BONNAROO 2006: A CITY IN THE HILLS

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.


Ramble Dove by Dave Vann
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 record collectors.


Jeff Coffin :: Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
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.

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 appears 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 album.


Chris Thile :: Nickel Creek :: by Pamela Martinez
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.

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.


Thom Yorke :: Radiohead :: by Pamela Martinez
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.

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 six-string artistry.


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