It seems as though every rock festival making its way across the country this summer comes with as much attitude as music. Lollapalooza presented itself as the keeper of the "alternative" flame, while the Furthur Festival dressed up as the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of the '90s. Lilith Fair had a politically correct, touchy-feely aura. The Warped Tour served as a state of the union address to the punk-ska nation.
Is there a rock music festival that's just about . . . rock music?
Another Roadside Attraction, which is coming to Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, fits the bill quite nicely. Canada's favorite sons, the Tragically Hip, headline the tour with their straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. The lineup also boasts Sheryl Crow, Ashley MacIsaac, Wilco and Los Lobos, all of whose musical roots lie in traditional soil.
Wilco, the Missouri-born indie band that critics have praised as a leading light of the "alternative country" genre, would rather not call itself alternative at all. "I just never think in terms of that word," says John Stirratt, the band's bassist and violinist. "I just don't even know what it means, frankly, and I sure wouldn't apply it to us."
The word applies even less to the other headlining bands. Though the opening acts represent a wide range of styles, from singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith to the sample-happy Van Allen Belt, the presence of Sheryl Crow and Los Lobos makes Another Roadside Attraction a very different festival from the electronica-headlined Lollapalooza.
For those who have overdosed on eclecticism, Another Roadside Attraction provides the perfect antidote.
"Someone may like Sheryl Crow or may like the Tragically Hip, but they'll enjoy all the groups," says Keith Beccia of Metropolitan Entertainment Groups, the company promoting the tour. "They blend. It's not so far apart that anybody'll be offended by any of the groups."
Stirratt says of Wilco, "We're not really out of our element or anything." The band's latest release, the double disc "Being There," features moments of wild guitar noise and decidedly of-the-moment lyrics, but rests on a base of solid country and pop songwriting.
In fact, Stirratt personally singles out Ron Sexsmith as a "kindred spirit" on the tour. "I just love his voice," Stirratt says. "A nice, low tenor with a strange timbre. It's really beautiful."
Sexsmith has received similar praise from Elvis Costello, who said of the Canadian singer's debut album: "I've been playing it all year and could listen to it for another 20. It's a modest and elegant gem."
Other famous Sexsmith fans include Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, with whom he toured recently in England, and Sheryl Crow. She played accordion on his newest album, "Other Songs," and invited him on stage during her set on this tour. (The pair covered Elvis Presley's "Love Me.")
"I'm kind of the small change on this tour," Sexsmith says honestly. "I'm on early, so the capacity isn't what it is by the end of the night. I'm usually playing to a few thousand people, and by the end of the night they've got, I don't know how many, 10,000 or so." (In Vancouver two weeks ago that number reached 30,000.) Sexsmith grants, however, that the early slot suits him. "These aren't the best venues for the kind of stuff I do."
The Tragically Hip, however, have spent most of their touring careers in large venues. Though the band has yet to appear on MTV or even make more than a dent in the American market, its Canadian following is large and loyal.
This is the first time the tour will cross into America. Another Roadside Attraction began in 1993, when the Tragically Hip used its pulling power to bring some of its favorite bands with it on a cross-Canada tour. That year's lineup included a gaggle of Canadian groups (the Headstones, Crash Vegas, Daniel Lanois) alongwith international acts such as Midnight Oil and Hothouse Flowers. The second tour, in 1995, included Blues Traveler, Matthew Sweet and Spirit of the West.
"It's a very small ego-fest," says Johnny Fay, drummer for the Tragically Hip. "Everyone comes to play and it's fun."
Despite some huge presences -- Sheryl Crow, for instance, and Ashley MacIsaac, whose on-stageantics rankled Sarah McLachlan when they toured together in 1996 -- the Tragically Hip remain the festival's top name, especially because the band is famous almost more for its raucous live shows than for its records.
"Expect the unexpected," Fay teases. "The set is penned 10 minutes before we go on stage. It's completely different every single night."