Best Seat Outside the House 

Exploring the poor sightlines but wonderful ambiance of the Greek Theater's Tightwad Hill.

Nick, a twenty-year-old Lou Barlow-lookin' Buddhist, is discussing possible strategies for busting into Berkeley's Greek Theater. Yes, that's "busting" as opposed to "sneaking" -- Nick's schemes tend toward the theatrical. He considers a zip line, but ultimately rejects it on technical grounds.

"A waterslide would be more practical," he decides.

But Nick goes on to admit that he'd settle for a series of well-placed mirrors, so as to allow him a view of the stage. After all, he'd just like to see the concert he is not paying for. As such, he cannot, nor can the fifty other cheapskate revelers gathered at Tightwad Hill on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Tightwad Hill is the dusty but otherwise quite comfortable little nook located in the equivalent of dead-center field behind the Greek, Cal's fabulous outdoor concert venue. Wedged between the Greek's barbed-wire back fence and a pricey parking lot, it's shaded and pleasant and slightly elevated, but not, alas, elevated enough to afford a view of the performers, who loom mysteriously just below our line of sight.

"It's just a tape recorder," mutters a conspiracy theorist. "There's just a guy in front playin' CDs."

Presuming this is true, the guy onstage is playing Medeski, Martin and Wood CDs -- the jazzy jam-band trio is opening this triple bill, which also includes the Roots and 311. It certainly sounds like an actual live band. Furthermore, it sounds like one giant solo, or perhaps "Jazz Odyssey"-period Spinal Tap. But it's splendid background music as Tightwad Hill's denizens read books (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) or magazines (Wax Poetics, The Believer, Science), dance nervously, drink beer, barbecue, smoke That Which Might Not Be Tobacco, discuss the plot of Sun Ra's Space Is the Place, sip Frappuccinos, and play chess.

"There are three levels of concerts for me," explains Mat, a twenty-year-old history student, shortly after defeating his opponent, Scott, thanks to superior pawn position. "1. I'm not gonna go. 2. I'll get up on the hill and see it for free. 3. I'll buy a ticket. This fell into that second group."

Same deal for Nick, who, for a fledgling Buddhist (he's off today from his gig at Cal's Nyingma Institute, dyeing Tibetan prayerbooks), uses the words "dude," "badass," and "motherfucker" an awful lot. As a Philly native, Nick is particularly fond of the Roots, those live hip-hop purveyors of Brotherly Love. But, as Nick puts it, "I came out here with seventy bucks, dude."

As Lollapalooza's abrupt, devastating cancellation has proven, the Big-Ass Summer Concert Series is off to a disastrous start. Perhaps the Lolla debacle proves that the all-day multiband bill isn't feasible for folks who really love the opening act, but won't pay seventy bucks (dude) for a measly thirty-minute set from The Band They Really Want to See. Which explains why Tightwad Hill is most beneficial for fans of the support acts: Plenty of cheapskates shuffle off after Medeski, Martin and Wood's set ends.

Mat the Chessmaster is one such soul, but he isn't too apologetic about his act of physical musical piracy: With regards to MMW, "I've supported them financially many times." Then he adds: "You used to be able to sneak in, but they've got that barbed wire now. That was the old way to see a show for free."

This is the new way, less immoral but less convenient as well -- the lack of view (not to mention bathroom facilities) is driving people crazy. Some folks climb the concrete ledge of the parking lot, but despite a now-superior angle, the huge shade trees obstruct the view completely. Same deal if you climb the huge staircase winding up into the Berkeley Hills. And the branches on those shade trees don't even begin until twenty feet or so up, discouraging any would-be Tarzan types.

Of course, this doesn't stop a dude in a Crocodile Hunter T-shirt from climbing a smaller, more easily accessible tree that, alas, doesn't afford him a view of jack shit. "It's cruel, man," he reports. "You can just see the tippy-tippy-top of the microphone stands. It's like, 'Fuck, they did this perfectly.'"

Aha: "What we need is lumberjack gear," Crocodile Hunter adds. "Shoes with the long spikes and shit. Ch-ch-ch. Best seats in the house."

The guy pacing around in the "Beer: It's not just for breakfast anymore" T-shirt munching baby carrots and cradling a bottle of wine isn't nearly as concerned with sightlines: It's Connor's 23rd birthday today, and he wanted to have a little barbecue. "You can't see anything up here, but you can hear just fine," he notes happily as burgers sizzle on the portable grill he brought along. "It's about the value of listening to a bootleg CD, basically."

Most folks here reflect Connor's carefree attitude here -- Crocodile Hunter is still pacing around, but everyone else is blissful as the Roots segue from "Seven Nation Army" into "The Seed." And true to opening act-favoring form, the vast majority of Tightwad Hill's patrons split as 311 hits the stage, but a diehard handful remain. Greek Theater employees in blue "Event Staff" shirts often wander by throughout this progression, but they bat not an eyelash.

"They behave themselves," explains one such woman, who'd rather not be identified. "This really isn't our world up here, unless they're messing with cars or something. Most of the time, they're really, really sweet. Really nice. I've worked shows here for seven years. The only time it gets out of hand is if it's a three-day festival, String Cheese or something.

"They can't see anything, so it's not like they're getting a free concert," she concludes. "Music's great, though."

Yes, as 311 begins its rock/hip-hop/reggae shtick -- the One Who Can Sing vs. the One Who Can't Rap -- the sound is wonderful. The band's cover of the Cure's "Love Song" is absolutely pristine. But perhaps Tightwad Hill's greatest innovation is that, as you didn't pay, you don't feel obligated to care one way or the other. As 311 rocks out, the dudes reading Science magazine earnestly discuss some sort of war game. "Generally, the player in the center being squeezed is at a disadvantage," one explains. Considering all the chumps who got squeezed out of big bucks today just to sit in the Greek, I'd say the guy's right.


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