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By the time they got to Terrastock, they were about 600 strong. I mention this up top because in no way could the small but obsessive crowd that gathered in Providence, R.I., last month for three days of peace, love, and modern psychedelic rock be considered part of a major cultural shift or a burgeoning youth movement or any of that other "come on people now, smile on your brother" '60s hoo-ha that springs to mind whenever you call something "anything"-stock. No, these were just indie-rock geeks (think of Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, all grown up but just as dweebie as ever) gathered in a make-shift club called the Rogue Lounge on the weekend of April 25-27 to see some 30 bands, compare notes with like-minded fans, bail out the fanzine that unites them, and celebrate a particular fringe aesthetic.
But they illustrated something in the rock zeitgeist nonetheless--and marginal though it is, their aesthetic is certainly worth celebrating. Dubbed "the Ptolemaic Providence Perambulation," Terrastock was originally conceived as a modest benefit show by the members of the Providence band Medicine Ball. If you haven't heard of the group, it's probably because you don't read The Ptolemaic Terrascope, the British fanzine dedicated to covering a particular strain of underground artists new (Azusa Plane, Wayne Rogers, Bardo Pond) and old (Silver Apples, the Deviants, Guru Guru). When two of the zine's distributors went under in 1996, Terrascope faced extinction. Many of the musicians whom the zine had trumpeted initially contributed to a benefit CD called Succour. Then some volunteered to come to Providence (the final resting place of H.P. Lovecraft and home of kindred spirits Flydaddy Records) from all over the United States, England, and Australia, and Medicine Ball's humble benefit gig mushroomed into a three-day extravaganza complete with an art show, an indie-rock flea market, and two stages housed in the vaulted spaces on the top floor of the 200-year-old red-brick Atlantic Mills building, a dark and mysterious place with an appropriate X Files vibe.
The wildly varying approaches of the bands could generally be linked to one of two broad categories: hypnotic, droning, and often improvised walls of sound (famous avatars would include Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, and pretty much any Krautrock band), and ornate, emotional, and introspective Technicolor pop songs (see the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the Beatles' Revolver, or Love's Forever Changes). The festival had good and bad examples of each. It kicked off with a performance by Silver Apples, a semilegendary late '60s duo that pioneered the use of synthesizers in strange but mesmerizing proto-industrial soundscapes. Recently reformed by primary protagonist Simeon as a synth, bass, and drums trio, the group's pulsating grooves sounded like a more organic (and hence better) version of Orbital's techno adventuring (the group will perform at the 7th Street Entry on Monday, 5/26). The Michigan duo Windy & Carl delivered two sets of ethereal, ambient drones that carried listeners far from Rhode Island and over to Antarctica (to borrow the title of their latest album). They were the surprise hit of the weekend, easily outshining Bristol, England's prolific and influential Flying Saucer Attack. FSA's Dave Pearce came to Terrastock for his first U.S. performance, but none of his usual collaborators made the trip. Instead, he was backed by Chicagoan Jim O'Rourke, who overpowered Pearce's gentle picking with his white-noise guitar, and ruined the vibe by telling a dumb and seemingly endless joke midway through the set.
Boston's Cul de Sac peppered its trance grooves with Asian and Indian seasonings, bringing to mind a modern Popul Vuh space-jamming on all those old Werner Herzog soundtracks, while New Jersey's Tadpoles successfully crossed Pink Floyd and My Bloody Valentine. (It's been six years since Kevin deigned to give us new music of his own, but his guitar sound certainly lives on in the many Sons of Shields.) In sorry contrast, the U.S. debut by the Bevis Frond (a.k.a. Terrascope founder Nick Saloman) never rose above sub-Jimi Hendrix/Carlos Santana lead-guitar wankery--exactly the sort of thing that gave psychedelia a bad name in the first place.
On the pop tip, the expanded version of Athens, Georgia's Olivia Tremor Control (who opened for Polara at the Entry a couple of weeks back) delivered a ridiculously ambitious set of tunes from the ridiculously ambitious concept album, Dusk At Cubist Castle (Music From An Unrealized Film Script), with synthesizers, guitars, theremin, accordion, banjo, two drummers, bass, clarinet, trumpet, and overlapping vocals, sounding much like the Lovin' Spoonful playing Magical Mystery Tour. The Massachusetts trio Papas Fritas delivered flawless three-part harmonies and enthusiastic versions of the tunes from Helioself, its stellar second album for Minty Fresh; Damon & Naomi played their "faux folk" for a rapt audience that included genuine folkie Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine (he joined them for a cover of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released"); and former Moles and Cardinal songwriter Richard Davies was backed by former Flaming Lip Ronald Jones for a closing set of his warped but wonderful balladry.
As a benefit, Terrastock was a flop: Just before the concert started, members of the Providence Fire Department shook the organizers down for more than two grand to pay overtime for the four fire marshals who stuck around for the event, walking around stiffly and periodically flashing their badges. But as they used to say in the '60s, the man can't bust our music. To the transfixed fans who sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the stage (not to mention this writer, who preferred a folding chair), it was a brilliant showcase of some of the many different musical ways to transcend circa 1997, as well as a reaffirmation that "mind expansion" (to quote the simple but eloquent slogan from the T-shirt of one young listener) is a worthwhile goal that has never really gone out of vogue (despite the Hall of Fame saying it ended in '69).
Out in the flea market, one of the most popular tables was staffed by workers from Exact Change, the ambitious small press founded by Damon (Krukowski) and Naomi (Yang). Looking over titles by surrealist Alfred Jarry, peyote adventurer Antonin Artaud, and Gerard de Nerval (a contemporary of Charles Baudelaire and a regular at Les Club des Haschischins), one of the fire marshals shook his head and turned to his partner. "I just don't understand what any of this shit has to do with anything else," he said in his thick New England accent. The Ptolemaic Terrascope might have explained it, but he'd have been even better off closing his eyes and listening to the music.
Contact The Ptolemaic Terrascope at http://web.mit.edu/jonb/www/pt or 37 Sandridge Road, Melksham, Wiltshire SN12 7BQ England.