The Wood Brothers by Pamela Martinez
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.

Conor Oberst :: Bright Eyes
by Dave Vann
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 well.

Death Cab For Cutie followed Bright 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.

Ben Gibbard :: Death Cab for Cutie :: by Dave Vann
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."

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks 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 of 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.

An Overabundance of Epiphanies

Jim James :: My Morning Jacket :: by Dave Vann
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.

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