While Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds thrash out their 40-minute teatime set on the main stage, high on the rim of a natural amphitheatre a 50ft queue of teenagers waits in the blazing sunshine outside a row of pointed tents decorated with brightly painted carnival signs. Every half hour a new batch is ushered in, while the rest strain forward for a peep into the darkness. No one quite knows what this sideshow is, but they know it is worth the wait.
So what awaits them inside? Sex, drugs, rock'n'roll? Another trip back in time to recapture those glory days? No, these festival freaks are queuing up to play on computers.
Lollapalooza - started four years ago by Perry Farrell, then lead singer of Jane's Addiction - is about as far removed from Woodstock as you can get. Sure, the kids turn up in their thousands to camp out in the desert, to gather in the natural amphitheatre that overlooks a gorge 10 miles from the nearest town, to listen to music and party for two days; but what makes this travelling festival different from the stale rocksploitation of the wannabe Woodstock festivals is the Electric Carnival. Inside a huge tent fans are encouraged to play with computer software collated by a San Francisco company called Interval Research, which specialises in manoeuvring people into the fast lane of the 'information superhighway'.
Computer screens clad in painted wood fill the space, giving it the look of a mutant games arcade. There is a programme called Babymaker where you can merge your face with your partner's to see how ugly your offspring would be. There is a keyboard that allows you to mix music with digitally sampled video clips (H bombs, Hendrix, President Clinton saying 'network', a bikini girl letting rip with a machine gun). In a dark booth, there is a sheet of glass that digitally mirrors your face, yet ripples like water when you touch it ('It's about the myth of Narcissus,' says the custodian).
Much of the software is of the fairly common morphing, photo manipulation and virtual environment variety, but the Electric Carnival is more than just a place for drawing digital moustaches on familiar faces. In stylised cages 'media animals' sit selecting images from the stream of video footage taken over the 40 dates of the tour. A sign invites people to 'feed them ideas'.
They freeze a frame from the Beastie Boys' set showing their DJ, Hurricane, scratching. 'Hey, wasn't there one of him making a gun sign?' an onlooker suggests. They agree to pull it out and post it on the Internet, where people at home can download it free of charge. 'Lemme show you something,' says one of the guides, an MIT graduate called Zane Vella, opening the back of the tent to reveal a two-metre satellite dish.
The great thing about the Electric Carnival is that it's got the power to send lots of information (moving colour images) at high speeds down the phone. People all over the world who've not been anywhere near Lollapalooza are checking in every day to see what's new there. They can use the tattoo 'server' to browse a bank of colour pictures of the tattoo and body piercing sessions taking place at the festival. There's information on the festival's bands, crowd surfing, activism, food - even concert footage to watch. On one of a bank of screens a man in Northern Ireland is sending stuttering video images of himself to the Lollapalooza computer screens, while a young girl talks back to him via video.
'We're trying to show people that the Internet is a two way thing,' says Vella. 'I have to say 'This is a mouse' a hundred times a day to older rock fans, but the 14- to 17-year-olds are absolutley fearless. What you find is they want to interact - they want to publish their poetry, their music, and make dates on it.'
Interacting at this level does not come cheap. At the Electric Carnival tent, use of the equipment is covered by the dollars 30 festival entrance fee. Make a commitment to Interneting from home and you need to make a more serious investment. A basic starter kit would include a camcorder, dollars 1,500-worth of software, and about dollars 50 a month connection fees. 'But that,' says Vella, 'is not impossible.'
Rock fans are beginning to take over the net from the original computer 'nerds'. And the music industry has finally woken up to this fact. But the Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno CD-Roms, put out on mainstream labels, are only the beginning, and their output looks tame in comparison with Freak Show by The Residents, a game package produced by a small label (Ralph Records) which is packed with 20 years of the band's in- jokes and iconography and which had great credibility with the clued-in computer kids at Lollapalooza. And the Underground Music Archive, a site on the net run by two indie fans from Santa Cruz, has become a way of sidestepping the music industry entirely, with small bands releasing artwork and new music straight to people's computers.
Meanwhile, outside the Electric Carnival tent, a music festival has been going on. The amphitheatre looks like a Sebastiao Salgado photograph, as 30,000 people come and go up and down the grassy terraces, and in the moshe pit muscular college kids jump around to the Beastie Boys and the Smashing Pumpkins. The headline act over, people start to drift away towards their tents, camper vans and shiny pick-up trucks.
To the alternative rock purist, Lollapalooza may seem to have had its edge dulled by expanding into student audiences like this one. But in doing so it has tapped into the New Edge, the point where New Age meets new technology. And just in time. For the rest of the music industry can't be far behind.
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