Thursday, February 10, 2011

Deconstructing Rothbury

Only in its second year, the Rothbury Festival is gaining a reputation as one of THE major summer music events in Michigan. It’s no wonder with heavy hitters like Bob Dylan, The Dead and Willie Nelson headlining the event with over 60 other acts, many of whom are stars in their own right. This year’s attendance was estimated to be about 36,000 with a paid attendance of 33,700. There’s gold in them hills, brother.

After following MapQuest directions to a “T”, my son Ryan and I were hopelessly lost for what seemed to be an eternity until a kindly native pointed the way. I followed a burgeoning traffic jam into an empty non-descript field not sure I had reached my destination - there were no signs , banners or billboards that proclaimed this modest field to be the mighty Rothbury. But it was indeed the entrance to the soon-to-be legendary site. I was pumped and primed and ready to go. But much to my dismay I soon discovered that my campsite was not in a campground but in a muddy field and we were shoe-horned into a small area, within feet of at least 12 other small tents and sleeping bags. It housed 14, 000 automobiles and 500 RVs - very intimate - the kind of squeezed intimacy you reserve for laboratory rats - gimme some cheese ‘cos I don’t care. I’m here for the music and I’ll commune with my brothers and sisters in the spirit of peace and love. I’m letting my freak flag fly - ‘cept… I’m the fly in the freak sherbert. I stood out like Mommar Khadafi kneeling at the synagogue. Freaks would walk by and NOT offer me any acid or dope. That’s how straight I am. I’m just too transparent - every ounce of my being looked and smelled and walked straight. Don’t they know that 35 years ago I was cool and got stoned and turned on?

Hmm…so after I arrived and unpacked I called Bob Martin from Review Magazine. I knew he was at Rothbury on a Press Pass. I dialed and it went into voice mail…
“Hey Bob…this is Bo. Just got in. I’m in the back over by this huge Grateful Dead banner…only one on the grounds. Give me a ring and we’ll hook up. Oh…by the way, don’t do the brown acid. Peace…Bo”
He never called back.

No matter. I was busy planning a busy itinerary, at least four bands each day – Jackie Greene, Son Volt, the Black Crowes and the Dead on Saturday; Toots & the Maytals, Willie Nelson, Ani Difranco and Bob Dylan on Sunday.

In the meantime I was diggin’ the Peace & Love vibe. Flags and banners proclaiming peace on earth, tie-dye and body painting, nudity and altered states of consciousness …right next door to an ATM. The jewelry dealer plays loud funky jams and Ahli Babas has all the latest in Grateful Dead raiments. Wormtown, Pure Funk and Family Silver take credit cards and various food vendors gladly sell you a $4 cup of coffee but don’t pinch you for cream and sugar.
That’s just the licensed vendors.

In thge midst of the muddy campground free-form capitalism prevails, everything is for sale and the prices are better. Coffee, beer, tacos, omelets – no problem. Hash, coke, columbian, mollies, rolls, headies - anything goes. Buy some jewelry and get a free beer or a lighter. Rothbury and Grateful Dead T’s were only $10, half the price of the licensed vendors. A caste system seemed to evolve almost immediately– the wealthy and entitled had huge campers and RV’s. Some had back stage passes; the middle class sites were neat and clean with expensive tents and rigging for showers. The ghetto was sleeping bag-on-the-ground dirty. The inhabitants did not bathe and were drinking PBR doing speed and smoking cheap dope. They would stay up all night, never sleeping, greeting the morning red-eyed and incoherent, screaming obscenities and selling anything that was not nailed down. They never seemed to budge from their perch or attend the shows.

Guess Peace and Love has a down side.

Somehow I landed feet first amongst all the mirth, mire and mayhem.
Couldn’t miss it; Couldn’t ignore it.

I had to walk through it every time I wanted to see a show or use a shower or a portable toilet. It took 30 minutes just to reach the gates to the festival, another 20 minutes to find the stage. It was a good workout and proved to be physically exhausting especially in the relentless summer heat that kindled and sparked throughout Rothbury on July 4th. Shade was at premium and it could only be found in its cooling glory at Sherwood Forest, a section of tall pines filled with hammocks, soft music, eco-friendly sculptures and otherworldly lighting. It was HEAVEN. We would use it as a respite, a temporary reprieve from the uncompromising sunshine and heated-up air.

July 4th was a glorious day for music. Jackie Greene opened my day with an energized set. I first get to know Greene through Sal Valentino, the legendary singer of the Beau Brummels. They did a Dylan tribute CD a few years and that’s when I discovered the absolute truth of ISIS, the goddess/harlot we all desire but never possess. Greene opened the show with Don’t Let the Devil Take your Mind, a throbbing insistent rocker with big hooks and great vocals. Greene’s got it all – a fantastic singer with good pitch and tone and a fine guitar slinger. This is one of the best jaw-dropping super-sonic openers since I saw the Guess Who open with Bus Rider in 1972. From the soulful “Farewell, So Long Hello” to a funked up version of the Beatles “Taxman” and the blues rockin’ closer “Like a Ball & Chain”, Jackie Greene displayed a superstar talent. He stole the show! I haven’t been this fired up about a band since 1971 when the Eagles played Pine Knob and I sat behind Glen Frey’s father. It was an absolute hoot and the Eagles were still young and full of piss & vinegar, rocking their asses off - not like the lame show they did at Tiger Stadium 20 years later, going through the motions and selling cars and joining Bob Seger in a musical purgatory so deeply self-indulgent that it reaches down to the first five circles of hell. The Heat is On is every bit as good as Shakedown.

And I mean it.

Son Volt was also one of the musical heroes of the event. The leader Jay Farrar helped ignite the alt-country movement with his band Uncle Tuepelo. His show was a countrified tour-de-force with a big full rockin’ sound provided by the prominent use of pedal steel and lap steel, fiddles and organ. The aural landscape is breathtaking and Farrar’s vocals are strong and central to the mix. I didn’t know his music prior to watching his performance but one of the highlights for me was Cocaine and Ashes, Farrar’s tribute to Keith Richards. It seems that when he heard that Keith cut some cocaine with his father’s ashes and then snorted them, Farrar was inspired to write a song about it - a son’s oddly compelling gesture of love for his father.

The eagerly anticipated Black Crowes performance drew a big crowd and the opening was electric with a percussive groove like Santana doin’ Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock. Good vibe. The Robinson Brothers are a compelling presence. Chris is a fine soulful singer with good range and brother Rich is an exceptional guitarist (influenced by both Nick Drake and Duane Allman – whew). The band is expert at creating tension in the interplay between instruments – guitar, drum and organ and building excitement through soft or quiet musical interludes followed by a thunderous roar of guitars. There is a harder edge to their sound and more improvisation. They won the crowd over with familiar songs such as Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution and Jealous Again but my favorite was a new song, the rocking I Ain’t Hiding. Still…it seemed that I couldn’t quite connect to the Crowes. Maybe it was their soulless formulaic proficiency and the lack of spontaneity that got to me. Like a metronome, no one missed a beat. Ultimately, the Black Crowes undoing was having nothing new to say.

The Dead ended the night and what a night. The Odeum was packed with barely an empty yard of grass visible underneath the sea of people standing throughout the performance. It was spectacular though it started slowly with a pointless meandering jam that segued into Sugar Magnolia. The myth may be greater than the band but the performance was electrifying. Especially for those who altered their consciousness. It is what you believe it to be. So what’s the buzz about? It’s about the buzz, stupid. As is typical for the Dead, the singing is often off key. And when they harmonize, different voices go sharp and flat at the same time. Cool effect. And I loved it. Warren Hayes proved to be the linchpin of the Dead. He can do it all. He is a fantastic guitarist and a strong singer who does not drift off key, a splendid replacement for the much loved and missed Jerry Garcia. Other notable songs include the wondrous crowd pleaser Friend of the Devil, I Know You Rider, Loose Lucy (with a great Haynes vocal) and Morning Dew. It was a good show despite the mythology. I hope we hear more from the Dead.

Sunday July 5th. Get up at 6am. I’m cold from the overnight chill. Coffee. I need coffee. I’m still dressed shoes and all. I get up and walk toward the sun. As my eyes regain their focus and as I look around I gradually realize that I’m not alone. There must be hundreds of people milling about…maybe a thousand or more – they are roaming the site, most are intoxicated or wired on something. Several young men are dirty and disheveled, some are shirtless. A few young men and women who are holding fresh cans of PBR stop to vomit and continue their aimless driven journey. Several women are squatting out in the open to relieve themselves, portable toilets just a few yards away. Some are talking to themselves; some are singing. Some approach me and begin talking an incomprehensible language. They have been up all night without sleep. There is a group of all night ravers and coma-brain road cannibals pounding congas and loudly chanting, a young woman is straddling a giant inflatable phallus with the inscription “Ice Cold Herpes”. She is dancing somewhat rhythmically, curiously lacking the intended erotic tension. I just look at them and turn away… and pick up my pace. I’m a bit frightened by these sights and sounds. I see these young men and women, not much more than children amble away in red-eyed pursuit of an American illusion- this communal spirit of peace and goodwill.
I believe it still exists. But you have to look hard for it… real hard.

Toots & the Maytals opened up the day @ 1:45pm. Toots is the cat that coined the term reggae. Toots is a consummate showman who uses every trick in he book – drops names, makes dedications, uses call and response, sing-a-longs, shameless self-promotion, and sincere insincerity directed to the audience e.g., “you are so beautiful you look so marvelous…you make me want to SING”. But he’s the real deal. He has the crowd eating out of his hand with “Reggae Got Soul”, Funky Reggae, and a funked-up reggae-fied version of John Denver’s Country Roads. The crowd is dancing and throwing Frisbees, digging the mellow rasta vibe. He sings, “You know who I am; I wanna know who you are”. He is a master of improvising much like British blues rocker Eric Burden. Toots dedicates “Peace in Jamaica” to Willie Nelson and at the end of the song he proclaims “You all are my friends.”
And I believe it, all of it.

Willie Nelson is like your favorite old chair. It’s broken-in and comfortable, looks a little ragged but that’s OK. And if you kicked it to the curb, you’d sure miss it. Willie may be past his prime but he’s still a skillful acoustic guitarist and his sister is one of the best pianists in country music. He pleased the crowd with all those great hits - On the Road Again, Whiskey River, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Mama Don’t Let your Sons Grow Up to be Cowboys, Always on My Mind and so on. Willie is definitely comfortable in his own skin. He can do country swing, blues and jazz…anything. He just can’t sing like he used to. Listening to Willie is like having a good conversation with an old friend.

Let me tell you about Ani Difranco. She is GREAT and wonderful and has energy and spunk and is willing to speak her mind. She also writes fantastic songs based in the new realness with a type of clever lyricism that finds multiple truths through paradox and metaphor. She is a fountain of dialectics that can tease you toward accepted wisdom only to debunk it in her very next breath. She is a new age folky who can talk about politics, power and injustice without flinching. She can be wistful, even melancholy then smash your preconceptions with a wicked sense of humor. She is an expert at kidding in the square – using humor to reveal a deeper truth. She pokes fun at those who find themselves hungry while they’re eating their words. Difranco is a known artist yet still somewhat obscure. She introduced her song “November 8th, 2008” with the rap, “I love Barack Obama. How the fuck does someone become Barack Obama? He inspired us to become citizens once again and taught us that a world gone mad can grow sane. You’ve risen like the phoenix.”
Truth and political commentary in the same breath…so refreshing, like spiritual altoids.

Difranco could just be the new Dylan.

Speaking of Dylan…this rock god deserves his name. He is a pioneer bold and gutsy. So what if he went back to his roots - 12 bar blues, jazz and grizzled folk. His set could not possibly have meant much to the thousands of teens and young adults in the crowd. They did not seem to know Dylan nor did they seem care to know him. They wandered up and down the hilly amphitheater talking throughout the show and passing around the hash pipe (generously), grinning knowingly and almost ignoring the music.
One day - I can hear it now - they will say to their grandchildren, “Yeah, I saw Dylan…he blew me away.”

But my experience of Dylan is different. I knew his work from 1964 onward but never quite understood him. Yet as the years past I started to appreciate his intelligent convoluted lyricism and primitive approach to rock n’ roll. I began to listen and hear at least part of his message. Tonight I listened to an entirely different musical landscape. Dylan’s new songs spoke clearly and plainly about our unspoken primal fears of aging and death and even worse, when age mutilates what we have been. And in his next breathless growl Dylan smashes those wordless spiritual longings to bits. He is not going to limp through life. He is going to dance! Like gazing at a mirrored reflection, I can somehow see myself through Dylan’s hoarse half-spoken truths. Much of his set consisted of recent material from Modern Times, songs like Rollin’ and Tumblin’ Spirit on the Water, and Nettie Moore. And I loved his re-worked version of Tangled Up in Blue. I did not know what to expect of Dylan …is he another past-his-prime pioneer like Willie or a grouchy old dog on his last bark and snarl? Both and neither. As a rock icon on par with the Beatles and the Stones, Dylan is supposed to deliver something wonderful…meaningful.
And he did.

So here’s to Rothbury, a festival that didn’t quite live up to its hype yet provided us with a glorious dusty dharma. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience but I am sure glad I went.

Bo White

No comments:

Post a Comment