Bonnaroo | 06.12 – 06.15 | Manchester
Bonnaroo :: 06.12.08 – 06.15.08 :: Manchester, TN
I’m attempting to distill the memories from this weekend while I wipe the mud stains off my feet and apply aloe to my sunburn. It’s been a popular pastime on certain music site message boards to kvetch about this festival, and indeed some complaints are justified. The unforgivably outrageous prices in Centeroo (with that in mind I would like to give a shout out to the fine folks at Bearly Edible, whose dollar grilled cheese in the campsites kept me fed throughout the weekend), the clashes that force you to make sometimes heartbreaking musical choices, occasional slow moving security searches, the odd technical difficulties and the prevalence of corporate sponsors (did anyone seriously get a shave at the salon?). But, the blank canvas and numerous tools this festival throws you give license to paint your weekend in whatever shades you like (musical or otherwise). I would point to the above quote by Sam Bush from the Bluegrass Allstars set – in the gently rolling Tennessee hills, thousands of people each set off on individual adventures. This is the story of one writer’s journey through the mud and heat and back again.
Thursday, June 12
Walking by the cavernous What Stage on my way to the media area, the field was clean and the air was clear. Long tracks and thousands of stories would be dragged through this field before the weekend was over, but at this moment the space was a peaceful shrine. Thursday night offered serious substance on the smaller stages. I heard What Made Milwaukee Famous were excellent; “What Sparta should sound like,” was quoted to me. Catching the end of Newton Faulkner, whose quirky hippie act came off as more grating than genuine, I am officially declaring that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is up there with “Freebird” in overplayed crowd pandering cover song territory. As Superdrag pumped out alternative rock nostalgia at This Tent, I wandered over to the Other Tent to watch Grand Ole Party. Riot girls may have a new queen in lead singer-drummer Kristin Gundred, whose wail is reminiscent of Corinne Tucker and Beth Ditto. Their funky/punky energy hit the first high note of the weekend for me. I traveled from their skillful channeling of the best Kill Rock Stars label influences to channeling the best classic rock influences with Isle of Man’s Back Door Slam. Raw, timeless bluesy riffing when they covered CSNY’s “Almost Cut My Hair” made an older hippie jump to his feet and start shouting and dancing in unbridled release.
The technological mind-fuck of Battles suggested Aphex Twin’s younger, prankish brother. You could make a valiant effort to dance to the machine gun beats and the layers of prog noise but anytime they hit a steady groove they would throw a wrench into the machine. Glow stick wielding music this ain’t. This pushes aside the “E” love fest in favor of synth dipped in the blackest acid. As the fire flares raged behind me from the “Art of Such and Such” area, Battles burned a hole in my brain and I loved it. Continuing the fire and brimstone was The Felice Brothers. This may have been the highlight of my Thursday, and set off a bands-of-brothers motif (we’ll get to the Avetts and Lees later). Southern Gothic Springsteen dripped with dark zydeco, humid passion and a touch of misanthrope, The Felice Brothers told all the dishonest folk to get out of the tent. This is a band that walks in an arena of morality and isn’t afraid to call you out on your bullshit.
Both the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin have made music that means more than what can be put into words, and Dark Star Orchestra and Lez Zeppelin keep those flames burning. It’s always soul feeding to see Dark Star. Watching old Deadheads come alive with genuine joy, memories of shows and lots past flickering in their eyes, always touches me. But, I’ve seen Dark Star numerous times and only stayed for the first few songs, getting my dance on with opener “Not Fade Away,” before dragging myself away to check the Lez get the Led out. As a woman who loves genuine balls-to-the-wall rock music, I was excited about this concept. Sadly, it didn’t kick as much ass I wanted. Lead singer Sarah McLellan didn’t let her vocals out enough to match Plant’s scream (to be fair few can, but if you are in a Zeppelin cover band you should at least make the effort) and songs such as “Dazed and Confused” were played loud but markedly slower than the originals. And last time I checked “Sunshine of Your Love” is not a Zep song. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but I didn’t quite find the rock sisters I was looking for.
I ended my evening at the Somethin’ Else Tent, whose lineup this year featured all New Orleans musicians. Although you had to pay to get in, the money was all going to charities that help NOLA musicians, so I was willing to fork out and join the NOLA dance party that had booties shaking to Porter-Batiste-Stoltz. It felt like a secret backroom party as these three funk masters had the plywood dance floor pounding long into the night. But, the combination of ear bleeding bass levels and the knowledge that I had several more days to go led me back through the campgrounds, where the shakedowns were starting and the domino-effect of cheers rolled across the endless sea of tents.
Friday, June 13
After the cathartic sweat and tears of the Truckers, I caught the end of the Fiery Furnaces. Cardboard cutouts of Furnace siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger floated about the crowd assembled in That Tent. It didn’t move my soul (although after the Truckers any band would be hard pressed to do so), but the fast tempo changes and the change-ups between delicate and heavy sounds made for a fascinating listen. But, the sun was catching up to my head and I needed shade, water and a chance to check out Umphrey’s McGee.
This was a rare and wonderful chance to see these masters of bluegrass – Sam Bush, Luke Bulla, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and Bryan Sutton – together on one stage. The relative intimacy of the Other Tent gave good sightlines to appreciate their picking skills, and as I approached the edge of the crowd, Douglas’ throaty dobro was calling. The mutual respect and love between these musicians is obvious, and their infectious sense of fun, led by Bush’s hilarious stage banter, spread to the audience. Bush introduced “Polka on the Banjo” by saying Fleck had invented a new genre of music “that combines polka and bluegrass. What do you call it Bela?” Fleck stepped up to the mic and dryly replied, “Poke ass.” New songs that veered into jazz and free form territory were thrown in the mix with bluegrass standards such as “Molly and Tenbrooks” and “Sitting on Top of the World,” with generous chances for each musician to solo. This music has been my bread and butter lately and I lingered for this entire set as the gray clouds overhead hinted at the weather that was to greet us after sundown.
One of those gods was Willie Nelson, who audibly could not quite compete with the sound bleed from M.I.A.‘s That Tent set despite it being at the other end of Centeroo. That made it difficult to fully appreciate Willie’s style, whose instantly recognizable dryness crackles with untold heartbreak and hard living. “On the Road Again” and “Always On My Mind” were greeted as old musical friends, and the guy behind me was imploring everyone to hush up during “Always” (“Everyone shut up and listen to this song!”). Although I hated leaving Willie’s quiet revolution after “Take Back America,” the Third World revolution coming from M.I.A. was making total absorption in the set impossible.
The best comedy comes from anger, from the Jeremiad shout, and Chris Rock was in many ways a fitting choice for a year when no one could quite block out the outside world with climate change, gas prices and a presidential election on everyone’s mind (and on a lot of musician’s minds considering the amount of times I was implored to vote during this weekend). Chris Rock having a main stage slot worked better than I thought it would, although not all of his new material is quite up to par. He reappeared later to introduce Metallica. I am not a huge fan. I feel they rely too heavily on predictable metal tricks, but I will give credit where credit is due. They played an enthusiastic show and seemed genuinely moved by the crowd reaction. “We support live music,” James Hetfield made a point of saying, in an effort to quell negative feelings still left over from the Napster fiasco. Their set roared through the numbers everyone was waiting for – “Justice for All,” “Nothing Else Matters,” “Enter Sandman” – with Kirk Hammett‘s thrashing fretwork and Hetfield’s demonically possessed stares. And in spite of the worries about meatheads taking over Bonnaroo, I found the Metallica fans I encountered were respectful and curious about the other music (I think I saw at least one Metallica shirt at every show I went to).
I did wander away at times, driven into the tents by the rain, to catch some of the Super Jam and The Disco Biscuits, walking by Tiesto, who had This Tent dancing hard. Super Jam started half an hour late, and I couldn’t wait in the rain knowing MMJ were tearing it up a few hundred yards away, even with rumors that Tom Waits was going to appear. The jam ended up being most of Gogol Bordello and Claypool, which sounded, when I wandered back later, like, Bordello with more complex basslines. The Biscuits, not surprisingly, opened with an aggressive “M.E.M.P.H.I.S.” and kept That Tent packed and moving with what I heard was a tight, cohesive set that included a fantastic cover of “Killing In The Name Of.” But I was drawn to Which Stage again and again. Perhaps my best memory of that night was putting my face up to the rain during “What a Wonderful Man” and just saying, “Fuck it, I can’t possibly be any more drenched.” There was something transcendent in that moment as MMJ pushed me on in a moment of stubborn grace. Editor’s Note: My Morning Jacket’s Bonnaroo performance is available for download here.
Saturday, June 14
Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet featuring Bela Fleck began with an atmospheric, moaning fiddle over Washburn’s Chinese incantations. She explained the words meant, “We are one big family and our language is music,” an appropriate sentiment for this festival. Their meditative, hypnotic sound is acoustic spiritualism of the highest order. I was transfixed by Washburn’s lilting yet powerful vocals (and command of Chinese folk songs), and the easy slides between atmosphere and fast picking. Seeing Fleck play with another group drove home how versatile his constantly evolving banjo skills truly are – he is not one to rest on his laurels. Fiddle player Ben Sollee was also a standout in this awe-inspiring group, and performed his song “Bury Me In My Car” with sweet conviction. It’s music that leaves you at an utter loss for pat descriptions.
Since he is pushing on in years, I felt obligated to see some of B.B. King. Perched on his chair, the Buddha of blues, he let his guitar roll and reflected on his age with “I Need You.” He mused, “I recorded this in 1949.” But the sound was far too quiet if you weren’t in the front throng of the What Stage, and although I appreciated the opportunity to see King, I made my way back to the Other Stage for another old time legend, Levon Helm. As dusk drew in and the Tennessee sky gradually faded to pink, I easily willed myself to dance to the brass-tinged blues-rock that opened the set. When Helm’s outfit turned to his solo material, the Ramble On The Road band took us down the winding dirt paths in the heartland of America. Salt of the earth music, Helm played mandolin on several songs while his band took turns singing lead showcasing Teresa Williams‘ organ-worthy set of pipes. He saved The Band material for the end of the set, with “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever” and closer “The Weight,” a song that never stops plucking my heart strings no matter how many times I hear it. He had the audience drawn in tight and it was the kind of set where you turn to your neighbor, slap them on the arm and are spontaneously inspired to start singing along together.
Late night Saturday once again consisted of wandering back and forth to and from Which Stage, where Phil & Friends played a joyous set. I hadn’t seen this current lineup of Friends yet, and I was pleased with how well each member complimented each other. Although Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz can pepper the music with an ’80s Dead sound, the rest of the lineup keeps the music tight and driving enough so the keys don’t feel obtrusive, and the Dead’s music remains alive, breathing and evolving. Chilling versions of “Loser” and “Dark Star” and a rousing “Stella Blue” provided rest from the dance, but this was Phil to get down and funky to.
The late night set everyone was waiting for was Kanye West. I was interested in the spectacle, but his ego-driven decision to push his set back from 2:45 a.m. until 4:30 a.m. was blatantly done to make sure no other performers would compete with his stage time. I gave up waiting and threw in the towel, but reports came in quickly Sunday morning that when he finally made fit to drag himself be-grudgingly onstage he proceeded to play for less than an hour. As my brother’s friend enthused the next day about how Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco, both true hip-hop artists, brought such love and true urban credibility to their sets, I thought, it’s time to officially declare Kanye West a hip-hop has been. If we are lucky he shall be consumed by his own gravitational pull and catapult off to another planet, glow in the dark or not. There was palpable fury, and the presence of “Fuck Kanye” signs the next morning spoke to his stark contempt for the people who have gotten him where he is in the first place. There is a quote from Lester Bangs that nicely sums up his set: “The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience.” There may not be enough atonement in music heaven and hell for West.
Sunday, June 15
Afterwards I caught some of Serena Ryder and Ladytron. The earnest singer-songwriting and studied synth of each, respectively, weren’t quite what I needed after my Lee Boys baptism, so I headed over to Orchestra Baobab. This was ideal Sunday afternoon music, as this hard-working Senegalese collective let their world of organic influences wash over the sunbaked grass, taking us from Cuban nightclubs to distant African shores. However, the Sunday afternoon set I was most excited about was Yonder Mountain String Band on the What Stage, and the boys didn’t disappoint.
It’s been said before and it will be said again that Bonnaroo is often as much about what you miss as what you saw. I missed the acoustic Phil set due to almost complete exhaustion (readers, this is your chance to comment…), but regrouped in time for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss featuring T Bone Burnett. Krauss’ silky voice was the perfect compliment to Plant’s writhing. The vocal beatings he took during Zeppelin means he can’t always hit those high notes for sustained periods, but his voice has aged with richness and gravity. Burnett’s guitar was the extra twist in the cocktail as the fiddles and strings made for a set that felt spacious and grew to moments of rolling thunder. Revisiting Zeppelin to fit in with his co-conspirators, Plant still managed to strut with mic in hand during “Black Dog,” the cocky rock star he once was tempered with wisdom and gratitude.
Since they rarely play together, I did hotfoot it to catch the tail end of Broken Social Scene, who led the audience in a scream along to “Personal Therapy.” The audience in That Tent was a jumping sea of waving arms obviously feeling the breakthrough. But as the final day of Bonnaroo drew to a close, I had the fortune of catching Jake Shimabukuro in the Blue Room Café at the back of the What Stage area. If the ukulele is not an instrument you have ever considered seriously, Shimabukuro will bring you around. He made it sing with jazzy picking and lovely rolls through classical pieces and covers of “In My Life” and “Going to California.” “There’s nowhere else in the world I would rather be,” he enthused, and I had to agree as the audience settled in for a long evening with fest closers Widespread Panic.
I was drawn back to Sam Bush’s thoughts as I wandered to the packed car, bound to Nashville and the trappings of civilization. What Bonnaroo was I searching for? One where musical honesty, never-look-back risks and rare opportunities present themselves at every turn, while fellow live music freaks mutually support each other through an often trying landscape. I am happy to report that Bonnaroo does indeed exist, and in spite of the inherent trials and gripes, there are countless inspired moments transcribed in my crumpled notebook. I’ll paraphrase Patterson Hold here: You’ll have to take my word for it, but every word I am saying is the goddamn truth.
Continue reading for more images from Bonnaroo 2008…
|Kristin Gundred – Grand Ole Party|
|Davy Knowles – Back Door Slam|
|Ben Goldwasser – MGMT|
|Adrian Quesada – Grupo Fantasma|
|Ian Williams – Battles|
|Ezra Koenig – Vampire Weekend|
|Ezra Koenig – Vampire Weekend|
|Sarah McLellan & Steph Paynes – Lez Zeppelin|
|Steph Paynes – Lez Zeppelin|
|Patterson Hood – Drive-By Truckers|
|Shonna Tucker – Drive-By Truckers|
|Ryan Stasik – Umphrey’s McGee|
|Jake Cinninger – Umphrey’s McGee|
|Jack White – The Raconteurs|
|Brendan Benson & Jack White – The Raconteurs|
|Eugene Hütz (Gogol Bordello) – Super Jam|
|Les Claypool – Super Jam|
|Jim James – My Morning Jacket|
|Adam Stephens – Two Gallants|
|Tyson Vogel – Two Gallants|
|Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings|
|Brent Hinds – Mastodon|
|Scott Avett – The Avett Brothers|
|The Avett Brothers|
|Sam Beam – Iron & Wine|
|Jackie Greene – Phil Lesh & Friends|
|Such & Such|
|Such & Such|
|Such & Such|
|Post-Kanye Fall Out|
|Jeff Austin – Yonder Mountain String Band|
|Phil Lesh – Acoustic Set|
|Larry Campbell – Phil & Friends Acoustic|
|Susan Tedeschi – Soul Stew Revival|
|Derek Trucks – Soul Stew Revival|
|T Bone Burnett|
Continue reading for even more images from Bonnaroo 2008…
| Vampire Weekend|
| Lez Zeppelin|
|The Raconteurs Press Conference|
|Jack White – The Raconteurs|
|Lars Ulrich – Metallica|
|James Hetfield – Metallica|
|Kirk Hammett – Metallica|
|The Disco Biscuits|
|Jim James – My Morning Jacket|
|Patrick Hallahan – My Morning Jacket|
|Kirk Hammett with My Morning Jacket|
|My Morning Jacket Fans|
|Phil & Friends Acoustic|
|Robert Plant & T Bone Burnett|
|John Bell – Widespread Panic|
| Widespread Panic|
And don’t forget, for Bonnaroo YouTube clips, check out Glide’s Hidden Track.
JamBase | Tennessee
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