BONNAROO 2006: A CITY IN THE HILLS


Devendra Banhart by Pamela Martinez
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.

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


Bonnaroo 2006 by Pamela Martinez
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.

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 by Dave Vann
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.

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.


Sonic Youth by Dave Vann
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.

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.


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