Words by Dennis Cook
Images by Dave Vann & Pamela Martinez
Bonnaroo 2006 :: 06.16-18.06 :: Manchester, TN
Bonnaroo is a temporary city, something
slipped from the imaginations of Jules Verne and Jimi Hendrix. It fills the Tennessee landscape for a brief, happy
time with ferris wheels, flowering fountains, and dusky children moving to a multi-hued, ever-shifting soundtrack.
Equal parts imagination and reality, this festival gathers the hard work of thousands into a spectacular party that
also tries to honor the earth we dance upon. Each year gets smoother, adding more options as the old routines
become smooth like clockwork. What follows is a flipbook of images and impressions from this year's festivities.
There's no way to touch upon it all. Bonnaroo is too vast, challenging, and diverse to hit every moment. Each of the
80,000+ attendees took a slightly different route through
the thick, summery pathways, finding their own reasons to spin beneath starry skies.
Planet Roo by Pamela
The Load In
I stopped counting at 30 churches as I traveled the back roads of rural Tennessee. I passed dilapidated general
store signs and cars on blocks. One banner announced, "God wants spiritual fruits not religious nuts," where
another a few miles later asked, "Have you been washed in the blood of Jesus?" Having the question appear next to
a billboard for a water park made me chuckle.
The physical scale of Bonnaroo is monumental. That's always the word that springs to mind as I crane my neck
upwards to follow the lines of steel that make up the five main stages. 'Monumental' - it sprung to mind as I stood
below 20-foot tall bobble heads or a gigantic umbrella sculpture. It's one of the few times one feels glad to be
small, content to be merely part of this buzzing 24-hour enterprise. Each year it gets a little bigger with an air-
conditioned Comedy Tent, Internet cafes, and more club-like venues to further exacerbate any attempts at
scheduling one's time. Quite unlike the places that lead to it, Bonnaroo is a modern metropolis as envisioned by
carneys, with plenty of bread and circuses to distract the hordes.
Bonnaroo 2006 by Pamela
From "Which Stage" (one of the colorful Abbott and Costello-esque names for the main stages) you could hear the
sound check man saying, "Love...hate...love...hate," as he tested microphones. For what is ostensibly a music
festival, Bonnaroo asks us in subtle ways which side of this equation we choose. There were lectures and handouts
we might make the Earth better, and even the between-song patter often tries to fuel compassion and sidestep our
natural inclination for selfishness. Call it "hippy dippy" if you want. I'll just call it cool.
With a full line-up beginning at 7 pm on Thursday, Bonnaroo is really a four-day event now. The acts this night are
generally not as well known but therein lies the huge potential for happy surprise – a defining Bonnaroo trait. As the
sun slipped below the skyline Thursday, everyone hugging shade and guzzling water like Foreign Legionnaires
emerged with a sigh. Huge black smoke rings, like the exhalation of some hill giant, floated above us at twilight,
courtesy of the Fire Garden folks that lit up our nights. Couples stirred in their hammocks outside the VW Garage, a
new addition this year where anyone with some musical chops was encouraged to jam in the makeshift garage
complete with thrift store couches and a refrigerator. Just walking around one feels a tickle in their pleasure center,
the whole landscape designed to outwit the constrictions we bring in. Through abstraction and organic non
sequiturs, Bonnaroo invites us to play, albeit responsibly, for days on end.
Bonnaroo 2006 by Pamela
Make with the Laugh Laugh
Journeys that begin with laughter are often blessed. That in mind, I started my own revels with a luxurious sit in the
Yet Another (Comedy) Tent. The lines to get into this calm oasis stretched out like an amusement park
ride the whole weekend. And it wasn't just the lure of cold air that brought 'em in. The organizers really beefed up
the line-up this year with major talent like Lewis Black, Patton Oswalt, Demetri Martin,
and the Upright Citizen's Brigade. Strangely, the stage set was a barn door, which I was pleased opening
MC Vic Henley found as strange as I did. Nothing says humor like telling jokes in front of a barn!
Paintings of Charlie Chaplin and banana peels graced the walls of the otherwise tastefully decorated space.
You couldn't ask for a more primed, ready-to-party audience, and the comedians flourished in front of the sweaty,
slightly toasted crowds. Things began with Henley saying, "I've been here three hours and I'm already out of pot. I
gotta plan better," and the shouldn't-be-funny-but-is style of Morgan Murphy, who joked about how the
Jamba Juice guy who slipped a roofie into her smoothie tried to pass it off as a "rape boost." Drugs – in all their
myriad, candy-colored variety – cropped up all weekend. For better or worse, Bonnaroo is a hallucination nation but
an overwhelmingly good-natured one for the most part.
White Boys With Guitars
The first music to hit my ears was fast-up-and-coming UK singer-songwriter David Ford. I walked in to hear him cry, "I've thrown rocks at the Devil
but I won't scream down St. Peter when he won't let me in." Nice. In a short-sleeved Oxford shirt and tiny cap, Ford
had the makings of a geek rock centerfold, something the squeals and coos of the many ladies in the audience
confirmed. In fact, Ford was but one of many performers this year that seemed to have strong female followings,
which made for a much more balanced mix of the sexes than the usual phallic assault. Ford played guitar with
simple, highly effective keyboard and percussion loops, used to near U2 effect on "State of the Union," which he
introduced as "for those mornings you wake up and clap your hands to your head and say, 'What the fuck is going
on?'" With a gentle disposition and a gift for a clever turn of phrase, Ford is a fine addition to what he called "white
boys with guitars complaining about things you can do nothing about."
David Ford by Pamela
Later on Thursday night, the Wood Brothers
happily took the stage when it was "dark, cool and smoky." The pairing of the MMW bassist, Chris Wood, and his singing, guitar-
playing sibling, Oliver, is quiet dynamite – a natural progression from the sound Chris Whitley and Michael
Hedges pioneered, full of blues spirit and thumping rhythms. Oliver has a brightly wistful voice that recalls '70s
radio kings like Gerry Rafferty. Neither Hedges nor Whitley ever had a sympathetic bassist like Chris, who plucked
with thunderous authority. It's a pleasure to hear him so nakedly exposed, simmering with Oliver's strings in a way
muffled by Medeski's keyboards and Martin's drums. They opened with an alluring cover of Gus Cannon's early
blues classic "Stealin'." Drawing largely from studio debut Ways Not to Lose, the Brothers kept the energy
high and showcased some serious songwriting chops on top of their obvious technical skill, especially "One More
Day," a worthy candidate for song of the summer.
The Wood Brothers by Pamela
There was a general impression that this year's Bonnaroo had a higher percentage of indie/alternative rock acts.
Whether true or not, the kids getting all the ink were present, and there are few more white or more boyish than Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst,
who turned in one of the best sets of the weekend on Friday. His voice is like a sharp beak that pecks away the shell
around us, a weapon against isolation like Joe Strummer and Shane MacGowan (Pogues). Despite his concerns that
the late afternoon performance was "pretty early in the day for a rock show," Oberst and his cracking band mixed up
drones with Beatle-esque sway for something captivating and diary true, a sound that, to paraphrase Bright Eyes,
"wakes you up and makes you clean." What intrigues is his penchant for noisy digressions with a Shaft-meets-
Metal Machine Music feel. No single description encapsulates Oberst, and he wears his compelling diversity
Conor Oberst :: Bright Eyes
Death Cab For Cutie followed
Eyes, and the overflowing throng remained glued in place during the brief setbreak. Hats off to all the incredibly
hard-working stagehands who made this entire enterprise run so smoothly. Major sound problems were rare, and
everything flowed at an impressive speed. Live, Death Cab sounds a bit like what might have happened if XTC had
continued to tour – a romantic pop swell with a pleasantly murky bottom. Like their lyrics, the music is strong but
often obliquely expressed. There are powerful emotions here, but which ones (anger, fear, love, etc.) is hard to say
before extended contemplation. Their needle guitars tattooed our sunburned flesh with messages that will only be
clear after the scab falls away.
One of the nicer showings in the singer-songwriter category was ex-Soul Coughing front man Mike Doughty on Sunday morning. Shedding some of the quirkiness of
his old band, Doughty offered up gigantically successful, hook-heavy pop goodness. He greeted us, "Hello, sexy
people, citizens of Bonnaroovia" and later asked if we were "nice and stinky." In a better world, Soul Coughing would
have been a major player, but the sweeter flow of Doughty's new material may well rectify this oversight. His
smooth-as-brandy voice is very ably backed by drummer Pete McNeal (of L.A. funk institution the Greasy
Beats), keyboardist John Kirby, and bassist Scott Livingston, who Doughty described as "looking
like a skinny Ben Franklin with a mohawk." Led by Doughty's limber guitar, they wander well when they aren't
nailing the changes with precision - elegant and sharp and just a little bit dangerous. Early in the show someone
yelled something Doughty wonderfully misheard as "Dio McCarthyism? As in Ronnie James Dio McCarthyism?" Mid-
set, he sent the band off for a solo section that suggested we may be looking at a worthy successor to Richard
Thompson when he's ready to hand his wise, grizzled songwriter gig over to a new troubadour. "Thank You Lord
For Sending The F Train" was especially effective, culminating in the lingering, "Thank you, Lord, for all the unspent
love I save in a jar of money."
Ben Gibbard :: Death Cab for Cutie ::
by Dave Vann
Another white boy highlight was Stephen
Malkmus and the Jicks on Sunday afternoon. Malkmus' post-Pavement work is limber, rocktastic gold
that shines especially bright live. On top of the fact that Malkmus is more of a songwriter and musician than most
today's flavor-of-the-months can ever hope to be, he's also got a wicked little combo in the Jicks, especially the
irresistible rhythm team of bassist Joanna Bolme and drummer John Moen. In a striped nylon
shirt that made him look like the teenager I first encountered in the '90s, Malkmus drew heavily from 2005's superb
Face The Truth. With age, his voice has developed David Bowie's cultured growl. Their website describes
the Jicks as "modern up-to-date yesterday's children," which nicely sums up their mix of '60s Burt Bacharach-ian
shuffle, Blue Oyster Cult guitar thrust, and coffee-stained notebook observations. Bolme commented on hedonism
around us, "We have this campsite outside our hotel room, and I need to tell you we're all going to hell." Let your
imagination work out the details. The whole band took a leap into the air at the start of "It Kills," which had a boffo
Jerry Garcia/Can space rock tangent near the end. The whole time I kept wondering why people don't wax poetic
about Malkmus' guitar work. Full of odd angles and big amp bravado, his playing is hugely influential on a whole
generation yet remains elusively unique, a sound only found in his hands.
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks by
An Overabundance of Epiphanies
The late night performances were especially strong this year. Friday I took an active circuit that took me between
three very distinct vibes. My Morning Jacket
continues to play with majestic force – everything good, deep, and real in rock delivered with purposeful
strokes. Seeing MMJ is shockingly close to a baptismal conversion. They approach their craft with a seriousness
that's breathtaking, resulting in the stunned attentiveness of the crowd during much of their show. Andrew Bird (who played his own twisty set of epic,
intimate tunes earlier in the day) joined MMJ several times, adding some nice wrinkles to their well-oiled machine.
The 2nd set opened with a freakin' amazing take on The Who's "A Quick One" followed by the Rolling Stones' "Loving
Cup." Covers are rare at an MMJ show, but in this setting they struck just the right chord.
Jim James :: My Morning Jacket :: by
A few clicks away, a bona fide arms-in-the-air par-tay was exploding across a packed field where Lyrics Born, Common, and Blackalicious rang heads with authority. As with much of the reggae here, it's
always strange to see stages full of African-Americans playing to a sea of buttermilk, but the enthusiasm on both
sides was palpable and blessedly color blind. It's impressive to see literally thousands of arms shoot into the air on
command, and the roar each time they said "Somebody scream" was deafening. One thing this hip hop triple threat
brought was a pronounced sense of showmanship. As much as they want to ignite minds, they respect their role as
Brain Damaged Eggmen by
For all those bitching about the reduced number of jam bands (whatever that is) at Bonnaroo this year, the gloriously
tangled, insanely multi-layered pairing of Umphrey's McGee and the Disco Biscuits ranged far and wide. Despite speaking two fairly unique languages,
the bands cross-pollinated for a unique hybrid on Friday. The finale of Umphrey's set went off like a smile bomb,
traveling through "Baby You're A Rich Man" to "Another Brick In the Wall" to "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse." Biscuits
Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner replaced UM's Ryan Stasik (bass) and Joel
Cummins (keyboards) starting with "Another Brick" to reprise the Brain Damaged Eggmen, their
Beatles-Pink Floyd tribute band that debuted earlier this year on Jam Cruise. There's a sense of daring-do to these
in-the-moment stunts. Just hitting the right marks as this huge thing careens around has to be challenging. The
VERY switched-on audience at this one rode every curve with cheek-stretching smiles. As always, I walked away
stunned at the general level of musicianship being displayed, and not a little charmed by two bands I can't always
find my way into.
Jon Gutwillig :: Disco Biscuits :: by
New Orleans Remembered
Having wandered journalistically on Friday, I gave myself permission to really sink into the New Orleans-themed late
night on Saturday. Dr. John - the
man who gave us the name 'Bonnaroo' – planned a return to his '70s "Night Tripper" character for the first time in
decades, followed by a mini-set from Rebirth
Brass Band, and a pre-dawn funk-a-thon from Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk - the nastiest, most politically charged thing coming
out of New Orleans today.
Preservation Hall by
Even if Congress and the White House have shirked their responsibilities to New Orleans, Bonnaroo made sure no
one forgot about what happened there last year AND how much more there's left to do today. Every time my
energies flagged, I would stop by the Preservation Hall Cafe and recharge with a smorgasbord that
represented the past, present, and future of New Orleans music. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band was the sound of Main Street, USA, an
institution of bright brass and shuffling feet that made you kick your chair aside the second they started stomping.
The New Orleans Bingo! Show assaulted us like clowns with a cause, fun and bouncy and not too well
balanced. Liquidrone were an American cousin to Blur but with far greater sensuality. In fact, the feeling
of skin and slink permeated most of the artists from the Big Easy. There's a hearty, gourmand's appetite to the New
Orleans folks that inspires us to live a little more lustily.
New Orleans hit the main stage Saturday with the one-two punch of the Neville Brothers and the inspired teaming of Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello and the Imposters. The Nevilles are
the Nevilles. If you've seen them in the past decade, you have a good idea of what you're getting. And while
enough, their Bonnaroo set held no surprises. Sturdy and full of bonhomie, the Nevilles have internalized a bit too
much of the BBW-wine bar scene that's been their bread and butter for years.
On the other hand, Costello and Toussaint hammered us with southern grit and overflowing soul packed with tight
horns, menacing guitar, and one of the richest vocal blends this year. Tunes like "Broken Promise Land" off their
new collaboration, River In Reverse, unapologetically force us to examine the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
our collective debt to a city that's enriched the world's artistic culture in untold ways. Costello was in particularly
fine voice, one of the most readily identifiable singers in a century with genius phrasing. Toussaint was no slouch
either, commanding and welcoming in equal measures, making many of us sigh during "Brickyard Blues" and
Elvis Costello & the Imposters with
by Dave Vann
Costello pulled out a new one he'd written just Friday for a TV appearance. Predictably, it was bloody great, which
helps leaven Elvis' tendency to show off his abundant talents. Sexy horns and bouncing piano from that 88-key
duster Steve Nieve propelled them towards the final verse, which Costello howled with impassioned
abandon, "In the name of the Father, Son/ In the name of gasoline and the gun/ Wake me up!" Elvis urged the band
dig in with phrases like "Come on and get some!" Working from new arrangements by Toussaint, familiar tunes like
"High Fidelity" and "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" were given church revival bang. "Watching The Detectives"
had a Kingston vibe and Mancini smoothness that practically reinvented it. Costello proved an enthusiastic
entertainer, wooing us with asides like "We love you - individually and as a group." Later, he remarked, "I've never
written a song with the words rock 'n roll in the title, and I've written 350,000 songs," before diving into the record
shop homage "International Echo" off River. Nice to hear someone sing "Give me 7-inches, give me 12" and
NOT have it be a double-entendre! Without question, this was one of the festival highlights.
Returning to Saturday midnight, all these various New Orleans threads seem to tie themselves up as Dr. John
emerged dressed head-to-toe in dark feathers. A massive voodoo doll sat on stage, and the whole group -
reportedly hand-picked just for this gig – looked as if they'd leapt from the gatefold of some rare piece of vinyl. A
mocha enchantress danced as seductively as Salome throughout the simmering incantation. Full of devils that burn
a candle on you, the songs captured the lazy eyed hypnosis of the original recordings but let them fly through the
night air. Nostrils full of witchy woman incense, we danced dazedly, drinking in the twinkling lights and perfect half
moon as "Mama Roux" made us howl happily half mad. Later, appropo of nothing, the Doctor growled, "It's going to
rain. It's going to rain, motherfucker!" JamBase columnist and Honest Tune magazine publisher Tom Speed
turned to me, his voice low and serious, and said, "It's going to rain tomorrow." Dr. John had called it into being,
and a short burst of precipitation the next morning was merely a prelude to the downpour during Phil Lesh's set.
Dr. John by
The unintentional parade of costumed people that passed by This Stage was a neat curiosity. Couples in fishnets
and top hats made their way to the Balkan
Beat Box/Bindlestiff Family
while freakier, more random assemblages of finery headed towards the Masquerade Ball in the Cinema
Tent, where a mystery group of Bonnaroo All-Stars only reveals their identities at the end. Admittance to that one is
contingent on arriving at the door costumed. The only sad part was how few folks stopped to enjoy Dr. John even
for a few minutes. While not an easy grab, this music had a sultry, mysterious allure that culminated in a nasty
"Right Place, Wrong Time."
Across the field we could hear snippets of the Superjam, which turned out to be code for Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, and the Benevento/Russo Duo (with a little bass bombage from Phil Lesh on "Casey Jones" and "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad"). Since the
festival I've heard recordings of this performance, and by gum it really does recall 1995 Phish, though the most
exciting parts were the new material written specifically for this quartet.
G.R.A.B with Phil Lesh by Dave
It took only seconds for Dumpstaphunk to capture me. They combine the party politics of Parliament-
Funkadelic to New Orleans funk like The Meters. "We're layers of funk. Just when you think it's as stanky as it can
be it gets mo' stankier," offered bassist Tony Hall. Declaring themselves "funky as a UFO," Dumpstaphunk
makes you move while probing righteous anger at the state of a world gone mad. Ivan Neville is in fine spirits,
hammering his keyboards with a black-eyed ferocity. An especially hopped-up Skerik (saxophone) joined them all night, blowing like the hell child of
Maceo Parker and Ben Webster. They expanded their small catalog of originals with inspired covers like Creedence
Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," a working-folks anthem ripe for revisiting. One hopes when they get around to
putting together a studio album they retain the dirt in these grooves. If it's anything like what I witnessed here, it's
going to be a monster that eats the wicked.
"I'm Tom Petty and behind me are
the Heartbreakers. We're going to have a good time tonight. I promise you that," said the leader of these
gentlemen rockers on Friday. Out celebrating their 30th anniversary, they're one of the only bands long-lived
enough to draw serious comparisons to The Band. They look and sound just like a rock 'n roll band should, and
they've got a small mountain of tremendous songs. Always more populist than Robbie Robertson and company, the
Heartbreakers have an impressive knack for knowing what connects with almost everyone. If you're going to sing
with 50 or 60 thousand strangers, "I Won't Back Down" or "Refugee" work fabulously.
From their opening chords, this band filled the big main stage area with practiced ease. Wearing serious expressions
that occasionally burst into broad grins, they meant business but still clearly have a ball. They spotlighted their
early influences with heavy, impressive covers of the Yardbirds' "I'm A Man" and Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," with
shaking a pair of maracas with youthful exuberance. Guitarist and co-leader Mike Campbell burned hard,
reminding us throughout the night what a massively satisfying player he's grown into. "Saving Grace," a new one
from Petty's upcoming solo release, Highway Companion, had a ghostly gunslinger growl that rode the John
Lee Hooker style rumble well. They pulled out "Handle With Care" and dedicated it to "Wilburys wherever they're
traveling tonight." While not quite the charmer that Jenny Lewis' recent version is, it nonetheless reminded us that Petty once sat at the same
table as Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan. That's some tall company.
Tom Petty by Dave
Mid-set they brought out their "little baby sister" Stevie Nicks to unhinged screams of delight for the California Gypsy Queen.
Campbell then released one of the sexiest riffs in rock history as the whole band put their backs into "Stop Dragging
My Heart Around." Nicks then took a fantastic lead vocal on a sharp version of Petty's 1978 hit "I Need To Know," as
well as chiming in on backing vocals for most of the show.
They've been around for so long one forgets just how many singles they've put on the charts. In that rarefied field
"bands nearly everyone alive knows," there are few more enjoyable. They always maintain an unimpeachable rock 'n
roll vibe that keeps them from slipping into what the Brits call "Dad Rock." "Runnin' Down A Dream" closed the main
set, and I was struck by what a flawless piece of music it is – universal yet still signature Petty and his Heartbreakers.
To reach mass recognition and still maintain one's identity is rare. These guys have done it, and more than a few of
us at Bonnaroo were taken aback at the power after all these years.
Tom Petty by Dave
Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa
With sleep calling me Thursday, I was captured by something in the night. In the distance, I heard Toubab Krewe ringing the life out of an electric
guitar. It was like the dust of Ali Farka Toure
blown into the wind to curl into my nostrils, bending my feet towards the music. Arriving slightly dazed but happy
to be captured, I heard modern African forms given sinewy new body. If the players on Santana III had dug
deeper into the Motherland, it might have turned out like this. Color me impressed.
Toubab Krewe by Pamela
On Sunday, the Refugee Allstars of Sierra
Leone offered something more traditional. Touched by a survivor's grace (they met in a refugee camp
during Sierra Leone's long civil war), they began with a "Compliment To The Peace" and stirred thousands with the
sheer joy of being alive. With group vocals and hand percussion, they combine older African forms tempered by the
more contemporary reggae coming out of the Caribbean. Being in their presence, one couldn't help but feel a
profound sense of gratitude, and I made a promise to check out the recent documentary about their struggles.
I'd long heard Amadou & Mariam
were a complete delight, but nothing could have prepared me for the visceral, irresistible force that engulfed me on
Saturday. Anyone who thought they were too weak from the heat to move was proven a liar by this pair of West
African singers and their smokin' hot band. A strong wind led me to them, and like Toubab Krewe, I simply
surrendered to the encouragement of the elements. I walked in to find Mariam petting Amadou's smooth head while
singing, "Baby, I love you." The keyboards and guitars unfurled like red and orange ribbons over the tan dirt and
green-brown grass. There's the skip of soukous but beefed-up with hard rock and blues. In them you hear America
talk back to Africa, a reminder of music's two-way street where the root and the fruit are inextricably linked.
Amadou & Mariam by Dave
Good Ol' Rock 'n Roll
A great deal of the most baldly enjoyable moments this year came from bands that rocked unironically, sparking off
embarrassing displays of air guitar and John Bonham style air drumming. Dios (malos) kicked it off Thursday with sleazy, surfy grind. Burbling synths,
muscular guitars, and the occasional bittersweet slow-burner like "All Said & Done" kept things nicely off-kilter.
Forced to change their name from dios to dios (malos) by Ronnie James Dio (now that's Dio McCarthyism!), Joe
Morales told us, "We're gonna change our name back to dios four minutes from now." They offer a mature
version of what Band of Horses are getting
ink for lately, presented in very live (read: present) manner that proved they're just as tasty in concert as they are on
Tokyo, Japan's Electric Eel Shock
continued to rock it balls-out on Thursday. I have a weakness for ESL (English as a Second Language) bands anyway,
so a hell-bent-for-leather trio that yells things like "I can hear the sex noise" is a lock for my affections. The
Tomoharu 'Gian' Ito got shirtless before the preamble finished, while Aki Morimoto (guitar, voc)
picked minimalist Black Sabbath chords before shouting, "I am Ironman!" They immediately abandoned Sabbath and
pounded out one of their own. EES are the idea of punk-fueled metal, stripping it down to the frame and a set of
fucked-up rims. Major crowd-surfing ensued during the title-tune from their latest release, Beat Me, which
inspired bassist Kazuto Maekawa to climb his amp stack. With wild eyes, Morimoto roared, "This is my
guitar! Can you see my guitar?" Yes, we can. Oh yes.
dios (malos) by Pamela Martinez
From a primordial slop rose Philadelphia's Marah, rounding out Thursday's rock-centric bent. Ridiculously together, Marah
offered some of the best, most clearly defined music of the festival. There's an undeniable Springsteen feel to parts but the Born To Run, grease-under-
his-nails Bruce with the cocksure attitude that hid a scared heart. Marah's got all that and gobs more. "We waited a
long time to play Bonnaroo," said Serge Bielanko, who leads the band with brother David. "It's like a David
Alan Coe song and hippies coexisting. You can pee on the grass under the Tennessee stars." They play like guys
with something to prove. Besides being monster songwriters who released one of 2005's best (If You Didn't
Laugh You'd Cry), Marah plays with the skill and near reckless abandon of just-gone-electric Dylan. They need
to do a triple-bill tour with Centro-matic and the Drive-By Truckers so more folks can discover them. The heedless
energy of "The Closer" and "Sooner or Later" sent the crowd into a frenzy that tipped over the edge when they
slipped into The Who's "Baba O'Riley." A raunchy, gutbucket encore of the O'Jays' "Love Train" produced crashing joy
and jumping glee. Wow.
Son Volt picked it up on Sunday. Like
a megawatt machine roaring to life, Jay Farrar's boys keep getting tougher and more together all the time.
In a voice that's equal parts Fred Neil and Waylon Jennings, Farrar told us they "were heading for the atmosphere,"
which is a perfect shorthand for the feeling they produce - that rare sense that music might break through our
into some larger truth. Lead guitarist Brad Rice showed flashes of Izzy Stradlin while continuing to move
Son Volt further and further away from their Americana tag. On an afternoon as muggy as Roger Ebert's armpit, Son
Volt kicked up a glorious racket.
It's been some time since I last caught moe.
, and their Sunday main stage set was great. There's no one who straddles the jam and pop worlds more
proficiently than moe. Improvisation is key to their thing, but they know the power of dropping an "In-A-Gadda-
Da-Vida" tease into the middle of their explorations. The pairing of guitarists Al Schnier and Chuck
Garvey compares favorably with Judas Priest's K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton – hard and fast but also capable
of tender eloquence. Bassist Rob Derhak sang with a Bono-esque power that caught me off guard.
There's ridiculous energy and high-level musicianship in every aspect, and if Triple-A radio would just open their
arms, they've got loads of hits waiting to happen. Newer ones like "BJ Pizza" and especially "Wicked Awesome" with
its laundry lists of thank-yous to FM radio are primed for stadium sing-a-longs. They put on a good show and
seem to be shaking up their standard setlists with fresh arrangements and leaner material. Altogether, it was very
Chuck Garvey :: moe :: by Pamela
He's A Loser, Baby
While it's easy to gush about most of what I heard in Manchester, there were a few clunkers, and nothing made a
louder thud than Beck on Saturday.
In general, I loves me some Beck. There are few more inspired lyricists today and he can work it gentle or hard with
equal facility, but a turd is a turd. From the start he seemed bored and distant, winking at everything in a way that
was irritating as hell. After the uniform professionalism that preceded him, it was frustrating to watch Beck and his
just-alright band fart around. He played a few songs solo while the others ate at a dinner table set up on stage.
He's been doing this bit on the current tour, and I've yet to see it work. If this were a 1967 Andy Warhol gallery
event then maybe, but in front of tens of thousands, it served only to create further distance. During the solo
section, he did half-assed versions of the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize?" and quite rudely, Radiohead's "Creep,"
even though they were scheduled immediately after him. The best part of his set shouldn't have been the short
movie where puppet versions of the band wandered around the festival encountering people who say things like,
"The enzymes you can get from fresh fruit are, like, epic." The short did provide one of the catchphrases of the
weekend ("I smell hippy"), which my compatriots and I wore out the next day. There was wrestling in bear costumes
during "1000 BPM" and a decent "E-Pro" closer, but the overall taste of the experience was sour.
Beck by Dave Vann
Twang Ain't One Thang
Hailing from Burlington, Vermont but sounding like Webb Pierce's drunken daydream, Mike Gordon & Ramble Dove filled Friday afternoon
with serious honky tonk. The pedal steel and Chet Atkins-like lead lines instantly differentiated this from Gordon's
Phish work. It's even a good deal different than his collaboration with Leo Kottke, though nearly as playful. Here,
the singing is stronger, often conjuring the same jukebox jive as Loretta Lynn and George Jones. A funky one
sounded a bit like Little Feat and gave Gordon a chance to indulge in some bass gymnastics. It's a new band, and as
first impressions go, this was a mighty good one. Pure country from impure minds – you gotta love it.
Bela Fleck, especially in his post-
New Grass Revival years, has done a great deal to popularize the banjo with modern kids. On Sunday, he and his
Flecktones played with gorgeous, slightly alien beauty. There's something hugely likeable about Fleck and
his music – a complex but not unapproachable sound that never rules out anything in their easy cosmic journeying.
Jeff Coffin proved himself one of the unsung heroes of the saxophone, especially in light of the fact that
he's playing parts originally composed for a banjo. While I've never been fully able to absorb what all the fuss is
about, I can appreciate how they connect with a large audience. They're a lighter version of what Al DiMeola or
Return To Forever once offered – chock full of impeccable musicianship but friendly enough to appeal to more than
Ramble Dove by Dave Vann
For straight, fire-hot bluegrass I've rarely heard better than Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder on Friday. He consciously tries to "honor the
elders" like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley (who Skaggs played with as a teen). He reminisced about hearing radio
broadcasts from the '40s that were "wearin' it out" and then proceeded to take a little leather off with his band. They
had such enormous good cheer that a giant in a Misfits t-shirt eventually started hamboneing like a
Deliverance extra. Skaggs played "The Simple Life," the theme to his syndicated radio show, and it was
clear the southerners in attendance knew every word. Bluegrass played like this is how human beings fly using only
wires and wood. When they leap from the hill, their barely contained precision keeps them aloft and carries us along
in their wake.
Jeff Coffin :: Bela Fleck & the
by Dave Vann
Late on Friday, Robert Randolph and the Family
Band had the sun parked above them like the Raisin Bran orb, smiling down as Randolph took the pedal
steel out of its country ghetto. Taking their cues from Randolph, everyone jumps and hollers with unrestrained
spirit. When they're on, they're the closest modern descendent of Sly and the Family Stone. Sadly, Randolph
to be wandering these days in search of a way to update a sound he perfected several years back. A rapper in one
section smacked of the moves in contemporary Christian music to take things to the street. It's an uncomfortable
marriage at best, and one hopes Randolph finds the right fit before finishing his long-awaited sophomore studio
Nickel Creek had a baroque elegance
on Friday. Using acoustic instruments, they created an alluring kind of pop that draws freely from bluegrass, the
Beatles, and Bach. By tailoring things only to what they hear in their heads, it arrives without the taint of most
contemporary pop, which seems designed more for advertising than any higher musical calling. Watching the hula
hoop kids work their hips during this set felt like being in an independent film. The harmonies of Sara
Watkins, Chris Thile, and Sean Watkins always stir me in ways I can't quite describe. The
first time I felt this way was hearing Crosby, Stills, and Nash, so you have some idea of their depth. Alone, Sean has
a bit of acid (particularly on tunes like "Someone More Like You"), Sara is sweet and surprisingly slinky, and Chris is a
slow healing wound that will surely leave scars. Bassist Mark Schatz filled things out with booming
authority and delightful fills. There's just nothing to dislike about what they do, and most of the hippies around me
seemed to feel the same.
Chris Thile :: Nickel Creek :: by
We Lucky Few
Emerging to a furious cut-up of a Pine-Sol commercial, Radiohead captivated a packed main stage, where perhaps half of those in
attendance knew what they were in for. Even for those not already obsessive listeners to The Bends or
OK Computer, there was unmistakable electricity in the air on Saturday night. Capable of dizzying
grandeur, they can just as quickly dive into the kind of goose bump-inducing intimacy that makes people feel this is
their band despite the obvious cross-cultural recognition Radiohead has achieved. Put another way, though known
to millions each person loves them in their own way. That their music never sags under this weight is a testament to
its creators' enduring honesty and creativity.
The words "lemon fresh" stuttered over a Squarepusher-esque snarl before launching into possessed opener "There
There," where singer Thom Yorke opened a vein and announced, "In pitch dark I go walking in your
landscape/ Broken branches trip me as I speak/ Just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there." Yorke excels at
couplets like this, just a few words but they'll haunt you the rest of your days. His ability to distill the essence of
hope, fear, and longing is nearly unparalleled in modern music. Later in the show during "Lucky" he sang, "It's going
to be a glorious day/ I feel my luck could change." Though perhaps offered sarcastically, you could see people's
spirits rise just a few inches above their bodies.
Thom Yorke :: Radiohead :: by Pamela
Despite technical snafus with the big screen video monitors, Radiohead played with head-down complete conviction.
It's a cliché to talk about a group playing each show like it's their last, but in this case it's utterly true. There's a
palpable sense of purpose to their exquisitely layered compositions, where the music matches the emotions note-
for-note. Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien are perhaps the most influential - yet rarely cited –
guitarists in a decade. Bend an ear to the next generation coming up and you'll hear echo after echo of their strange
Towards the end, a girl behind me yelled, "I like your music." The way she said it was so sincere that it cut past all
the flowery expressions growing in my mind. For a band that's sometimes pegged as cold and distant, there's
unbelievable warmth to their pulse. At many moments I felt as if I might split open and kiss the sky. For all the dark
territory they explore, Radiohead is an amazing life force. I couldn't stop smiling during main set-closing "Karma
Police" as Yorke informed us, "This is what you get when you mess with us." Indeed.
The One Drop
Wandering through the smoky night on Thursday, getting used to the constant disorientation and occasional
grumble of collapsed revelers under foot, I followed the lines of shuffling towards what sounded like 1965 James
Brown. Australia's Cat Empire
vibrated with in-your-face energy, a new kid to pick up where Oingo Boingo, The Specials, and other marvelous,
peculiar show bands left off. I'm fairly sure I walked in on a blazing cover of Aretha Franklin's "Save Me." What sets
them apart from their ancestors is the reggae infusion they've given their soul express. Trumpeter-singer Harry
Angus is a more melodious Joe Cocker who jams like a bullfight-ready Herb Alpert. His hip-swaying
counterpart, Felix Riebl, is the down under equivalent of Buena Vista Social Club vocalist Ibrahim Ferrar
with a touch of Jamaica's John Holt. The rest are like a party in a box waiting to be opened. Once you pull the
ribbon, they explode festively all over your face. Keyboardist Ollie McGill is a dolphin flipping gracefully
waves, captivating in all contexts, which is quite something given how Cat Empire grab greedy handfuls of hip hop,
soul, rock, and reggae. They offered one of the chants of the festival, too: "Music is the language of us all." Amen.
Harry Angus :: The Cat Empire
The granddaddies of reggae this year were Steel
Pulse. The justifiably legendary British group has been sculpting their nakedly spiritual rhythms since
1975, and their set Friday was a medicine bag made up of Nyabinghi, American blues, and No-Wave New York
exploration. Far from some recreation society, Steel Pulse hums with seasoned wisdom. With gorgeous female
backup singers, they proceeded to "chant the summer day." Far deeper than most of their peers, Steel Pulse
honored the African roots of their genre and spiced it with edgy electricity. It's a sound that speaks of time and age
in the positive ways they can temper us.
If he weren't Bob Marley's son I'm not sure anyone would give Damian "Junior Gong" Marley the time of day. His smooth, lazily
hypnotic records aren't unpleasant but hard to distinguish from a sea of imitators (both of his father and scores of
contemporary hitmakers). Without the family legacy, he's another kid drawing from roots reggae past and dancehall
present. His performance Saturday further confirmed the suspicion this is a diluted version of the powerful stuff
once made by Bob and the Wailers. Damian opened his show with an instrumental medley of tracks like "No More
Trouble" and "Jammin'" just in case we forgot his parentage. While not the full-blown Red Hot Chili Pepper
commerciality that brother Ziggy has embraced, everything is a bit too polished, and when Junior Gong tries to take
it to the streets, it feels false coming from someone who grew up with his father's riches. Bob Marley was the
product of abject poverty and genuinely life-threatening conditions. As such, his words on the poor and struggling
emanated from a place of complete integrity. With Damian it feels like a pose.
Damian "Junior Gong" Marley by Dave
I would never have guessed that a Hasidic Jew would walk away with the Reggae Lion's Mantle. Like many, I'd
dismissed Matisyahu as a novelty.
With his yarmulke and untamed beard, it just seemed wrong that he was testifying like Marcus Garvey. Yet when
face-to-face with the man, there's little doubt you're in the presence of a prophet. What Matisyahu and his bumping
band do is a pure, ecstatic form of worship. To resist it is to deny the Creator's presence, and that's something I'm
always loath to do! I came in midway to find Matisyahu cutting up words like a sushi chef while his boys (guitarist
Aaron Dugan, bassist Josh Werner, and drummer Jonah David) pumped a
heartbeat flooded with chimes. They successfully steered into a live dub that ignited "chalices" across the Which
Stage field. Dugan has the grit and flash of Wailers guitarists Junior Marvin and Al Anderson, and the low end is so
thick you may want a machete and a native guide to traverse it. They relax into each piece with precision and
patience. It's a lethal combination that successfully underscores Matisyahu's lead, which brings to mind Linton
Kwesi Johnson and Beres Hammond. Far more powerful than anything Marley Jr. offered, Matisyahu is putting his
own stamp on reggae. His is an ancient heart with modern ears, all informed by the humility of someone who
understands he's a servant of a servant of God. I'm sold.
Matisyahu by Dave Vann
The first full day at Bonnaroo began with Robinella and the CCstringband, a roadhouse tight outfit that draws favorable
comparisons to Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Singer Robinella has a bright voice like Iris Dement or Alison Krauss
but with a jazz vocalist's dexterity. Husband Cruz Contreras guided them through delicate turns from
their excellent Solace For The Lonely album as well as hard rockers like "Nobody’s Fault But Mine" that
Blind Willie Johnson smile. With violin and other acoustic instruments in the foreground, they sounded like a
descendent of Dylan's Desire band, especially when the violin started spitting fire.
On the way to Manchester I passed an SUV with the words "I (heart symbol) Cat Power" painted on several windows.
One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was Cat Power and the Memphis Rhythm Band on Friday, a live recreation of Chan
Marshall's ridiculously appealing The Greatest. After an intro where the horns vamped and backing singers
took the spotlight, Marshall emerged with a skip. This is no icy indie goddess but a full-blooded woman ready to
make us sweat. There's something fleshy and succulent about the 2006 model of Cat Power. You pick up on it in
the come-hither arrangements and Marshall's Rickie Lee Jones-esque dance moves. In fact, Jones isn't a bad
archetype for Marshall to follow – a perennial with an impeccable catalog and a gently adventurous spirit. Only at
the end did
we get a taste of the old Cat Power as she strapped on a guitar for an echo-laden stroll through graveyards past. It's
the mark of a great-in-the-making that Marshall proved equally adept at hot soul and painful introspection.
Bonnaroo 2006 by Dave Vann
The Magic Numbers make me swoon. I'm not prone to faints, spells or any other Victorian silliness but
vinyl warmth of their high reaching voices just does me in. Saturday afternoon, beneath gray skies, they bottled all
the sunshine around us and unleashed it in notes of pure light. The shuffling backbeat and bell tones of "I See You,
You See Me" whisper back to John Sebastian and Brian Wilson but with a more hickory tone, and Angela
Gannon is Phoebe Snow and Sandy Denny in one package. New material like "You Never Had It" was chunkier,
pumped up, and garagey. At times they remind me of the sugar smack of family bands like the Osmonds or
Partridges. That's no dig, especially given how easily their music goes down.
Michele Stodart :: The Magic
by Dave Vann
It was heartening to see one of my favorites from the '80s still walking the boards on Friday. World Party is the name Karl Wallinger has
used for his varied, often unsung pop explorations since leaving the Waterboys in 1985. Working with a spare
setting of mostly acoustic guitars and violin, Wallinger jumped around his catalog of undiscovered classics. Classy
and a bit cheeky, Wallinger speaks in a way that makes me want to find him voice-over work. He's so natural and
inviting, and his lyrics have a '60s optimism that's heartening in these cynical times. By the time he brought out the
electric guitar for "Way Down Now" off 1990's tremendous Goodbye Jumbo, the crowd had grown
considerably. Like Peter Case and Paul Kelly, Wallinger steadily hones his craft, releasing a new album from time to
time just so we don't forget he's out there. He's comforting in a Beatles sort of way. I can't think of too many nicer
things I could write about a musician.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are
instantly likeable festival dynamite - big and bright yet muddy like Creedence. On Saturday, they jumped on it like a
hound committed to wearing every bit of meat off a bone. I watched jaws drop as Potter opened up. Hers is a voice
from above with a healthy knowledge of the fire down below. I'm seriously diggin' the harder edge they've
developed. There's absolutely nothing "girlie" about this now. Guitarist Scott Tournet was just plain mean
(a major compliment in my book), and bassist Bryan Dondero could be a member of '70s Little Feat. It's
taken a while for drummer Matthew Burr to grow on me. He has the Cro-Magnon swing of the Secret Machines' Benjamin Curtis but with a lot
less finesse. Once I succumbed to his Animal (as in The Muppets) charms I figured out why he's here. Potter herself
is a Hammond organ whiz, vamping like a lightly tipsy Stevie Wonder. Her songwriting compares favorably with
early Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin, whose fans would love what the Nocturnals are laying down. I'm always
happy to see them on a bill - which says a lot right there – and they were in top form at Bonnaroo.
Grace Potter by Dave Vann
I arrived at Dungen to discover
Albert King being slow-boiled over an open flame. Sweden's finest trip masters played with real heart and youthful
moxie on Saturday. They passed a notebook into the crowd near the beginning, inviting us to write in our email
addresses, and hoping aloud it would return to them later in the day. Dungen's leader Gustav Ejstes read
the quote on the front, "Instead of saying that won't work, find out what does work and go out and do that." The
newer material finds Dungen working in English for the first time, and while there's less jagged rambling it's no less
engaging. When the group really got cooking, Gustav jerked around like a giddy marionette, letting his brothers tug
his strings every which way. The drummer's striped shirt made me think, "So that's where Waldo ends up as an
adult!" A prancing summer delight called "Festival" seemed custom made for Bonnaroo. "Panda" from Ta Det
Lungt was even more locomotive in concert, big steel barreling down a steep grade with little hope of stopping.
They kept the same barbaric energy in the final section, which crushed heads Kids In The Hall fashion.
Brothers Past rattled Sunday
morning with marvelously tweaked big rock. They bring it like a stadium headliner instead of the club/theatre act
they are, much like the early days of Gomez. It may just be their music is too large, too ambitious, and too
to remain in small rooms for long. They have a varied repertoire that could appeal to fans of moe., Talking Heads,
Pink Floyd without sounding precisely like anyone else. What gets me is their weird edge, chock full of mystery
noises courtesy of vocalist-guitarist Tom Hamilton's laptop digressions and keyboardist Tom
McKee's messy palette. Clay Parnell (bass, vocals) and Rick Lowenberg (drums) handled
the reggae and metal tangents skillfully. As solid as Lowenberg was, I was elated to hear that former Om Trio
percussion demon Ilya Stemkovsky will be filling the drum slot starting in July.
Reine Fiske :: Dungen :: by Dave
Sunday, the Codetalkers dropped a
space mountain of funky whomp on us. Dressed in suits (very classy), they looked ready for a Sunday service. They
moved limberly as one mind through singer-guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers' fantastic compositions. At their
core, they're populist rockers making music radio should be gobbling up. Live they take it WAY out. With steely-
eyed intent, they probed the possibilities of their brand new album, Now. When they delved into the blues –
a form that suits Rodgers – they captured the real ache of a line like "I've tried, I've tried, I've tried." They ramble
with the same knife-edge gusto as vintage Butterfield Blues Band or more obscurely, the Numbers Band (15 60 75). On a tune about Hawaii that had everyone
shouting "Aloha," they hit like the Ventures swinging a nine-pound hammer. The presence of Col. Bruce
Hampton (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Hampton Grease Band) may be what first put this group on the map, but
increasingly this is Rodgers' show. Col. Bruce was in fine form, wrenching emotions from a slide guitar that were
positively bizarre. Anchored by the rhythm team of bassist Ted Pecchio and drummer Tyler
Greenwell, the Codetalkers provided ample reason why they're fast becoming a favorite of many people.
A major personal highlight of this festival was Devendra Banhart on Friday. Drawing us in like a slow gin fizz, the shirtless
Devendra led His Band and Street Choir through a courtship of our ears. I make the Van Morrison reference
specifically because in tone and appearance Banhart's crew resembles Morrison's miraculous '70s collective. A little
sleepy at first, they blossomed into boisterous jubilation. Often called the Hairy Fairies, this day Devendra said they
were the Tennessee Cops, an announcement with a chilly, unexplained vibe. The first section had the
hypno buzz of David Crosby or the Pretty Things. An impatient dude shouted, "Do something! Make that shit work
for you, son!" Banhart calmed him, saying, "Be patient. We haven't even started yet." Eventually space truckers like
"Long Haired Child" and "Just Like A Child" lit up the room, but the more respectful, open-minded folks were equally
charmed by the hash-chilled "Mama Wolf" that inspired a spontaneous group howl. Guitarist-singers Andy
Cabic (Vetiver) and Noah
Georgeson took us out on long, dusty highways where they broke our minds before putting them back
together. Cabic's "You May Be Blue" and Georgeson's "Find Shelter" were standouts too. The drummer, whose name
I missed, had the lanky fusion of Mick Fleetwood.
Devendra Banhart by Pamela
At one point they invited a member of the audience who writes songs to come on stage and play one. I'm sure this
bit sometimes falls flat - where they bring up a hack or someone who freezes - but this time it provided one of the
most spontaneous festival moments. The young guy they brought up muttered, "I'm really doing this. I'm playing
Bonnaroo" and then launched into a sprightly political love song that began "This string was made in China. This
heart was made by God." Sounding like the cousin of Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) on a freewheeling Bob Dylan
jag, the kid took his shot and made it count. By the end, Devendra and the others were clamoring along with drums
and handclaps. Banhart embraces other's creativity, and his graciousness spread out in waves as their set
progressed towards the closing afrobeat inspired "White Reggae Troll."
The Master Class
I'd wager festivals like this are the only time visionary guitarist Bill Frisell ever contends with clouds of sinsemilla or beach balls passed around by
dirty hands. On Saturday, his New Quartet featuring Greg Leisz (pedal steel), David Piltch (bass),
and Kenny Wollesen (drums) offered all the technical grace you could want but mustered for a sorcerous
haze that appealed to jazz and hop heads alike. Leisz excels at filling spaces others leave open, and he may be the
best guitar foil Frisell has ever had. The crowd went wild when Frisell unleashed his strange side – something
neophytes don't expect from a man who looks like a gray-haired adult Charlie Brown. Fiddling with knobs, Frisell
produced a roar that sounded like a robot being tortured with a cattle prod. Neat. One part sounded like the Byrds'
fever dreams, while others nodded back to Frisell's exploratory years on ECM Records. They finished with a brilliant
trio of covers – a prickly, funereal take on Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" that inconceivably flowed into the Burt
Bacharach-Hal David chestnut "What The World Needs Now Is Love," which in turn gave way to the Delfonics
indestructible slow jam "La-La (Means I Love You)." Glorious music delivered by real pros.
Bonnaroo 2006 by Pamela
Like whiskey, wine, and women, Buddy Guy
is getting better with age. Sure, he's lost some of the spit and fire of his '60s and '70s barn-burning
days, but the small chunk of his Saturday performance I caught told me he's picked up some new tricks. Always a
marvel on electric guitar, he's become a rootsy, country-tinged master of the acoustic in recent years. The man Jimi
Hendrix once skipped one of his first sold out shows in London to see has a quiet power that's only more
pronounced now. Guy can whisper and make us listen in a way few performers will ever achieve. He worked it loud
towards the end, but it was the gentler avenues that most grabbed me.
Betty LaVette can really sell a line like "He
can go to hell." The words ring true on her tongue but without undue bitterness. When she says it, you know the
guy is a rat that deserves to fry. On Friday, LaVette belted it out with the quiver of one who's just barely made it
through life's struggles and lived to tell about it. Instead of being overly tough, there remains a vulnerable side to
this extraordinary interpreter. While the band was a bit too polished, LaVette shined especially on tunes from 2005's
hard-hitting I've Got My Own Hell To Raise.
Betty LaVette by Dave Vann
Seeing Sonic Youth on a Sunday
afternoon was odd enough but the highly melodic, strikingly catchy feel of the new Rather Ripped songs
was sunnier than anyone might have suspected. The conviction of this long-lived alternative giant rang loud. They
continue to enthrall because at a base level they make really good music. After puzzling over the free packs of
cigarettes being handed out by American Spirit, Thurston Moore yelped through a fantastic "Incinerate" from the new
album. There's fewer free jazz tangents and more straight up rockin' now. Like a lot of veterans, maybe they just
learned to play and don't need to wander off so much anymore. Whatever the reason, Sonic Youth 2006 is a mighty
rock beast that hugs more than it hurts.
Steve Earle was a man alone on
Sunday. It's how many of us imagine him – well grizzled and wandering some back road. There are a lot of guys
who've tried to take Woody Guthrie's crown, but it may be a man like Earle who doesn't want the damn thing who'll
ultimately walk away with it. His politics and weather-beaten soul make him a natural successor, but he's smart
enough to know how dangerous it is to be anybody's hero. He asked, "Who's been here all weekend?" When the
majority of us piped up, he smiled, "You're some bad mother fuckers." This is a true man – the product of all his
good and bad choices, the consequences of his actions etched in his thick voice. He swears marvelously, too,
something I admire in folks though I probably shouldn't. After breaking a string on his guitar, he commented, "I
keep fucking these things up. Too much thumb. The thing that separates us from the other animals, and I manage
to fuck it up." After a moment's pause he corrected himself, "That's not true. Art is the true separator, the ability to
make beautiful things." You got that right, Steve.
Sonic Youth by Dave Vann
Dobro genius Jerry Douglas played the same stage earlier on Sunday. Douglas specializes in storytelling
without words, and with a young band that watched him like hunting dogs, he told some fine tales. "We're gonna
play a fast one, and then we'll play a slow one," said Douglas. It's that kind of plain-spoken understatement that's
helped keep him in the studio shadows for many years, known primarily to country/bluegrass fanatics. With the
commercial high profile of Alison Krauss' group Union Station, he's found a much bigger audience. His
own compositions defy description except to say they swing. What they played was gentle enough for the toddlers
bouncing on their daddy's shoulders but heady enough for the liner note readers. Violinist Gabe Witcher
really stood out, tracing smoky trails in the blue sky with his dexterous bow. One of the coolest parts was when
Douglas asked, "Does anybody remember a band called Weather Report?" Their take on ballad "A Remark You Made"
from Heavy Weather stole our breath away.
Oysterhead is a garage band made
up of world-class players. I can't escape the feeling that Les Claypool, Trey Anastasio, and Stewart Copeland are a
thousand pounds lighter in this setting. Oysterhead gets them in touch with the things that made them pick up an
instrument in the first place. They noodled with shit eatin' grins, reveling in their hard earned skill while trying to
play outside of it. I loved how littlelike "that guy from the Police" Copeland sounds here. He's still got the best
cymbal work EVER but there's less tension in his shoulders when he hits. Les looked dapper even in the blazing heat
on Friday, and Trey burned like the jukebox hero we know he can be. You never got the sense they take this project
all that seriously, and therein lays its appeal. At the end, Copeland said, "We're just a semi-pro band and that's all
we've got. You're beautiful people, and I want to take off all my clothes and dance among you." There’s no question
he'd been welcomed with open arms.
Oysterhead by Dave Vann
It Came From MySpace
With only a 35-minute Sunday slot, it was inexcusable for Be Your Own Pet to stammer on about running out of songs only 15 minutes in. If
they truly had so little material they probably shouldn’t be scheduled on a main stage at one of the biggest festivals
in the world. But BYOP is already gracing magazine covers, and has been championed by Thurston Moore,
whose Ecstatic Peace label put out their debut.
Shrieking things like "Get out of my skin," they're plenty snotty but not more than a few inches removed from the
late '70s pop-punk sound that's come back into vogue. Sure, they've got a great name in a Sanrio kind of way but they sound and look (and don’t think for a minute that
their look isn't a huge factor in their success) like THE band Seth is putting on every mix he gives Ryan and
A smartass next to me at deadboy and the
Elephantmen on Sunday piped up, "I sing the lonely, white-boy blues. I'm complaining when I got nothing
to complain about." It got a big laugh from everyone around him. It's sad when music can be mocked so easily.
Dax Riggs (deadboy) and drummer Tessie Brunet, aided by a tour bassist, are quite the glum
Sonny and Cher, announcing the song titles and then launching into them without another word. In a post-Jeff
Buckley world, Riggs is suitably tormented but it rings hollow when he sings, "I've got hell in my hands." In a form
fitting white beater, Brunet pounded with Neanderthal simplicity, an unsophisticated repetition of splash cymbal and
snare hits. Many tunes tried for a Two Gallants sharpness and missed. At 38, I was at least 10, if not 20,
years older than most of the audience, and maybe I've just listened to enough old blues 78s to feel nothing from
shows of doom like deadboy.
The Final Word
With the clouds moving fast overhead, Phil Lesh
Friends closed out Bonnaroo 2006. By the time they were finished, the skies would open up, drenching
barefoot children who stayed the distance. Huddled under a blanket, watching the stage through heavy raindrops, I
felt this was the poetically right conclusion. It just wouldn't be Bonnaroo if I didn't get soaked at least once. Without
a doubt, this is the best line-up Phil has put together since the Phil Lesh Quintet with Warren
Haynes and Jimmy Herring. New Friends guitarists John Scofield and Larry Campbell
shined in ways their earlier work only hinted at. Keyboardist-vocalist Rob Barraco showed his
natural feel for Grateful Dead music, while drummer John Molo confirmed he’s the best percussion partner
Phil has ever had. However, the standout in Tennessee was lead singer Joan Osbourne, an undulating
firecracker in a pretty summer dress who led the band as much as Phil, especially in the heavyweight 2nd set.
Moving like a woman ready to rut, Osbourne brought in some much needed sexual energy. She made lines like
"you've got such dark eyes" on "Shakedown Street" hum with fresh, enthralling meaning. If Lesh is interested in
differentiating his solo work from the Dead, then he's picked a bang-up accomplice in Joan.
Phil Lesh by Dave Vann
Out of the gate, the ensemble played tough. I dare say Phil's friendship with Chris Robinson has let some
of the Crowes' mojo slip into the mix. You could hear it on the rusty freight train "Cumberland Blues" and later on
what may be the best post-Garcia "New Speedway Boogie" I've ever heard. The push-me-pull-me interaction is
intense, and they walk the line between rehearsed perfection and spontaneous outbursts with sure-footed
nimbleness. Hearing this combination attack - "Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain" - isn't nostalgia but a
lovely reminder of the twinned musical spirits in these compositions.
John Scofield :: Phil Lesh & Friends
by Dave Vann
During the heaviest rain, Osbourne grabbed the reins, saying, "Boys, take it down." They dutifully obliged while she
unfolded a Tennessee Williams-like tale about meeting her man wearing a negligee, a cocktail in one hand and an
ice pick in the other. We never found out how their date ended, but one imagines not well. When she purred the
word "negligee," one of my compatriots asked if we would be paying $2.99/minute for her story! I had my wallet
Phil's stated idea of telling stories with his setlists really hit home when they played "Gimme Shelter" with
all the foreboding menace of the original Stones studio recording. An electric chill went up my spine as Osbourne
growled, "Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today/ If I don't get some shelter, oh yeah I'm gonna fade away."
They tickled chaos on this one, crunchy guitars and possessed piano vying for supremacy as they pushed back the
storm clouds and set the children moving to this elemental beat.
With a "Box of Rain" this temporary city came to an end. Phil and company proved the ideal punctuation on
this living, breathing entity called Bonnaroo - impassioned, brilliantly skilled and booming with a fractured but
Phil Lesh & Joan Osbourne by Dave
Believe it if you need it, and if you don’t just pass it on.
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