Rock The Bells, one of the summer’s most anticipated touring festivals, made it to San Francisco on Saturday, luring tens of thousands of fans to the McCovey Cove parking lot behind AT&T Park for two stages of all-day action. As KRS-ONE would say, step into a world…
11:30 a.m.: Pack like sardines onto a BART train in Oakland, festival schedule in hand. Nobody can move, and families headed for Union Square to do some Saturday shopping are in shock. Original goal: See Pharoahe Monch at 12:35.
12:40 p.m.: Find the end of the line on The Embarcadero, almost a mile from the Lefty O’Doul Bridge, the final funnel to the security checkpoint. Hear Monch and EPMD play while waiting. New goal: Get in sometime before night falls.
1:47 p.m.: Amazingly calm line moves fast, and we’re inside in time to see Talib Kweli take the main stage. He starts off strong with a song from his now-classic album with DJ Hi-Tek, “Reflection Eternal,” but then brings out a horrible white rapper who looks like Herc from HBO’s “The Wire,” except for the pants belted to his knees. Momentum crashes.
2:25: Move within about 50 feet of second stage for Murs, who proclaims himself “the world’s greatest rapper” within 10 minutes of his set starting. The longtime L.A. lyricist with the world’s most organized unkempt dreadlocks immediately becomes the standardbearer for the event, with well-reasoned political rants, some funny dumb-dancing and a set that includes lyrically tough songs — both popular hits and favorites of only the hardcore fans — recited perfectly. His performance is so good, nobody can tear themselves away to go check out Mos Def on the first stage.
3:30: Move to front of second stage for Oakland’s The Coup, but immediately regret staying when The Roots begin banging out hits on the main stage. The full band’s loud funk riffs, DJ Pam the Funkstress’ scratching exhibition and Boots Riley’s ’70s-era Afro-and-chops look make The Coup a must-see, though they play “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO” barely half an hour after Murs warned “Don’t believe anyone up here telling you they’re gonna kill a rich man to start a revolution. They’re lying!”
<b>4:00: Catch the end of a rocking Roots set, including a ten-minute improvised version of 2002’s “The Seed (2.0).” Misplaced jam-banders do the Hippie Shake.
4:45: Public Enemy takes the stage to perform “Bring the Noise” along with Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian — all the thirtysomething white-guys go nuts. PE shows they’ve lost nothing from their heyday, getting the crowd involved with a virulent chant against George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and the war in Iraq and then getting them jumping with the all-time classic “Shut ’Em Down.”
5:15: The East Bay’s Blackalicious exhibits gobs of talent with DJ Chief Xcel’s scratching and rapper Gift of Gab’s freestyling. L.A.’s Pigeon John and fellow Quannum artist Lateef make an appearance before the group goes out with the lyrically difficult “Chemical Calisthenics.” A solid set.
6:00: Stay at second stage for Oakland’s Hieroglyphics crew instead of watching Cypress Hill for the umpteenth time. The most hyped second-stage crowd of the day goes nuts for the collective, who feel the energy and respond with the classics they know the fans want. The sun is still baking the second stage, as it has been for more than four hours, but since MF Doom didn’t show up, this is the last performance here.
7:30: Wu-Tang Clan puts on an anticlimactic show. They can’t get the sound right, so everytime a new rapper steps up, his mike isn’t loud enough; plus, there are so many people on stage, nobody can tell which members are here, which aren’t, and if that’s really Redman on stage. They perform songs from “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” everyone wants to hear, but noone can hear them. Method Man’s joyful and repeated crowd-surfing exploits are the highlights.
9:00: The crowd all day has been extremely placid, but now Rage Against the Machine takes the stage and rips the lid off everyone’s pent-up need to jump up and down. Their first song, “Testify,” sets off such a ruckus up front that the ground in the back actually shakes like an earthquake is happening. Tens of thousands of people — many tired, sunburned and far from sober — thrash for an hour to the tunes of a band many thought would never play together again as recently as a year ago, bringing an end to an amazing day of music.