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Are We Not Geeks?

[whitespace] Silicon Planet
Matt Ipcar

The Medusa Is the Message: A well-coiffed dancer greets the future at Silicon Planet.

Devo and Beck enlivened the not-so-funky crowd at Silicon Planet

By Michelle Goldberg

NOT EVERYONE actually paid the $100 cover for last Saturday's Silicon Planet, a massive combination professional mixer, product display and warehouse party featuring performances by Beck, Devo and sitcom star David Spade (the promised Calvin Klein fashion show was canceled). Out of about 40 people I asked, 10 had shelled out for the privilege of attending the event.

Everyone else had gotten free tickets from their companies or through friends. Running into a fellow reporter, I offered him a dollar for everyone he could find who'd actually bought his or her admission. At the end of the night he told me that I didn't owe him any money.

Those who did fork over cash for the evening of concerts, cocktails and capitalism did it to support a good cause--the event was a fundraiser for AIDS charities, though there was no mention of the disease inside save for a couple of red ribbons adorning tuxedos. More prominent than AIDS information were the corporate IDs splashed on every available surface: Microsoft, Synopsys, Maytag, Coca-Cola.

Silicon Planet was surely the only concert I've ever attended whose press release included a breakdown of the audience's estimated income; a prospectus said that 69 percent of the crowd would have salaries over $60,000. No wonder it was a hot night for husband-hunting. "I came here to meet men," said Pamela Rupert, 28, who won tickets in a raffle at her PR company. "I want to meet fellow Silicon Valley geeks like myself. Bars aren't fun anymore; they're all meat markets. At least here you know everyone is professional and in high tech."

Besides music and mingling, Silicon Planet guests were treated to technology demonstrations, pan-Asian hors d'oeuvres, a raffle to win a new Maytag washer and dryer, fabulous computer animations and modern dancers. Polywog, one of San Francisco's most respected DJs, wore a long lavender wig and spun from a booth decorated with gold tinsel like an oversized throne.

There were video games and animated toys, free Starbucks coffee and vodka drinks, a huge undulating balloon man and car dealers showing off new models. Outside, in what was called the Lava Lounge but what was really just a tented parking lot, a cigar store was set up, and women in suits and pumps that veered between sensible and sexy milled about on the asphalt with stogies dangling pornographically from their glossed lips.

And then, of course, there were the performers. David Spade's act--although conspicuously stuffed with high-tech references--was almost painfully unfunny, and much of his monologue was lost in the sprawling sound system and bad acoustics.

Before Devo took the stage, screens all over the warehouse flashed a collage of Devo video clips, presumbly to remind the younger members of the audience that these guys were famous once. The band came out in yellow hazard suits and trademark red plastic helmets, which they later traded for black T-shirts, short knee socks and kneepads.

Devo pounded through a retro repertoire that included its big '80s hit, "Whip It," as well as lesser-known tunes, and while some devotees in the audience sang along to everything, punching the air to the anthemic New Wave refrain "Are we not men? We are Devo!" the front rows of business-suited techie tycoons were shaking the stage barrier so hard that the bouncers had to force them back.

GIVEN THE potential for a hopelessly unfunky scene, and Beck's reported ambivalence about the event (originally set as a four-city tour, Silicon Planet was scaled back to include only San Jose and Seattle; and recently, the Seattle show was cancelled), some in the crowd were expecting him to sleepwalk through a few songs and then get out.

But to his credit, the indie boy wonder put on a show worthy of the most intense, enthusiastic club or arena. He even played several new songs from his upcoming album Mutations, including "Let the Doctor Rock You," which was like honky-tonk jam with a hip-hop bass. He veered wildly between styles, from the loping folk-rap he's famous for into luscious Barry White soul mode, loungey mod pop, surrealist funk and something he called "cyber country."

At first, the crowd stood around stiffly, obviously enjoying the show but too self-conscious to really get into it. But almost everyone melted under Beck's sultry star power; in his leather pants, shaggy hair and clingy, shiny shirt, he was in full sneering, prancing rock-star mode, and his energy was infectious.

Soon everyone was moving, even if it was only a few desultory nods and twitches. Couples old enough to be Beck's parents boogied shamelessly on the crowd's outskirts. Younger fans in beaded, diaphanous minidresses, slinky black cocktail gowns and ultramodern designer suits freaked each other in the back. A few people in the front jumped around and got wild, but it was still easier to push into the first row than at any concert I've ever seen.

For his encore, Beck came bounding out in a deer's-head mask and performed a fanatically faithful cover of Eddy Grant's classic "Electric Avenue," referring, perhaps, both to Beck's reinvention of old-school New York electro and to the digital city of San Jose.

Either way, the crowd was energized, and for a minute Silicon Planet morphed from minimall into megaclub. Only an artist as inventive as Beck could wring an hour of rock revelry out of a gathering that otherwise had all the glamour of a computer convention.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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