Barely a Ripple

How bad management made a mess of Making Waves '97

The colossal foam heads of the absurdist band Idiot Flesh loom in the shadows of Embarcadero high-rises. Halloween magic erupts from the stage as the night engulfs the longest sun of the year. Wonderful ironies suffuse the darkness: rock against rock, heavy beyond metal, Oakland's minstrels of the macabre capping San Francisco's daylong music fete because no one else in the city is qualified. When the Idiots howl, "Submit! To the cavernous yield ... of the blue head!" revisiting the Summer of Love loses all relevance. A clueless macho boy wants to duke it out on the pavement for the right to sit at the foot of the stage. I explain, "You must not know the band. You won't be sitting down for long." A friend restrains li'l homie as the band stuffs an apple in his mouth. Then the group blows up like a tsunami. After too many hours of Making Waves mishaps, it's about time.

For the past six years, the city has played host to Making Waves, a one-day music festival to mark the summer solstice in style. On June 21, more than 200 bands of every imaginable persuasion performed on 23 stages up and down Market Street and along the waterfront. Concert promoters -- San Francisco Art Commission and their art house and corporate allies -- say their mission is to provide the city with a day of free music "as a unifying force capable of bridging racial, cultural and generational differences." But good intentions can't possibly translate to the public level when producers can't even get it together themselves.

An organizational fiasco from the start, not a single ad appeared in any of the local papers to alert prospective concertgoers of show times, stages, and performers. A few program guides did crop up here and there on the streets, in the grip of wide-eyed noontime revelers, but not in enough number to benefit anyone who arrived on the scene after 3 p.m. -- despite the fact that shows continued for another eight hours or so. Afternoon and evening merrymakers were damned to wander Market and Embarcadero without a clue, weathering the abominations of dozens of pop-star wannabes before happening upon some group of nominal substance. Which brings us to the affair's suspect -- and to some degree, plain stoopid -- booking policies.

Granted, one can't expect to lure all of the city's most relevant acts when offering the musicians zero dollars in return for a set of original live music. But a few professionals will perform pro bono on occasion, especially if there's a guaranteed audience (some of whom might purchase an album or a T-shirt) and if concert organizers make the gig as hassle-free as possible (e.g., by furnishing a helpful stage crew and a simple meal).

That's how Dren MacDonald, head of cabaret ironists Giant Ant Farm and Oakland's alternative haven Vaccination Records, got involved managing the premier Waves stage at Justin Herman Plaza. MacDonald signed on from sunup to well past dark, providing both sound and lights sans recompense, in exchange for booking control of the JHP stage for a Vaccination showcase. He was also promised food and water, as well as a dozen stagehands, for the duration of the concert. But on the day of the show, prison rations for his bands were cut to no agua and four sandwiches, which were scarfed down by his single Waves-appointed assistant, who apparently had the appetite of 12 men. And all this after MacDonald's original agreement with festival co-producers Jeff Gordon and Toni Hafter was undermined when they decided to co-opt the prime spotlight for their own design.

Not only did Gordon and Hafter give the mike to a horrendous, ad hoc cover band called Friends of Goethe or FOG (comprised of delusional Krauts from the Goethe-Institut -- a major sponsor of the event), but they also booked another incongruous German group, tedious generic rockers Rausch, and a so-called honky-tonk pianist named Hurricane Sam, whose performance involved neither honk nor tonk. Further, the savvy Gordon-Hafter team sequenced all of the acts in immediate succession. For example, the inimitable FOG was supposed to commence butchering the Rolling Stones five minutes after 25-piece Italian orchestra Jazz Art Toscanini concluded their swinging set. Anyone with a smidgen of production know-how would have factored in 15 minutes -- minimum -- turnover time between bands. Consequently, the schedule was shot even before the programs ran out.

This egregious management -- from a production staff of 10 paid employees and countless volunteers -- naturally affected the public. Besides not knowing when or where their favorite bands were playing, or even who was onstage right before their eyes, live-music junkies couldn't buy a mouthful of water -- that is, without a hike. After the shops in Justin Herman Plaza closed around 6 p.m., there was nothing to stave off dehydration or the rocker's ineluctable thirst for liquid intoxicants besides free Yoo-Hoo. Which was fine. But how many Yoo-Hoos can you down before you're Yoo-Hoo'd out?

As the darkness came on and telltale paper bags began to emerge in the shadows, word got around about a liquor shop a few blocks inland. The clerks would even crack your brews right there on the premises if you didn't happen to have an opener on hand. Now that's San Francisco hospitality. But what to do about the ineludible laws of physics? After all -- what's ingested must be expelled. And with only a pair of portables in sight, and one of those out of commission before night's end, polyuria loomed as a frighteningly real prospect.

Despite the irksome details, all was not lost. Dren MacDonald did get to close out the festival with Vaccination friends and alumni -- Beth Lisick, Rube Waddell, Giant Ant Farm, Eskimo, and Idiot Flesh -- proving once again that San Francisco's best bands come from Oakland (with the notable exception of Rube, who actually do hail from the city). With performers and audience in mind, MacDonald programmed continuous music for the last four hours of the evening, allocating a side stage for Rube to kick their Appalachian junkyard blues intermittently between the main stage sets. Once self-styled (sub)urban folklorist Beth Lisick stepped up to the bandstand to retell a few "swingin' tales" from her new book, Monkey Girl (while Rube improvised a backbeat), the tenor of the Waves fest finally crested.

Lisick's storypoem performances of "United Petri Dish Incorporated," "People Pleaser," and "Weekend Warrior" were riveting. From shopping to bumper stickers to battles with the snooze alarm, she transformed the mundane into comic-absurd revelations on the human experience. Excerpts don't do justice to Lisick's vision, which often involves skewed variations on the American Dream ("Michael Douglas checked me out!") and a litany of breathless observations ("There is good fat, bad fat, and figure flaw fixers now that the girdle has made a comeback, but with catchier names like Rear-Riser, Hip-Slip, and Banded Belly Brief"). Rube's hoedowns on "tiny" instruments (two-string guitar, ukulele, harmonica, tabla, back-porch percussion) provided just the right concrete-and-backwoods support for Monkey Girl's verbal antics.

Thanks to Lisick, Rube, Giant Ant Farm, and Eskimo, the atmosphere was sufficiently pumped for the grand finale of Idiot Flesh. Last year, Oaktown's over-the-top jesters ushered in the Waves fest at noon on this same stage. So it seemed appropriate that they punctuate the end of this excruciatingly long day of largely arrested revelry with a howling exclamation. (Especially since they're definitely opting out next year.) And the audience (for the most part) agreed.

By encore, the incredulous grinning faces of the crowd appeared to forgive all administrative blunders. Singing, dancing, and baying at the moon ensued as Lorrie Murray pulled hapless onlooker Tamson Fynn (companion to the macho boy who wanted to sit, no less) into the Idiot Flesh circle-round-the-armadillo-box. She giggled and played along, with charismatic call-and-response timing, until the group put the final spin on Making Waves '97: "One two, fuck you, armadillo box, thank you, good night!

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