Drawing on foreboding speeches by William S. Burroughs, John F. Kennedy, Howard Zinn, and Robert Kennedy; eyewitness reports from the gas-shrouded riots of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; recorded arrests from the Free Speech Movement; and the disconsolate home-grown poetry of Azeem, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Paul S. Flores, Variable Unit has conjured a fearsome future world where violence, hatred, and desolation are common currency and civil rights are distant memories. And yet, despite a mock news broadcast from 2029 that promises crystallized cloud fronts, Insurance Police, state-of-the-art plague, and bio-suit law, Handbook for the Apocalypse: A Hitchhiker's Guide Through the Conflict is not a bleak, hopeless album. Perhaps it's the smooth -- sometimes ecstatic -- jazz riffs laid down by drummer Thomas McCree, bassist Matt Montgomery, guitarist Gregory Howe, flutist Tim Hyland, keyboardist Kat Ouano, saxman Ralph Carney, and timpani player Kevin Neuhoff; or the cuts and effects supplied by DJ Quest; or the virile and often beautiful hip hop rhymes of Azeem, Joseph, and Flores. Or perhaps it's the humbling words of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh that bring the album to a close: "Eat, pray, sleep." Variable Unit celebrates its CD release on Friday, June 20, at the Boom Boom Room with HYIM & the Fat Foakland Orchestra opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 673-8000.
By the time Woodstock was organized in upstate New York during the summer of 1969, the concept of the three-day music festival was already 8-year-old hat in England. In fact, the week before the Who appeared at Woodstock, the band performed at what was then known as the National Jazz & Blues Festival in England, along with Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and the Nice. Always a signifier of dominant trends, England's major festival would be subjected to several name changes to better reflect the popular music of the time, and several new locations to better reflect the concerns of various police departments throughout the country, before at last settling in its permanent home as the Reading Rock Festival in 1978. It was an important year for reasons other than the new name, and one glance at the talent roster tells you why: Along with old-school rockers like Patti Smith, Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, and Foreigner, there were some fresh faces. The Jam, Sham 69, the Penetration, and the openly gay, fiercely left punk protester Tom Robinson were among those heralding a change of the guard. While in the eyes of authorities the festival had already become synonymous with petty acts of violence, heavy drug use, fields of mud, and inhuman alcohol consumption (even for England), 1978's lineup brought about a marked rise in intensity -- and, thank God, someone had the foresight to catch the transition on film. The Kids Are United is an exceptionally rare concert movie, both because it is so seldom screened and because it catches a pivotal moment in punk history. During one set, you get to witness the aging Pirates, sans Johnny Kidd, prancing around in satin shirts, and Paul Weller gearing up to destroy every instrument onstage, and the crowd, surfing on a sea of lager cans, going wild for both. You haven't seen '70s punk until you've seen Jimmy Pursey cry. The Kids Are United plays on Saturday, June 21, at the Four Star (2200 Clement at 23rd Avenue) at midnight. Tickets are $6; call 666-3488. -- Silke Tudor