BONNAROO 2006: A CITY IN THE HILLS

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


Harry Angus :: The Cat Empire
by Pamela Martinez
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 over ivory 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.

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.


Damian "Junior Gong" Marley by Dave Vann
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.


Matisyahu by Dave Vann
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 subterranean 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.

Songbirds
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 made 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.


Bonnaroo 2006 by Dave Vann
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.

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