Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bonnaroo Denuded: 100,000 People, 97 Degree Temps and 3 Shade Trees

OK, OK so I’m exaggerating. There were five shade trees. But I gotta tell you I’ve never experienced anything as grueling as four days in Bonnaroo except for maybe high school band camp – grueling chart readings, incessant practice, lip injuries and plenty of unprotected sex. Hmm, things happen at band camp. Bonnaroo has its moments too. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the 24 hour non-stop party that is Bonnaroo. And I really enjoyed walking amongst the throngs and thongs and leering at the beautiful young women wearing string bikinis and showing off their butt crack tattoos. Oh yeah, Daddy Bo liked it. And I was impressed by the crowd. The peace & love vibe prevailed even as we watched our money slip from our hands into the greasy mitts of the concession crowd. Five dollars for a glass of iced tea, sure. Four dollars for a small cone of soft ice cream, you got it. Twenty dollars for a sarong, yesiree bob. I’ve seen some of these cats before at Rothbury in 2009. This one vendor helped a woman pick out a dress. She asked, “How much?” He hemmed and hawed and finally intoned, “Thirty dollars.” She peeled off the bills and as she walked away, the vendor cooed , “Give me a twirl’, she looked back, smiled brightly and did a pirouette. He turned around and crowed to all his fans, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Yep. Hippie entrepreneurism.

I gauged the primary demographic to be the young adult crowd - late teens to thirty-five. They were polite, not pushy and, for the most part, they were very stoned. I was asked a few times if I wanted some mollies, animal, woolies and what not. One sad looking lad held up a small rectangular piece of cardboard with the inscription LSD PLEASE. Felt sorry for the little dork but he had bad trip written all over him. Marijuana seemed to be the drug of choice giving many in the crowd a peaceful glazed-over aura that was both insular and aware. There were a few exceptions. Late one night, a young man began shouting, “I’M HIGH ON COCAINE….AH… AHAHAH…HUH?…THAT’S MY TARP NOW. I NEED A HIPPIE WOMAN. I NEED A HIPPIE WOMAN TO WATCH MY DOGS. The next night a woman in a nearby tent is screaming and crying ‘cos a new boyfriend she just met cheated on her. How the hell did he do it… it’s too damn hot in the first place… and, anyway there’s no room to shoe-horn a girl into his little Dionysian lair even if he stacked her like a cord of wood. Harrumph!

The trip from Saginaw to Manchester Tennessee took 12 hours and once I put up my tent I was driven to soak in as much music as the torrid red sun would allow. Going to Bonnaroo is like asking your best girlfriend to do something that she really doesn’t want to do, “Awe c’mon honey. It’ll hurt a little bit but you’re really gonna like it.”
In the beginning it was all about the music.

Thursday June 10th

The Postelles opened Bonnaroo with an incredible response. These native New Yorkers really know how to rock with riffs and rhythms borrowed from their forefathers from Danny & the Juniors to the Rascals. In fact the lead guitarist looked and sang like Gene Cornish. And the lead singer Daniel Balk, well, he had it goin’ on, doing the oh,oh,oh like Ronnie Spector on Be My Baby. In 2009 Rolling Stone gave them a heads up as a “band to watch”. Big praise indeed when tens of thousands of young upstarts would die for a mention in that historic and still relevant magazine. The crowd was young, eager, and appreciative - shakin’ booty and grinding their groove thing. Their riffs may borrowed but they have great energy and at this point in their growth and development they are doing very well.

The Swedish duo Miike Snow seemed to emerge out of nowhere to glean a spot at Bonnaroo. The band consists of Christian Karlsson on guitar and vocals and Pontus Winnberg on percussion and everything else. The sound Is almost indefinable - crisp synthesized multi-layered instrumentation and a sonic interplay between the vocals and music that heightens our senses and pounds us into submission. Karlsson is a great singer with breathy vocals reminiscent of Colin Blunstone of the Zombies. The harmonies were perfect. The songs like Animal and Sylvia were painted in abstract colors like a Van Gogh, sound and language intersecting between beauty and discord and layered with lyrics that touched upon social issues. Karlsson is on a different wavelength, a zenist funk warrior who creates astral music that is totally original. His brilliant performance proves that music can be this good. Miike Smith was the big surprise of Bonnaroo.

Friday June 11th

Conan O’ Brien hosted several shows @ Bonnaroo’s main stage and was able to maintain a high level of hyperbole throughout his tenure. Never a big fan, I nonetheless got a kick out of O’ Brien’s inane chatter and best friend-buds-of- the-stars rap. He may be the highest paid groupie since Pamela De Barres. Anyway, he brings on Tenacious D – Jack Black’s alter ego – and they kiss and hug and sniff each others butts until the Tenacious and his brother kick into their set – One Hit, Rise of the Phoenix , Divide and I Totally Miss You. They sound a bit like Flo & Eddie with Zappa but without the chops. It was great satire as D poked fun at relationships, sausage, himself and took a swing at rappers who engulf themselves in a rapturous ocean of self-love. Narcissism at its most hilarious. Imagine.

Umphreys McGee is a tight jam band with an Allman Brothers vibe - back when Dickie was still playing it straight…kind of. They have a basic lineup of guitar, bass, keys and drums. These cats wail between down and dirty blues and more intricate jazz notations. There is excellent interplay between guitar trills and keyboard runs. At times they give off an early Pink Floyd flavor circa Syd Barret, with a psilocybin psychedelia mixed with a jazz fusion groove. They even step into reggae rhythm and powerful unison singing. The crowd is into it, some standing, others dancing and they all are turning a golden brown like a Thanksgiving turkey basting in the oven. An extended jam begins and the sweet smell of marijuana invades my senses. It’s ok, the air is filled with hope.

An extended DJ intro builds the excitement for the appearance of Damien Marley and Nas…
“If you like reggae MAKE SOME NOISE”
“IF you like hip hop MAKE SIOME NOISE”
“If you smoke weed RAISE YOUR HAND”

The overflowing crowd goes wild,. This is the music of today – a hybrid of rock, rap and reggae – and it is magnificent! NAS and Marley are savvy entertainers that know how to keep the energy moving…”Put your hands up in the air” And these cats look great, long dreads, speaking in dialect. They are street savvy Rastafarian prophets and rebels. Weed is the answer for much of the crowd. It’s smoked freely in front of me, god and the distracted security goofs. That’s good. Leave them kids alone!

This is music with a message not dissimilar to the old field hollers or, for that matter, Bob Dylan, the Mc5 and Steve Earle. The segue from Nah Mean to Nah is Like/Represent and Hip Hop is Dead was incredible mixture of music and rap

Hip Hop is Dead
Hip Hop Is Dead
You know what …
F*** the Radio
F*** the Radio

They resurrected Street Dreams/If I Ruled the World, an old NAS and Lauryn Hill song. It is a peace and love anthem…“Walk right Into the sun, hand in hand” They closed their set with a series of genre hopping songs that are political as well as spiritual – Welcome to Jamrock, Road to Zion and Africa Must Wakeup. Powerful

She & Him features singer Zooey Deschanel who is also known as an accomplished actress for her work in television and films such as Go Getter, Elf, and Failure to Launch as well as guest appearances on The David Letterman Show, the Simpsons and Frasier. M Ward is the Him part of the duo and he is the guitarist and producer. The band is greeted by wild applause and cheering…the room is jammed. Deschanel has a nice rock & roll voice, not too powerful but nuanced and girlish. This is a throwback to the girl group songs of the sixties. The female background vocals filled out the sound and gave it a real nice vibe that recalls the music of the Ronettes, Shangrila’s, and Lesley Gore. This music is fun and Zooey sure is pretty and when she sings Seminal Heart I just know that Betty Weiss would be proud. It’s a cool breakup song along the lines of Remember (Walking in the Sand).

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has been together for over 45 years and was a big influence on the Byrds, Burrito Brothers and country rock in general. This is a great band that understands that you don’t have to play loud to get your point across. They played several songs from their new CD, including Resurrection (about remembrance and longing) and Jeannie (a real tearjerker about love, marriage and divorce). They also did a Grateful Dead tune entitled Some Dark Hour that included incredible pickin’ and grinnin’, It’s modern bluegrass that sounds like the Osborne Brothers. The highlight – besides Mr. Bojangles – was a song by Bluegrass king Jimmy Martin, a true chestnut entitled My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore. It’s a great kiss off song that led to a riotous sing-a-long. Banjoist extraordinaire John McGuen dedicated the song Return to Dismal to his 90 year old mother though he wrote it for his first wife. It’s a breakneck instrumental filled with twists and turns and the ancient sounds of our pre-rock & roll forefathers. They even did a bluegrass version of the Beatles’ Get Back and a cover of Canned Heat’s Going Up the Country. I loved Working Man, a song Jimmy wrote after the first Farm Aide event in 1986. A great performance.

Tori Amos performed solo with just her trusty piano for accompaniment. She seems to hide behind it creating a gulf between herself and her fans. To me she is an acquired taste…but her fans simply adore her. She received huge ovations after each song. Precious Things and a cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit were my favorites. But the most realized song in her set was a sparse take on the Byrds’ Turn Turn Turn. She informed it with a nuanced reading of longing and regret. It was stark and beautiful.

Steve Martin (Yes THAT Steve Martin) performed with the Steep Canyon Rangers and opened the show with an instrumental from his latest CD that was marred an extended high-pitched squeal - feedback. You may remember Martin as a comedy writer, standup comedian (he did Pine Knob in the seventies), Saturday Night Live Host, and a movie star. We often forget that he was always pickin’ the banjo during his comedy bits and he seemed pretty good. Martin finishes the opener, steps back up to the microphone and by way of introduction schmoozes,“ This is a song…hmm…that pretty much says it”. It’s a bluegrass music that morphs into an Irish jig. It’s simply irresistible. He follows with Pitcun County Turnaround and a rap about the show.”Let me explain how the evening works… I wrote all of the songs on the LP. The crowd roars. Martin introduces Daddy Played Banjo with a story. Seems his wife gave him a book entitled Bad Poetry Through the Ages. Martin says, “This may be bad poetry but it makes a pretty good country song.” At about this point in the show, Martin’s quiet bluegrass music was overwhelmed by the incessant pounding rhythms of the nearby stages. It was impossible to follow the intricate picking and interplay between Martin and his band. I eventually gave up and left for greener pastures. Big Bonnaroo mistake

Michael Franti & Spearhead proved to be a crowd favorite. He had great energy and knew how to please his adoring fans. He’s a reggae showman – most Rastas are - and the massive crowd that turned out for the show seemed absolutely ecstatic. Songs seemed to merge together as Franti worked the crowd. He might talk revolution in one breath and shout out “I wanna see you jump” in the next. His upbeat music informed his message, a rock steady hybrid of reggae and funk. It was infectious indeed as Franti segued from I Shot the Sherriff to Love Don’t Wait for Nobody and Nobody Knows (what your doing when your doing me) moving from social consciousness to the salacious in twelve bars or less. “Let’s get the party started” was the theme and Franti’s superior showmanship set the vibe into high gear. This is goodtime music that is a bit naughty and you can dance to it. The hooks are catchy and memorable. I enjoyed Rude Boys back in Town, Franti’s name dropping travelogue but the highlight for me was Come as You Are, a reggae rap peace anthem that referenced different languages and cultures. Franti had us take off our shirts and wave them around, shake it- shake it- shake it and jump for peace. Brilliant…but exhausting

Kings of Leon headlined Friday Night and let me tell you they came to ROCK. I was not a fan prior to this performance and I’d listened to only a few of their album cuts. I admit that I was a bit skeptical. Sure they had a phenomenal guitarist who produced unique and wonderful sounds and rapid fire runs like he was channeling Hendrix. The rhythm section was rock solid and tight as a vise. But the singer was all flat and squeaky, at least on record. But to my astonishment the singer, Caleb Followill, sang his ass off…didn’t sound anything like the record. Instead he was soulful and emotive and had good range. He hit them high notes brother. And another thing everybody in the band had the same last name. Go figure. Crawl opened the show and it was a scorcher. Other notable songs included Taper Jean Girl and Sex on Fire. Knocked Up and Use Somebody closed the night. This proved to be one of the premier performances @ Bonnaroo 2010.

Saturday June 12th

Hailing from New Orleans, Big Sam’s Funky Nation was all over Bonnaroo like flies on Sherbert. They played at least four separate times, each performance played out impeccably with high energy and good humor. The rhythm section was tight as a vice grip and the guitar playing was funky perfection but was the horns – trumpet and trombone- that gave the music its soul. They hit on all cylinders with songs like Feeling Kind of Funky, It’s A Mojo Party, Sexy Mother and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. This band is TIGHT – fluid and inventive guitar, syncopated grooves and impeccable timing. This Funky Nation has its groove on.

Norah Jones is simply incredible, mixing jazz and pop with country roots music. The vibe is minimalist mello with sparse arrangements and a basic accompaniment of keys, bass and guitar. She opens with What Am I To You is sultry and sensuous …downright sexy. But as Jones turned up the heat so did mother nature. It was blast furnace hot out with no relief in sight save for an errant cloud floating by that literally saved my life. Jones was a marvel mixing electronica of Chasing Pirates and songs from her new CD with well chosen covers by the Kinks (Strangers), Neil Young (Barstool Blues), and Tom Waits (Long Way Home). A Great performance.

Jimmy Cliff, bonafide reggae demigod and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer brought his message of Peace & Love to full bloom during his impressive show @ Bonnaroo’s What Stage (the big one).He put on a superb show. In Blessed Love, Cliff gave salutations to all the mothers and fathers acknowledging them as our template of love from which all other love relationships are built. Treat the Youths Right/Reggae Movement/Rub-A-Dub Partner is a funked up reggae opera that had several sections or movements. The message is an old one but is as salient today as it was 60 years ago – if we do not provide programs and good education for our youth and show them that they matter we will have to pay. As Cliff sings, ”We will be sitting on a bomb.” He does a superb reggaefied version of Cat Steven’s Wild World. My favorite, Rebel Rebel (Take it to The Next Level), is one of his most searing and emotional songs. A call to arms - loved it.

I had great expectations for Dead Weather’s performance. I always liked the music of the Detroit homegrown artist, Jack White and he’s proved to be an enduring and iconic figure in rock & roll, producing Loretta Lynn, forming the Raconteurs and jamming with Jimmy Page. He plays drums in Dead Weather – as a drummer he makes a good lead guitarist…only because he treats it like a lead instrument - too many sloppy rolls and riffs that interrupt the hum and flow of the songs. It’s not to say he’s lousy on the skins but he is no Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa. For that matter he’s no Dino Danelli or John Bonham either. But he is daring. The band does not distinguish itself from the pack at all. Their hard edge blues based rock harkens back to the late sixties Michigan bands such as The Amboy Dukes, MC5, The Frost and Savage Grace . It’s just this side of punk. A Big Bonnaroo disappointment.

Wheezer…what can I say? Beverly Hills. I have to admit that what they lack in talent they gain in the sheer joy of poking fun at our very human frailties. They use humor to make serious statements – a form of kidding on the square. The crowd loved ‘em. The songs are simple but have some dandy hooks. I loved Hash Pipe, Trippin’ Down the Freeway, Surf Wax America and, of course the impossibly infectious Beverly Hills. These cats personalized their satire comparing host city Manchester’s population of 2,000 plus to Bonnaroo’s massive influx of 100,000 degenerate but music loving souls. It’s good for the local economy even if it’s a pain in the arse.

Stevie Wonder is a true icon who transcended the sanitizing constraints of the Motown machine to forge his own identity and infuse his music with spirituality and social consciousness. In 1971 he performed at the Free John Sinclair rally in Ann Arbor with Bob Seger, Commander Cody, The Up and John Lennon. In an historic ’72 concert tour, Wonder opened for the Stones back when they were both at the top of their game. Times have changed and Wonder’s recent efforts have taken on a watered down latte-soul feel, uninspired and a little boring. It’s not easy being Stevie and living up to all of the hype and exaggeration. But at Bonnaroo Stevie was back on top sounding great and taking on his impressive catalog of hits like it was a brand new sparkling morning. He opened up with some laid back soul candy Did I Hear You Say You Love Me, As If you Read My Mind but then shifted into overdrive with spectacular renditions of Uptight, For Once In My Life, and Higher Ground. He went back in time to do rousing renditions of Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours) and My Cheri Amour. He was in the groove that only got better. Living in the City and Superstition were both powerful and inspiring. Wonder even did a snippet of John Lennon’s anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance. This was a highlight of Bonnaroo with a crowd of over 60,000 appreciative fans. Folks were jammed all the way from the front of the stage to the back exit.

Sunday June 13th

Monte Montgomery is an incredible acoustic guitarist, the best I’ve ever heard. He squeezes, bend and plucks sounds outta his axe that no other human has ever attempted. He is the Mt. Everest to which other guitarist’s aspire. And he’s not a jam based musician. He writes gorgeous songs with catchy choruses and intelligent lyrics …and then he takes off into a sonic stratosphere, using both hands and all his fingers, running up and down the neck of the guitar to fashion incredible other-worldly SOUNDS. He’s the acoustic Jimmy Page. He performed several songs with love and breakup themes including the exquisite and soulful It’s Bringing Me Down and I Could Love You Forever (with impressive harmony singing)

Australian John Butler was, for me, the great discovery of Bonnaroo. He is very much in the same vein as Monte Montgomery only more diverse. A great singer and player but with a keening social consciousness that infuse his songs and an impressive ability to defy genres, shifting from rock to blues to bluegrass. Butler is an undiscovered musical genius. His song titles reflect his skewed and wondrous outlook on the world such as Used to Get High, Don’t Wanna See Your Face, Take Me (about a one night stand), Revolution, and Funky Tonight. Butler is on the national radar and with a little luck he could be huge!

John Fogerty is a true American icon whose musical inventiveness puts him on the level of Stevie Wonder, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash. Only problem is his biggest hits were with Creedence Clearwater Revival and the casual fan does not always identify him as the mastermind behind their massive success. He gave one of the best performances at Bonnaroo, mixing high energy guitar slinging rock with countrified roots music. He looked great and sounded even better. He opened with a rocker Travelin’ Band and the shifted gears to his country/blues roots with Green River, Lodi, and Lookin’ Out My Back Door and Born on the Bayou. At one point he introduced his bass played and noticeably stuttered baba-bass. I’ve seen him before and he’s not a stutterer so I don’t know if he was joking… or… maybe he was tired or hot (it was 97 degrees with a Heat Index above 100). Doesn’t matter but at the point the stutter occurred, time seemed suspended and I realized that after all these years of listening to his music - I LOVE John Fogerty. Yep, love him…just for being a rock god who is human and fallible. It was a masterful performance that included powerful rock heavy versions of Down on the Corner, Up Around the Bend and his masterpiece Fortunate Son.

The Dropkick Murphy’s were loud and crude and loving it. While I was there they performed Flanagan’s Ball, Taking A Ride, CIA, See you on the Other Side and the War of 61. This is Celtic Punk at its best. They remind me of our own near and dear Tosspints but with an expanded lineup and the use of traditional instruments such as the accordion, banjo, tin whistle, bodhran and bagpipes. They received a big crowd response as the folks in the audience sang along with several of their punk anthems. The Murphy’s have two vocalists with completely different approaches to singing, ones a screamer; the other a crooner. Together they are a good fit. This was another great high energy show with a massive crowd. The level of musical brilliance on display at Bonnaroo is simply astonishing!

Kris Kristofferson is a legendary songwriter and movie star who, at 70, is winding down his career. The show had a sparse rootsy appeal. It was just him, his acoustic and the raggedy war torn voice of his. He did all his masterworks including For The Good Times and Sunday Morning Comin’ Down but it was Me and Bobby McGee that turned my head. I tried to physically listen more closely. I wanted to hear every word and he sang in that hoarse intimate voice as if he was having a conversation at the kitchen table. It was transcendent. He even mentioned Janis. I loved him for his honesty

They Might Be Giants is often linked to a television show Malcolm in the Middle through one of the best TV themes ever The Boss of Me. It was a perfect fit. Well, they played that and other well known songs such as the Mesopotamians and the irresistible Istanbul (Not Constantinople). Their sound is popish and familiar yet oddly different and just a tad unconventional. Maybe it’s the interplay between the players and their long time interest in children’s songs that provides the shading to their creativity. It gives them a musical openness like a baby born with a heart wide open and a large capacity for joy. This was another cool Bonnaroo surprise

Blues Traveler was a disappointment – it was just John Popper with a coupla new guys. The PA was terrible and the sound was thin and muffled. I could barely hear Popper’s vocals and his harp playing seemed muddy with his incredible solos sounding like squeaks instead of the masterful full bodied bleats, blends and runs that characterize his masterful playing. It sounded more like a toy harmonica from the five and dime. Popper is too good for that kind of treatment. But he still did some breath-defying runs on Slow Change, Sublime and Loving is What I Got.

That’s it…it’s all I got. In the wider view I was just a drip from the faucet trying to find a musical Nirvana amongst all the heat and rubble. At times I felt comfortable with my elder statesman outsider status but then again it I seemed to be struggling, trying to step on the head of my shadow and never quite getting there. I experienced very mixed feelings about Bonnaroo…loved the music but despised its grungy carnival decadence and the $275 ticket price (with fees) – times that by 100,000 patrons and you got some real moolah. AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions have produced this festival for nine straight years yet the physical layout of the stages, concessions, portable toilets, and the conditions of the campgrounds are all subpar. It seems that Ashley Capps’ form of hippie commerce is not much different than the outrageous greed of Wall Street. There seems to be little concern for the attendees comfort, safety or well being. A few hundred more shade trees would be helpful. Years from now our aging skin may reveal our penultimate Bonnaroo souvenir.

In my four days at Bonnaroo I attended 27 shows, ate five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, 3 hot dogs, one brat, 3 ice cream cones and drank 12 bottles of pop and several gallons of water. Fact… I drank more water in those four days than I had in the past four years. You could say I was hydrated. For me Bonnaroo is more than just the wondrous music and hard knock living. It turned out to be a lesson about love and family. The experience demanded a physical closeness and a shared emotional engine that gave us a sense of connectedness. I had four glorious days with two of my daughters and my good buddy John Guldenzoph. So, you see, there’s a silver lining in the clouds and multiple truths that help define the spirit of Bonnaroo. I’ll never forget it!

Bo White

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