Bloggin’ On Bonnaroo: an Armchair Companion

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

There goes the weekend.

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

I’ve still never been to Bonnaroo.

I almost went last year, where I would have been ushered in to the cult of ‘Roo with Jack Johnson and Pearl Jam, and shared a camper with my American Songwriter brethren. I almost went again this year, while I was still contemplating moving to a remote cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Next year, I’m going for sure. Maybe. But this year, I was able to whet my whistle, so to speak.

For one, I got to see Phish, the Dead, and the Avett Brothers all for the first time this summer. That’s a mini-Bonnaroo right there. But also, I spent my weekend huddled in doors, watching the whole thing go down on ATT.net, where they were streaming select performances from Friday to Sunday. The audio was sweet, and the view was sweeter. I suffered from no heat stroke, and I wasn’t rained on once. All in all, it was a pretty good weekend.

Maybe the best feature of watching the festival from the comfort of your own home — you don’t have to make any choices. I love the lineup at this year’s Bonnaroo, but who wants to chose between seeing Ani DiFranco and Lucinda Williams, let alone choose between Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco, Al Green and TV on the Radio, all who are playing at relatively the same time? It’s too great a responsibility for any man to bear.

FRIDAY:

For me, the festival kicked off with Gomez. Every time I see Gomez, I think, I need to listen to more Gomez.
With three guitar players, three different singers and five different songwriters, Gomez have been a cool band since forever. And they’re always at festivals. It’s where they live, and where they seem to get the most appreciation. Their latest album, A New Tide, came out last month on ATO. I think I really need to get that record.

Cali’s People Under the Stairs rock it several ways to Sunday, repping old school hip hop and “fun.” They are merchants of fun. In an incongruous moment, MC Thes One big ups Phish and Bruce Springsteen. I’m voting them for most inappropriately named band ever. They’re too outgoing to be hanging out under stair cases.

“Lion in a Coma” is a weird song. Animal Collective is a weird band. When I saw them in New Jersey at the All Points West Festival last year I said no way. But sitting at home, with my headphones on, I finally got it. In fact, I’d wager to say, thanks to the crystal clear sound mix, I may have “got it” even more than most people in the audience.

Animal Collective represent a new kind of rock band, an evolution of sorts. Part sound engineers, part musicians, they go from keyboards, guitar and drums to samplers and mixing boards within the context of the same song. They all rock the instruments, and they all stroke the sampler. They’re all knob twisters and fader raiders.

Their music is like Ummagumma with turntables. They’ve also got a Beach Boys thing going — as in, the Beach Boys Brian Wilson hears in his head when he’s in a spacey mood; the sound that can be found in Brian Wilson’s inner ear.

Each song segues into the next via a symphony of bleeps, bloops, and human screeching. It’s interesting watching people in the crowd getting their groove on to these abstract noises.

I only know the Feels album (goodbye indie cred), so I have no idea what they’re on about most of the time. But I’m starting to really like it. After their show they stop to unplug everything — and the audience thinks its part of the encore. Being Avant-garde is awesome.

Folk-rock outfit the Low Anthem may set a new record for instrument switching abilities. The harmonica playing frontman Ben Knox Miller plays the drums, the organ, and the guitar, all while singing beautifully and looking like a movie star portraying a folksinger. The bassist hops around as well, as does co-vocalist Jocie Adams, who plays a mean clarinet. Part of the Bonnaroo ethos is being good at your instruments, and these guys are good at every body’s instruments.

Passion Pit I’m less passionate about. I was never into ’80s pop music, so i don’t respond as well to falsetto vocals, keyboard rock and big ’80s drums, which this Cambridge, Massachusetts band trades in. But music is music, it’s all worth putting your hand in the air over, and waving it like you just don’t care.

Somebody sure likes them. An ecstatic music listener speaks off camera, and the words “I jizzed in my pants” makes the ATT broadcast. “I jizzed!” the awestruck fan boy reiterates (in the same cadence as “da Bears”), and then the lead singer says coyly, “Thanks for sharing this moment with us.” Did he hear the jizzer? Or was it just a crazy coincidence? Someone should find out.

Keyboard rock. back in my day, we strummed geetars! But they’re good. It’s all good. That’s what Bob Dylan said. And he’s half right. Also, visually they kinda look like Revenge of the Nerds. I’m serious.

SATURDAY:

I know I can’t be the first, so let me be the latest in what is surely a LONG line of music writers to point out the fact that Grace Potter is one sexy lady. And that’s not even her best quality. This is my first time checking out her music, and it’s probably the fastest I’ve ever fallen for a band. Her energy, and the energy of the Nocturnals, her musical soul-brothers (and sister) make for must-see-TV.

Potter, who plays the organ and sings like Greg Allman on estrogen, launches into a song about digital manipulation (“you’ve got the sweetest little hands this side of the rio grande”), during which, every band member gets on the drummer’s drum kit for a percussion solo worthy of Stomp. Now the beat is speeding up. Is this supposed to simulate fucking? (“Live webcast: viewer discretion advised,” reads the disclaimer on my screen)  Later she sings a capella, “take me down to the river,” and I am in love. Potter seems to be having the time of her life.

Next up, the Heartless Bastards. Turns out, I like these guys too. thank you Bonnaroo for hipping me to some new bands. I was so ignorant before. But no longer.

The band is anchored by lead singer Erika Wennerstrom’s powerful vocals and sharp songwriting; they remind me of a less mannered Cat Power. The Bastards are not afraid of jamming, but I’m not talking Phish-style jamming — they jam in the Velvet Underground tradition, taking you on a ride that’s more sonic than melodic. They really kill it on “Swamp Song,” off their second record, Stairs and Elevators. For a minute, Wennerstrom seems to be strumming the opening chords to Pearl Jam’s “Black,” but it turns out to be one of their own (“Runnin'”, also from Stairs and Elevators.)

Next on the broadcast, esteemed singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. After a rough start with 2003’s “Righteously” (“flirt with me, don’t keep hurtin’ me, don’t cause me pain/be my lover don’t play no game/just play me John Coltrane”), her seasoned band starts to smoke on “Tears of Joy.” She dives into a number of songs from her underrated, guitar-heavy 2008 album, Little Honey, including the AC/DC cover “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” A few hours later, Phish will later show AC/DC some love by covering “Highway to Hell.”
Newbie “Little Rock Star” is transcendent, and old standby “Changed the Locks” is fearsome in its rockingness; the simplest songs often hit the hardest.

Lucinda Williams. She’ll change the name of your town. Come on.

Acoustic guitarists Rodrigo y Gabriella, who hail from Mexico City, do unnatural things with their intruments. Gabriella turns hers into a tabla drum under the constant flutter of her hummingbird wrist, and Rodrigo takes solos that are twice the speed of sound. They blend flamenco and metal influences and play to impress. I know a lot of guitar players who would have multiple orgasms over this music. Aye carumba! They are the Jimi Hendrixes of what they do. If all world music was this awesome, it would just be called “music.”

During their encore, they played the audience like an instrument, getting them to sing along and echo Rodrigo’s guitar figures. I thought they went on way too long though; the chewing gum lost some of its flavor. Still, they were an easy highlight and a great discovery.

Look out, it’s Gov’t Mule. Warren Haynes has been living the high life, getting to play the role of Jerry Garcia in the latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead. He’s also an honorary Allman Brother. I don’t know if it’s his normal demeanor, but he seemed a little somber through the entire performance. “We’ve only got 90 minutes,” he warned the crowd. During the third song or so, a guy on stage held up placards with the lyrics
to the Steppenwolf song “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam.” which was offered as a “public service announcement.”  I hate when I step on the grass.

Gov’t Mule. These guys look like bikers. Like they come from South Dakota and they rode all the way here. They fire up a lengthy, engaging jam that morphs into Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” then “Norwegian Wood,” then”St. Stephen.” I’m not surprised when the band performs a scorching rendition of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” I am surprised when they follow it with a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” You gotta get behind the Mule on that one. Funny how the song feels a little out of place in the daylight at this festival of good vibes. How the zeitgeist changes.

“Warren goddamn Haynes, you sonsabitches! Warren goddamn Haynes!” spouts a zealous fan. The guitar solo in “Beatifully Broken” rocks my face. Did Warren Haynes eat the brown acid or something, the one that turns you into a classic rock cover band? Someone once again hits “shuffle” on the jukebox, and the band play U2’s “One.” Then Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” with special guest Grace Potter. That was the show stealer right there.

Kaki King, the looping, flat-picking, open-tuning, slide guitar playing singer-songwriter takes the stage to play her idiosyncratic brand of insanely beautiful and moody music. On her second song, for which she dons a big black Ovation, she reminds me so much of AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, in her short shorts and no shirt, it’s ridiculous.

Her third and final song gets cut into by Elvis Costello, who’s in the middle of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” It’s a solo performance, Elvis busking for the festival crowd and getting them to sing along, as he did when I saw him ten long years ago at Woodstock 99. Here, he’s like an exceptionally talented open mic performer.

He gives high energy readings of “Watching the Detectives” “Radio, Radio,” and “Alison” spinning through his greatest hits. After covering the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” (a tune I remember him doing at Woodstock), plaid as a mash-up with his own “New Amsterdam,” he debuts a new song, about a man who’s about to be executed. “This is special for Bonnaroo, this isn’t even on a record yet.”

New Orleans piano legend Alan Toussaint, who performed earlier, joins him on keys for a few choice cuts from their joint album The River in Reverse. “When your huddled together in your sleeping bag, I hope you remember the words to this song,” said Costello, introducing “Nearer to You.” By the end of his set, which included a cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said,” and the lyrics “the women in Poughkeepise take their clothes off when their tipsy” (from the new “Sulphur to Sugarcane”), Costello was joined by a full band. Said band belonged to Jenny Lewis, who helped Costello plow through “The Crooked Line, “Go Away,” and “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.”

Del McCoury and his family band performed a fiery set of bluegrass ballads and barnstormers, including a song “that Phish recorded for me.” I think around this time I finally left the house.

Made it back in time to see the Decemberists. I can never figure out how I feel about the Decemberists. I love the hell out of The Tain, their 18 minute, single song EP, but they can’t play that every time I see them live. The rest of their material, I’m alternately hot and cold on. Anyway, the band plow through their new album, the Hazards of Love, and put on a show completely worthy of their prime time slot, up against Wilco, Costello, and the Mars Volta. It’s the onstage addition of Hazards of Love guest stars Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) which helps put the whole thing over the top. Worden in particular brings the house down with “The Queen’s Rebuke.”

“Thank you. That was a song about…dead children, frontman Colin Meloy said after “The Hazards of Love 3”. “This is a song about train engineers.”

One funny moment came when Meloy busted out the rare “Dracula’s Daughter.” “At these things, people always play their best songs. I’d like to play you the worst song I ever wrote. Please do not shout out requests at this point.” He played a few bars of the offending song, then made fun of it more. Finally, the Decemberists showed their pop-metal roots by playing Heart’s “Crazy on You,” which featured the soaring vocals of Worden and Stark.

SUNDAY:

Still reading this thing? Sweet.

Sunday morning was spent with Cage the Elephant, who said they prefer to let the music to do talking in their bio. With their singer donning a red pajama one-piece, the Kentucky quintet had all the forces of rock and roll on their side — sex appeal, swagger, and band members who at times seemed to barely tolerate each other. With a great Iggy meets the Stones meets the Strokes vibe, these guys tore shit up and glued it back together. Lead singer Matt Shulz staged a stage invasion (“there’s only three [security] guys, what are you waiting for?”), crowd surfed, and climbed the scaffolding shirtless. It was all sorts of awesome.

“Thank you bonnarroo. we should meet up again. Maybe later I can get your number or something.”

R&B star Raphael Saadiq, once a member of quasi-boy band Tony! Toni! Tone!, had his soulful band play him to the stage with “Age of Aquarius.” They’d also tackle the Stooge’s “Search and Destroy,” just to prove they could.

Drive By Truckers, exuding joy, won me over with their song about never getting to attend that Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (“hold on to that ticket, son”), which they followed up with a meaty “Hey Ya!” lead by Booker T on the exuberant organ. Patterson Hood talked about how much it meant to him to be on stage with Booker T, who he first heard on the American Graffiti soundtrack, which changed his life. The band’s kick drum read “Booker T and the DBT’s.”

The incredibly multi-tasking Andrew Bird (whistling, guitar playing, xylophone, sampling, violin, singing, often in some combination of two or three) performed a shoeless set backed by his crack band and a monkey puppet. His set included the fan favorites “A Nervous Tic Motion,” “Fiery Crash,” and songs from his new album, Noble Beast.

I finished my Bonnaroo-watching experience with dinner and Snoop Dogg. After all these years, he still don’t love dem hoes. Imagine that. Erykah Badu came out to help him with “Lodi Dodi,” and was utterly charming.

I’m concerned he’s losing his hearing, though. He said “I can’t hear you” like 1700 times.

Going to bed now. Get home safely, Bonnaroo-ers. You’ve got a lot farther to go than I do.

Evan Schlansky

Sunday Night,
Very Late.


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