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BFD's big birthday

Local alternative rock festival looks back on two decades of fun

For alternative rock fans who came of age in the '90s, 1994 was a particularly big year. It was the year of Green Day's "Dookie," Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged in New York," Hole's "Live Through This," Soundgarden's "Superunknown," Beck's "Mellow Gold" and many more hugely influential records.

That year was a high water mark for the "alternative" genre on the whole -- as a series of bands earned radio play and critical acclaim with a sound that embraced the angst of punk rock while simultaneously demonstrating an ear for pop sensibility. There were the grunge bands, like Nirvana, that coaxed sweet melodies out of muddy guitars and thudding rhythm sections; punk bands like The Offspring who smoothed out their bratty, nasal vocals with rich harmonies; and the progenitors of indie rock, like Built to Spill, who borrowed from the garage rockers of generations past to craft tunes that sounded as if they were about to fall apart, but somehow managed to tumble forward in a charming, half-drunk lurch.

It was also the year that the San Francisco-based alternative radio station, Live 105, launched its annual summer music festival, BFD, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this Sunday, June 1. (In reality it's the 21st year of the festival, but all promotional materials for the concert are calling it the 20th.)

In many ways it is fitting that BFD's double-decade milestone should coincide with one of the biggest years in alternative rock history. The festival has done a great deal to shine a spotlight on promising alternative acts, just as its sponsor station has been committed to breaking new modern rock and alternative talent since its inception in 1985.

In the festival's inaugural year, alternative icons Green Day, Beck and The Violent Femmes rounded out the top of bill -- belting out slacker anthems like "Basket Case," "Loser" and "Blister in the Sun" to the crowd gathered at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre, which has served as BFD's home for its 20-year run.

While certainly not the first event of its kind -- New York City's CMJ Music Marathon began in 1980 and Lollapalooza got its start in 1991 -- Live 105 Program Director Aaron Axelsen likes to think that BFD helped set a precedent for the alternative rock festival in its modern form.

"BFD definitely laid a blueprint for the festivals throughout the country," he says.

According to Richard Sands, who was Live 105's program director at the time the station launched its summer festival, BFD was conceived as a way to "engage and delight our audience" while also generating a new "revenue stream."

The only problem was naming the event.

"There was really nothing like it," Sands recalls via email. "Well, in other markets, a few stations had big festivals. But this was before Coachella, Outside Lands, and other festivals of its kind."

It was while sitting around a conference room table somebody blurted out: "How about BFD, since this is such a big f***ing deal?" After everyone had a laugh, it was ultimately decided that the name was actually quite appropriate, given the scale of the event, Sands says. It took some convincing to get the sales department to go along with the name, but eventually everyone was on board. Despite the edgy name, sponsors signed on, and the bands were booked.

"We were in, and off," Sands says.

The festival only continued growing from there. In 1995, the gathering was headlined by new wave heavyweights Duran Duran and British grunge band Bush, who had released their debut album, "16 Stone," in 1994 to much acclaim. In 1996, ska-punk titans No Doubt -- led by Gwen Stefani, who would go on to marry Bush front man Gavin Rossdale -- took top billing at BFD.

Surveying BFD's headlining acts over the years is like reading a history of alternative rock trends -- the good, the bad and the downright ugly. For those who were on to The Strokes, The White Stripes and Interpol early on, the lineups may serve as an "I saw them when" badge of honor. On the other hand, the festival's 1999 and 2000 bills are like an ill-advised tattoo -- a reminder to alternative rock fans that Limp Bizkit, Godsmack and Kid Rock were once quite popular.

Looking further down the list of bands on older BFD tickets is also instructive. Groups that were once stuck on side stages have since gone on to hit it big.

"BFD has been a launching pad," Axelsen says. The longtime DJ fondly recalls 2004 when The Killers opened on the "Festival Stage," starting at 12:45 p.m. The band ended up headlining the festival a few years later. In 2012, Imagine Dragons were also booked on the "Festival Stage." The group won a Grammy this year in the category of Best Rock Performance for their song "Radioactive."

For Axelsen, BFD is more than a place for bands to be heard and for alternative music fans to find out about the next big thing.

"It's beyond the bands," he insists. "It's a lifestyle. It's an event. It's special."

According to Charles Kronengold, an assistant professor of music at Stanford University, Axelsen is onto something. A scholar of popular music and the author of a forthcoming book about American music in the 1970s titled "Live Genres in Late Modernity," Kronengold says that contemporary music festivals give people a chance to interact with one another.

"There is this sense that everyone is there for different reasons and you could end up learning something," Kronengold says, noting that at an open-air festival, like BFD, as people wander from stage to stage and booth to booth, they are not only exposed to music they may not have otherwise encountered, but people they likely would not otherwise have associated with.

The modern American media consumer has a one-stop media shop -- the Internet -- which allows him or her to search for and acquire new music, video and print media instantaneously, from the comfort of the home, the assistant professor notes. The Web has made discovering new music incredibly easy in some ways. But in other ways, it has hemmed consumers into their own little bubbles -- created by search engine personalization and recommendation algorithms, which have the benefit of introducing music fans to new artists that sound like the bands they have expressed interest in, but which can't curate a play list or a festival bill the way a human can.

Axelsen says he takes pride in helping to put together a great festival lineup, which he sees as an extension of what he does at the radio station and at the many clubs around the Bay Area where he frequently spins records.

"Terrestrial radio is still an invaluable tool and resource for turning people on to new music," Axelsen says, explaining that most people don't listen to music on the scale he does (he sees roughly 400 records come across his desk each week, he says). "The majority of listeners have lives," he says. "They love music, but they don't go home and sit on the music blogs all day. They expect us to do the heavy lifting."

And it seems that heavy lifting is appreciated. Although Kronengold says he suspects interest in live music is not what it used to be, you wouldn't know it by looking at the festival economy. Since 1999, when the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival first launched, many similar events have cropped up around the country. In 2002, the Bonnaroo and Sasquatch festivals were established, in Tennessee and Washington, respectively. The Pitchfork Music Festival got its start in Chicago in 2006. Two years later, the first Outside Lands was held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In 2012, Coachella expanded from a single weekend to a two-weekend affair. And just last year, in 2013, the BottleRock festival launched in Napa.

Axelsen, for one, is not surprised by the proliferation of music festivals across the country. BFD is his "favorite day of the year," he says. While he certainly appreciates much of the music, Axelsen says that sometimes the best part is simply walking around and talking to people. For him, it's about "the intangible" experiences -- like couples meeting for the first time at the festival or stories of marriage proposals in between sets.

"You might ask a listener what their favorite band was at BFD and they can't remember it," he says. And that's not because they didn't enjoy themselves. It's because the overall experience is what people take away from a festival.

Kronengold says he thinks these kinds of experiences are becoming less common, which means that when someone can experience a festival, and enjoy it, the event takes on a "magnified sense of importance, because we don't experience each other that way anymore. ... That's a very special kind of experience."

--- --- ---

What: Live 105's 20th annual BFD music festival

When: June 1, at 11 a.m.

Who: More than 35 bands on multiple stages, including main stage headliners, Foster The People, M.I.A., Fitz & The Tantrums, Phantogram and New Politics

Where: Shoreline Amphitheatre, 1 Amphitheatre Pkwy, Mountain View.

Cost: $35 to $69.50

Info: Go to or call 650-967-4040

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