Wesley Hodges’ Weekend Wrap
”Refried confusion is making itself clear/Wonder which way do I go to get on out of here.” - Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time”
Although my brain is still blanketed with a thick layer of dust, it’s easy to reflect on Bonnaroo 2011 as an overwhelming success for my crew as one of the best (if not the best) Roos I’ve been lucky enough to attend. Despite the dust bowl conditions that grew more intense as the weekend grew on, it was easy to dig down each morning to get ready for another 12-16 hour day of music and wandering across the grounds to take in the remarkable array of talent performing around Centeroo each day. Seeing an act like Hanggai from the other side of the globe right in the same breath as the buzzed about Alberta Cross to start a day makes getting out there early completely worthwhile.
|Dr. John by Jake Krolick|
The late night scheduling (giving jam scene favorites SCI and STS9 coveted slots in succession), the love fest on display for the New Orleans artists that inspired the festival, and the proper recognition given to Widespread Panic, who received a key to the city of Manchester before their festival closing set, are all things I’ll take away from this year’s Roo. Besides the Superjam and the Dr. John hat on top of the Bonnaroo arch, nods to the Crescent City manifested themselves even more subtly, with Sunday headliner and Bonnaroo stalwart Widespread Panic opened with a horns-heavy “Arleen,” “Fishwater,” and “Weight of the World” to kick off their 8th set on the Bonnaroo main What Stage. Once again, Bonnaroo has outdone itself and created an ephemeral yet indelible music utopia that I feel fortunate to have taken part in.
Ya better keep track of your friends/ Your gonna need them in the end.”
1. The Meters – The String Cheese Incident – STS9
|The Meters by Brad Hodge|
Although three very distinct performances, this late night whirlwind flowed together so seamlessly that it makes sense to combine them into one juggernaut, jam-heavy late night that I’ll surely muse over years from now when recalling Bonnaroo 2011. Before the disappointing Eminem headlining set at Which Stage even ended, it was over to That Tent for the long-awaited reunion of the inventors of New Orleans funk, The Meters. It took a few pinches before I could fully grasp the fact that I was watching perhaps the world’s finest rhythm section open their greatest hits mini-set in appropriate fashion with “Fire On The Bayou.” There was no finer (or grittier) deep pocket groove established this weekend than the one built by George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste during “People Say” and “Africa,” underlying the vibin’/tailor-made-for-summer melodies of “Poppa Funk,” Art Neville, and long-estranged guitar man Leo Nocentelli. As a transplant NOLA resident, I can only dream that the quartet had enough fun rehearsing and performing the old tunes to give the old Meters one last whirl and book a night of greasy funk at Tipitina’s someday soon.
The String Cheese Incident
|String Cheese Incident by Brad Hodge|
If any band can create a carnival atmosphere that transcends the music unfolding onstage, it’s SCI. Ever since returning from a three years hiatus, SCI has made a point to only perform when they can put on a Flaming Lips-level spectacle to compliment their legendary sound. A stripped-down, bluegrass cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” (the real, unofficial Bonnaroo anthem, in my opinion) was an appropriate-if-slightly-obvious choice to open the show, harkening back to Roo ’02 when Phil & Friends’ performance of the tune soundtracked the maiden festival.
Fully understanding the notion that not all music has to be deadly serious, SCI still remains intent on inspiring a no-frills atmosphere of exuberant, playful celebration. Early on in the set, the band unleashed a 40-foot inflatable T-Rex during “Miss Brown’s Teahouse,” a man on a jet pack briefly flew into the air behind the stage and fairy nymphs floated above the crowd periodically throughout the show as giant white balloons floated around the audience. Feels weird even typing that last sentence but that’s exactly what was happening at Which Stage at about 2 am on Sunday morning. There were a handful of skits throughout the show including a mark-missing dance-off during “Joyful Sound” and the hilarious guest spot by “Sexy Sax Man” for George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” Besides all of the shenanigans, there were some really strong musical moments, including the early wave-riding “Rollover,” “Miss Brown’s Teahouse,” the dancehall Stevie-styled dance raver “Rosie,” and a bizarre, explorative “Texas” to close the proper set. A friend of mine who wouldn’t be caught dead at a normal String Cheese show commented that he appreciated their carefree attitude and that sometimes music really should just be about having as much fun onstage and in the crowd as possible, checking your ego at the door and just cutting loose. Although this attitude has been firmly established in the 17 year existence of SCI, it was interesting and more poignant coming from him, clear that he understood what this was all about after just one performance. All music critiques aside, this set was definitely one of the more impressive performances this year, showing that the band had put a lot of time, thought and energy into giving the fans something unforgettable.
|Bonnaroo Night Crowd by Jake Krolick|
Another band I haven’t paid much attention to in the last half-decade or so after years of intense fanhood is STS9, who have taken a sharply different direction from their earlier jazzy sound that brought me in initially. After a brief instrumental take on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” it was fitting that one of the first tunes I arrived to was “Move My Peeps,” a spacey jazz movement that highlighted the band’s legendary 2005 sunrise set and accented this straight-laced late night exploration of sound, harkening back to the band’s early years. The trio of “Hubble,” “Scheme” and “Rent” rounded out this extraordinary set before a brief encore break. Unsurprisingly, bassist David Murphy announced midway through the set that they were going to play well-past their allotted set time (set to end at 4:00 p.m.) and the set wore on past the dawn, ending this powerfully imaginative band’s set, one that exhibited a tapestry of stylistic range with one of the band’s simplest, most flowery tunes, “Circus,” as the Sunday dawn light crept over the farm around 5:30 a.m.
2. Man Man
This one gets the award for best daytime set of the weekend, as this zanytown Philly collective emptied their bag of tricks, keeping the decent-sized crowd in This Tent entertained for 75 minutes straight with a good mix of new tunes off Life Fantastic like the riotous “Piranhas Club” and the hilariously entertaining “Bangkok Necktie”. All warpainted with white streaks on the band members’ faces, this crazed group maintained a healthy level of well-controlled chaos (think Zappa and Captain Beefheart) throughout the set, putting on a theatrically brash stage show that was matched in grandeur by first-rate musicianship. A band with names like Honus Honus, Pow Pow, T. Moth, and Chang Wang should be able to bring the weird, and Man Man didn’t disappoint in living up to my lofty expectations for this set.
”This one is about a warrior who traveled very far…”
|Hanggai by Jake Krolick|
Although the lyrics were completely lost in translation, the band exhibited a penchant for meshing the traditional sounds of the Far East (Mongolian Folk is their m.o.) with Western dance-heavy influences. The set offered a strikingly rare, seamless oscillation between sounds from opposite sides of the globe. It’s safe to say that 98-percent of the crowd had likely never seen or heard of this band before arriving at The Other Tent, but I didn’t talk to any dissatisfied customers on the way out – lots of smiles leaving this set. Also, this band undoubtedly wins the awards for both “Best Dressed” at Bonnaroo with their amazing native garb and “Coolest Frontman,” who swung a whip and flipped The Other Tent upside down with some killer throat singing – not something you see everyday/ever in Middle Tennessee.
Saturday Special Mentions
Best Cover: New Orleans’ Rotary Downs doing The Clash’s “Magnificient Seven” towards the end of their impressive set in the Miller On Tap Lounge.
Reggae Fix: Black Uhuru, providing me with one of my favorite Bonnaroo past times - laying in the midday sun, listening to reggae in front of the big stage – a life-affirming shot in the arm that helped keep a long day moving forward.
1. A low sound mix marring what could have been a great trip back in the time machine at Buffalo Springfield. Although I must say the band looked to be thoroughly enjoying their time onstage together and the brief electric storm going on made for a cool natural light show.
2. Having to leave Bootsy Collins and Funk University after the band didn’t come on until 70 minutes late and then being told it was one of the best sets of the weekend AND that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there getting down onstage. Lucky for me, I’m seeing the band at Tipitina’s Uptown in NOLA!
”It’s just so dusty out here that when you take a drink of water it turns to mud.” - Wanda Jackson stage banter
|WSP's Dave Schools by Brad Hodge|
1. Widespread Panic
Always nice to close down a Bonnaroo weekend with a familiar favorite, something the organizers have done consistently throughout the ten years of the festival. I found out after getting home that Panic was presented with the keys to the city of Manchester before taking the stage and there’s no question that no act is more deserving of such recognition than the 8-time headliners of the Bonnaroo main stage. Over a quarter of the main stage performances at Bonnaroo have been helmed by J.B., Schools, Sunny, Todd, Jimmy/GMAC and JoJo (and most of them have been pretty damn good, even by high Panic standards). This set was no exception. The opening trio of NOLA-flavored tunes “Arleen,” “Fishwater” and “Weight of the World” (all appearing on the Another Joyous Occasion live record from the Big Easy) were all appropriately helped along by the MegaBlasters, a four-piece horn section lead by Randall Bramblett that joined the band on nine tunes during the show. “You Should Be Glad” and “Protein Drink > Sewing Machine” were the kind of off-the-rails, muscular Southern rock that has become hugely prevalent in the Jimmy Herring era of the last few years. As per usual, the Vic Chesnutt “Protein Drink > Sewing Machine” suite highlighted the show, and this combo once again served as one of the best vehicles for the dark side of Panic to come out and infuse a little Sabbath-style hard rock into the jam band’s 2.5 hour-plus burner.
You just knew that someone was going to join the fray, in keeping with Panic Bonnaroo traditions, but for some reason Bruce Hornsby wasn’t mentioned by most (many thought perhaps Robert Plant, Gregg Allman or even Neil Young might make an appearance) as a possibility to join the band. Hornsby, who’s no stranger to the jam band/festival circuit having performed over 100 shows as a member of the Grateful Dead in the early-90s, fit into the mold with Panic excellently, showing off his chops on the ivories on the slow-burning “Her Dance Needs No Body” and “Red Hot Mama,” going back and forth with JoJo and looking to thoroughly enjoy his time playing for a big time crowd once again. It should also be noted that Hornsby was already wearing some Mavs gear only minutes after the Dallas team had taken down sport’s newest evil empire in the NBA finals. Finally, it was fitting that the set closed down with “Pigeons > Chilly Water > Love Tractor > Chilly Water,” leaving no need for an encore, signing and dotting the lower case j’s on this year’s Bonnaroo and sending the masses back to reality until next time.
P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing lighting rig utilized for this big-ticket 10th Anniversary performance, including some onstage spotlights that cut far across the farm. Panic, not usually known for visual expertise in their performances, has finally, after 25 years, decided to put serious some stock in that element of the performance and it only made things better on Sunday night.
2. Mavis Staples
A Sunday revival was in order and Mavis Staples’ infectious, righteous spirit was uplifting as the gospel/soul legend poured through traditional tunes and new Jeff Tweedy originals from You Are Not Alone, thanking the Wilco frontman in absentia for working with her and helping revive her career in a big way. Church was in session, and by Sunday we could all use a spiritual restoration. A fun factoid I picked up was that “Freedom Highway” was written by Mavis’ father “Pop” Staples, all while Mavis strutted the stage and ad-libbed lines about the Civil Rights Movement and offered rousing socially-conscious encouragement to the laid-out patrons in the What Stage field. With a smoky howl and a first-class outlook on life at age 72, Mavis had the audience hanging on her every word during “Wade in the Water” and invited a little sister Patty Griffin and the iconic country singer/songwriter Buddy Miller to each sing verses on “The Weight,” a tune Mavis memorably performed with The Band for the Last Waltz.
3. Superjam featuring Dan Auerbach and Dr. John
|Superjam by Jake Krolick|
Alas, after missing his performance with The Meters the night before, it was time to go pay homage once-and-for-all and visit the Good Doctor at the Revenge of the Superjam – a tradition lost in the last few Bonnaroos but aptly revived for this year’s 10th anniversary Roo. With a view of the Centeroo arch that paid tribute to Mac’s signature hat-and-feather look, it was a beautiful sight to see a couple members of headlining bands - Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) and Patrick Hallahan (My Morning Jacket) - joining the Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer at sunset for a second performance by the legend of the swampland. Auerbach gushed, "I'm surrounded by my friends and great musicians," while emcee’ing most of the set but graciously recognizing that he was just another member of Dr. John’s entourage on this day. By the time the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined the band there were 17 musicians onstage including an excellent vocal section that carried the set. You could tell this set was well-rehearsed (Auerbach commented on how great it was to work out these tunes all week in Nashville) because at no point did this set drown into a cacophonous mess that can sometimes happen with these one-offs. NOLA classics like Chuck Carbo’s “Can I Be Your Squeeze,” and “Iko Iko” were exquisitely delivered with extra emphasis injected thanks to this all-star expanded supergroup. Also, it was very cool to see Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” given a Black Keys style (think “Strange Times”) vibe. This set served as a coronation of Dr. John as the Rex of Roo ‘11 and the Doctor staked his claim on Sunday, flanked by artists from the generation that will take this thing into the next decade of existence.
Sunday Special Mentions
Best 15-Minute Stop-In of the Weekend: Before stopping into the Superjam, we checked out Texas dream-rockers Explosions in the Sky and caught a epic, sprawling “First Breath After Coma” from the intense instrumental band that trumped just about any other tune heard on Sunday on the farm. It induced chills – hard to come by in the daylight hours in Manchester.
Classic Moment: Robert Plant’s retooled, slowed down and funked-out opening rendition of “Black Dog.”
Best Kept Secret: A tie -- John Bell’s sparsely-attended solo acoustic performance at the Solar Stage that included an opening “Already Fried” and “Chilly Water,” and seeing Galactic’s Ben Ellman and his Gypsyphonic Disko project on display at the Sonic Stage. The Disko meshed Southeastern European Balkan-styled melodies with dirty NOLA bounce rap for the most part, an interesting and entirely unique DJ set I’m glad to have caught.
The Youth of Bonnaroo: Walked up as the Flavor of the Month indie band Smith Westerns were playing their catchy pop anthem “All Die Young,” one of the year’s best new tunes, a dead ringer for the styles of past Bonnaroo breakout MGMT.
The Bonnaroo 2011 A-List
1. Can’t pick between Deerhunter and My Morning Jacket, who’ll share my blue ribbon for Bonnaroo X. Fitting, as both of these bands are fronted by generational creative talents who I’m excited to marvel at for years to come.
|Futurebirds by Brad Hodge|
2. Seeing the Futurebirds - a band I saw less than two years ago play in a St. Simons Island 4th of July party - play the biggest set of their career to date and kick off the festival in a big way, showing why we’ll be seeing them many years from now in much bigger time slots.
3. Meters/SCI/STS9 – Such a night.
4. Man Man
5. Friday’s late night mixup - Black Angels, Big Boi, The Shpongletron Experience and Ratatat
6. Arcade Fire - Happy to see them taking the lead at festivals worldwide, eons better than most bands of this popularity and deserving of their newfound stature.
7. Twin Shadow
8. Hanggai - Discovering new bands is what festivals are all about.
9. (Almost) no rain for four days.
10. 9 years in a row on the Farm and it keeps on getting better every year.
Bonus: Having as many close friends at the festival as I’ve ever had, a joyous reunion of kindred spirits making this thing all the better.
Continue reading for Brad Hodge’s pics of Bonnaroo 2011...