This year's alternative music festival lacks a little Nirvana

By Robert Seidenberg
Updated July 22, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Twelve top alternative bands were on the bill at Lollapalooza ’94, which kicked off a summer-long tour at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas on July 7. But the real attraction during the 10 blistering hours of 102-degree heat wasn’t sets by the platinum-selling Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys. It was the three standing-room-only Rain Room tents filled with misting water. ”Maybe next year people will bring their own bubble bath and goggles,” quipped Pumpkins guitarist James Iha.

As in Lollapalooza’s three previous incarnations, the $28 ticket includes a traveling mall of Gen-MTV enticements: Booths dispense multicultural eats, crafts, and souvenirs (including ”Grunge on a Stick,” a 25-cent flannel flag); techno-dweebs can fondle interactive TVs and CD-ROMS in the Electric Carnival tent; and aspiring poets can mouth off in the Revival tent’s Poetry Slams.

At the Vegas show, a tiny audience of more adventurous souls checked out obscurer acts at the Second Stage, uninvitingly plopped at one end of the hellishly hot parking lot. But the mostly white crowd of 15,000 teenagers were here to mosh to the stars. Main Stage highlights included L7’s revved-up sludge rock, George Clinton’s three-ring circus of freaky funk, the Beastie Boys’ raging hardcore and obnoxious-amusing rap, and the Pumpkins, who finessed the shifting dynamics of their swirling psychedelia despite muffled sound. The Breeders suffered from having to play during the hottest part of the day: Their subtler pop fell flat in the half-filled stadium.

The biggest surprise: a normally nocturnal Nick Cave (with his band, the Bad Seeds) delivering his songs of sin and salvation under a bright sun. ”Who is this Nick Cage guy?” asked a kid too young to remember the Australian singer’s late-’80s heyday. ”He sucks.” In fact, Cave’s set was a reality check for the supposedly alternative festival. This year’s slate may be the most diverse yet — with more women (L7, The Breeders) and African-Americans (A Tribe Called Quest, Clinton’s P-Funk All Stars) — but only Cave’s impressively sinister set packed the shock of the different.

”If a [fan] doesn’t care about music, then it’s the dumbest thing in the world to stand in the middle of the desert for 10 hours,” said Iha shortly before the Pumpkins’ festival-closing set. ”But for someone who thinks music is an art, or a way of life, it’s godhead.” Perhaps. But what was painfully clear by day’s end was the absence of anything approaching musical passion or bliss. What was missing was Nirvana. When the late Kurt Cobain’s overdose in Rome forced his band to drop from the Lollapalooza roster back in March, the festival didn’t just lose a headliner. Neither the Pumpkins nor the Beasties seemed able to connect with an audience as deeply as Nirvana did. The festival organizers would like Lollapalooza to be more than the sum of its parts, but without a Nirvana, this year’s edition is just a random gathering of good bands.