for the bands, especially the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. But plenty knew about and believed in the cause as well.

"A lot of people are here for the bands and the information," said Chris Cooper, 24, of Chicago, a volunteer with the grassroots group Students for a Free Tibet. "The most encouraging thing is the young people -- 12, 13, 14, 15 years old. I know I was totally naive [when I was that age]."

In Cooper's tent, fans signed petitions and bought T-shirts, pins and bumper stickers.

Elsewhere, fans could sample Tibetan art and culture. Upstairs in the pavilion, Buddhist nuns worked all day on an intricate mandala, a traditional sand painting. As onlookers crowded around, the nuns placed vibrantly dyed sand -- sometimes laying just one grain at a time -- into a precise, swirling pattern.

There was even some Chinese culture to be enjoyed at the international show, which was held in four venues on four continents. At the RAI Parkhal in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Yolanda van Swieten munched a noodle dish called bamischi and remarked that it seemed strange to be eating Chinese food at a concert dedicated to Tibet. But, she said, it's the Chinese government people are upset with, not the people.

Standing with the nuns in Wisconsin was Scott Harrison, 38, of Berkeley, Calif. Harrison, who describes himself as a "monk-and-nun man," has overseen appearances by Buddhist monks and nuns at the Tibetan Freedom concerts and with ex-Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. He may be the world's only expert in monk management.

"I first bounced down a dusty road in Tibet in 1985 and never let it go," Harrison said. "I've been involved with Tibet ever since."

He said he has visited Tibet several times, and with each visit, has witnessed the increased influence of Chinese and Western culture on the occupied territory and the destruction of indigenous traditions.

"In Lhasa, modern, mirrored-glass buildings the Chinese have built have obliterated the culture that used to be there," Harrison said. "I volunteer here because I know it increases the morale of Tibetan monks and nuns, and it's helping keep culture alive in monastic communities."

Harrison recalled sitting in such a monastery one evening when a monk pulled a transistor radio from its hiding place and tuned in the Voice of America broadcast -- forbidden in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Nearby, three other monks chanted loudly, raising their voices to conceal the sound of the illicit program -- a sign that maybe music can free Tibet after all.

Vedder, meanwhile, discovered he's not entirely free, even in the United States -- not free from crowds, that is. As he walked through the pavilion -- he took a similar walk during the 1997 Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York -- Vedder was spotted by a few fans. He tried to hush them with a finger to his lips, but the secret was out. Escorts hustled him away as dozens of fans stampeded just behind.

Fast-fingered fan Jeff Dickey, 17, managed to snap a photo of Vedder before the singer disappeared into a restricted area.

"Another guy saw him and his jaw dropped," Dickey said. "He stuck out his hand, just said, 'Eddie Vedder,' and Eddie shook it."

Earlier in the day, Vedder tantalized fans when he pulled two men, "Jon" and "Brad," from the crowd -- supposedly at random -- to play bass and drums behind him. After a few songs, he admitted the choice wasn't random at all, but that the two formed Olympia, Wash., duo C Average, whom he'd brought in to back his set.

"We just wanted to wake people up a little bit," drummer Brad Balsley said later while waiting for Rage Against the Machine to take the stage. "And in a way, Eddie really did just pull us out of a crowd -- he could've picked a lot better-known people to play with him."

(Staff Writer Chris Nelson and Contributing Editor Eric Arnum contributed to this report.)