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Out & About

By Erik Beach, Andrew R. Iliff, and Matthew S. Rozen, Crimson Staff Writers

Red, White and Green

The Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition 12th Annual Freedom Rally Featuring Scissorfight

Boston Common, September 15

The lead singer of Tree tried to tell the crowd at the 12th Annual Freedom Rally on Boston Common that this rally was, in fact, all about freedom, as he buttressed an American flag against his hip. This rally, casually known as “Hempfest” and one of the last places one would expect to find an outpouring of patriotism, was understandably although strangely influenced by the events of Sept. 11.

The premise for the rally was to support the nationwide reform of marijuana laws (including Massachusetts’s bill H2124)—no small matter in a country where 10 million are regular users and 700,000 people are arrested each year on marijuana charges. Using pot for pain is also a hot issue, as nine states, including Massachusetts, have medical marijuana laws. However, a March 2001 Supreme Court ruling stated that federal law considers the distribution of marijuana—even for medical purposes—illegal. However, these political issues were somewhat obscured at the rally by the smoke from various munchie-satisfying deep fried foods, dust kicked up from dancing around the drum circle and the omnipresent haze of the featured substance, raising the question of whether this gathering of thousands is really a rally or a party, not to mention the exact role of a heavy metal band from New Hampshire with a strange visual resemblance to ZZ Top headlining for your typical Phish concert crowd.

At what was supposed to be a rally against current government criminal policies on marijuana, there was a wave of support for America instead. People wore red, white, and blue, as well as black arm bands. American flags were waved in the crowd, on stage, and draped over bare torsos. Chants of “USA! USA!” were common between songs at the main stage, as if what had happened on Sept. 11 was a hockey victory instead of an enormously devastating human tragedy. In addition to the outpouring of support, there was plenty of criticism; some tactful, some less so. The headline of one leaflet read: “While the FBI was busy shooting marijuana supporters, an attack on the USA was being planned!” There was a sign reading “Remember victims of state terrorism, too” and another that read “Giuliani’s arrest record: 71,000 pot smokers, 0 terrorists.”

Although there were a variety of bands, speakers, and entertainers (including a scheduled appearance by actor Woody Harrelson at 4:20pm), hardcore bands like C60, Sam Black Church and Scissorfight seemed out of place, with the similar-sounding band Tree (of “God Grows Grass” fame) more appropriate in terms of content, but not in vibe. Scissorfight wasn’t shy about their New Hampshire roots—with the lead singer featuring a mound of curly orange hair and a long orange beard look and another band member sporting a John Deere farm equipment hat, their look was a little unconventional for a hardcore metal band. If northern New England doesn’t strike you as exactly the best fitting background for a band that appears to be trying to do for New Hampshire what Lynyrd Skynyrd did for Alabama, you have to at least give them points for trying. Songs like “Granite State Destroyers” and “New Hampshire’s All Right If You Like Fighting” frequently invoke the New Hampshire state motto (Live Free or Die), and its penchant for tax resistance and anti-federalism. Although the songs had a clear connection to the pot decriminalization struggle, the band didn’t appear to be particularly focused on the subject.

Does having an annual event in a festival style diminish the importance of the issue at hand? In the end, an event such as the Freedom Rally is unlikely to have any serious political impact in its own right, but the possibility remains that the publicity and attention generated by the event will work in the organizers’ favor. It’s very much a self-selecting crowd, with mostly young people already enamored with the benefits of pot, and looking to celebrate a bright sunny day by firing up a bowl on Boston Common. Still, among the mix were plenty of pro-pot politicians, attempting to rake in some political capital from the event, including the incessant chant from the Green Party table, “If you smoke green, you should vote Green!”

In many ways, it’s hard to characterize the Rally any differently than Janet Lapey, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Drug Prevention, did before the House Judiciary Committee in 1997: “Forty thousand young people were lured to Boston Common to hear rock music glorifying drug use and to smoke marijuana openly. There was a thick cloud of marijuana smoke over the Common, and children as young as 12 explained to reporters they were smoking marijuana because it is “a healthy medicine.” This year, it appeared that the latter of Lapey’s two lures was better bait, as bands like Scissorfight failed to make much of a dent in the crowd’s attention span. In a bizarre afternoon that combined incongruous heavy metal, terrorist references and tie-dye, committed pot activists hoped that the government would soon swallow some medicine of their own and move to decriminalize marijuana. —Erik A. Beach

Come on Feel the Noise

Phi-Phenomena Tour

Berwick Research Institute, September 15

Whenever you turn on MTV or flip on your favorite radio station, you may hear, in as little as an hour, a wide sampling of artists and a taste of who’s who, what’s popular or whatever defines the subset of musicians that form the station’s current rotation. But this is vastly different than what you might normally expect from a concert. Even if you wasted your money on Mixfest, it still took you a full day to experience each band’s full set.

Not so the Phi-Phenomenon Tour, which hit Boston last Sunday night at the Berwick Research Institute in Dudley Square. In the tradition of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Play (90 plays in 90 minutes) and Short Songs for Short People (90 punk songs in 90 minutes), Phi-Phenomenon gave its audience 10 bands in one hour—five minute sets, one minute between sets. Perfect for today’s sound byte, short attention span, try-it-before-you-buy-it-world: You get to sample several artists live, without having to commit time or money to any that you should happen to dislike.

Of course, in the case of Phi-Phenomenon, the music wasn’t exactly typical. With bands like the Laundryroom Squelchers and U Can Unlearn Guitar, the Phi-Phenomenon tour was a global collection of Noise. Note the capital N—this is a unique genre of sound.

Noise, in a word, says it all. The Noise movement began in the 1930’s as musique concrete, an attempt to blur the lines between music and ambient sounds, and to incorporate those noises we encounter on a daily basis into music. Today noise often shares a sound and rhythm with techno, while incorporating a variety of not-traditionally-musical sounds. Of course, it’s just as often arhythmic, often amelodic, and consequently, often very unpleasant to listen to—often on purpose.

But it is, at the same time, very creative and on the cutting edge of music, forcing us to reevalute both the musical structures that dominate pop music, and the everyday background noise surrounding us. And sometimes it doesn’t suck. The short set format was perfect for the genre. A full set of Noise might have been horrible. Ten full sets would have been a nightmare. But in short doses, Noise can be effective without being terribly unpleasant.

—Matthew S. Rozen

Africa comes to Harvard

Thomas Mapfumo and Habib Koite

Sanders Theatre, September 29th

Postponed after the events of last Tuesday, Malian singer-guitarist Habib Koite, and Zimbabwean superstar Thomas Mapfumo will finally grace the stage of Sanders Theatre. The two are well matched—Koite’s acoustic, blues-flecked West African themes represent a younger generation of musicians, yet one still faithful to their musical heritage. Thomas Mapfumo created his own tradition in Zimbabwe, where he is credited with originating “Chimurenga” music, the music of the Zimbabwean Liberation struggle. Recently forced to leave Zimbabwe after releasing Chimurenga Explosion last year, an album that specifically criticised the government’s mismanagement of the country, Mapfumo has been touring the United States for several months, playing with a considerably downsized band from the nearly 20 piece ensemble he headed in Zimbabwe. During a career spanning over 20 years, Mapfumo has reached the summit of acclaim in Zimbabwe and has earned a sizeable fan base in the U.S. as well, allowing his albums to be released internationally.

Koite’s music echoes that of his compatriot, Ali Farka Toure, whose joint album with Ry Cooder won a Grammy award in 1994. The rolling, Eastern-flavoured music combines acoustic guitar with traditional arrangements and instruments, such as the Kamale N’gone, or youth’s harp, to great effect —the music is simple and evocative, showcasing Koite’s expressive voice. While not as rock-influenced as Salif Keita on recent albums, Koite promises to be an exciting, upbeat show. —Andrew R. Iliff

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