Then there's the music, shamelessly retro, the uninitiated often say. H.O.R.D.E. followers call it pure, living, breathing, gloriously uninhibited rock and roll, a format that is the last refuge for improvisation ("jamming," in H.O.R.D.E.-speak). Or, as Blues Traveler lead singer and H.O.R.D.E. festival organizer John Popper recently told Rolling Stone, "music to get drunk to and scam on the opposite sex with." Guess we know where to locate Popper's soul.
Not all of these notions about the annual event are accurate or fair. Sure, popular groups from H.O.R.D.E.'s past -- Phish and the Black Crowes, for example -- richly deserve any hippie-baiting thrown their way. And the core 1996 lineup includes a few typically time-warped acts such as Lenny Kravitz, touchy-feely world-folk rockers Rusted Root and jammy festival mainstays Blues Traveler. But there's also Rickie Lee Jones -- who may be a tad cosmic, but not particularly psychedelic -- and the Dave Matthews Band, a group that is indulgently improvisational but not particularly retro-fixated. Add to that the strange and wonderful jazz of Medeski, Martin and Wood, the eclectic bayou flair of Leftover Salmon (both favorites of Houston audiences when they come to town on their own) and the socially driven alternative rock of Super 8, and you've got a healthy, diverse bill of fare that transcends any sort of label.
So, if the Deadhead stereotype is indeed a bit rash, what sort of audience is H.O.R.D.E. designed for these days, anyway? Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan toes the company line on that question:
"I'd like to think it's geared to anyone who likes live music and to have a good time," he replies. "I think there's more of an environmentally conscience audience in some ways. It's somewhat more of a pot-smoking audience, but it is really about the music; it's not about a scene -- a piercing or something."
Ask most anyone involved with the tour, in fact, and they'll tell you that H.O.R.D.E. is simply about having a good time. Really, what could an event grounded loosely in a 30-year-old social movement have to offer the modern world besides fun? Even as the festival wrestles with its real or imagined hippie identity, it's apparent that H.O.R.D.E. culture is really the province of comfortable, apolitical, mainstream youth.
Rest assured, though, dishing out a day's worth of entertainment designed for such an insatiable leisure class (high school and college students) is a monumental task in itself. This year's "space invasion" theme -- complete with wooden space ships and glowing stars in orbit -- provides additional food for the senses. It is merely, as Sheehan says, "neat stuff to look at, really no deeper than that." And when publicity packets repeatedly tout the festival's "alternative lifestyle vendors," "counterculture food" and "political activism," anyone with even the weakest grasp of social history and popular culture can see that terms like "counterculture," "alternative" and "activism" are out of place here. After all, what is more mainstream American than vending? Or product marketing? Or politics, for that matter?
In posing the countercultural question to Sheehan, he seems a bit confused. "The whole thing is kind of weird. But, to me, that is my culture, so I don't know."
Mildly stirring things up at H.O.R.D.E. in Houston will be a tent touting the multiple uses of hemp -- the wonder-plant of the hippie universe -- an AIDS awareness booth and, possibly, a "Rock the Vote" station. But when it comes to preaching activism, admits Sheehan, the atmosphere will be decidedly low-key.
"It's pretty much whoever wants to come," he says. "I think we put pro-life and pro-choice right next to each other. It's really just a platform; we don't try to slant it any way."
Why, then, has H.O.R.D.E.'s '60s label failed to rub off? Just take a look at the crowds, which are dominated by caravans of un-showered vagabonds in sundresses and ripped jeans dancing and prancing as if possessed by a spirit with zero sense of rhythm.
"H.O.R.D.E. might be an avenue for some of those people to go and seek some of the same enjoyments they got out of the Grateful Dead," Sheehan says.
Deadheads and all, H.O.R.D.E. is like Disneyland for a lost generation. It offers the perfect controlled environment to safely feel -- in some peripheral way -- that we are taking part in the seemingly wonderful things we missed: the peace, the music, the bourgeois enlightenment, the drugs. All for the very '90s price of 33 bills.
"We don't really like to stand on soapboxes," says Sheehan.
And that's the difference between H.O.R.D.E. and all the '60s counterculture festivals. Back then, folks actually believed -- passionately and optimistically -- that rock and roll was the soapbox. Silly, huh?
H.O.R.D.E. comes to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, Sunday, July 21. Music starts at 3 p.m. Tickets are $33. For info, call 629-3700.