(Here begins a series of never published blog posts from the last year and a half.)
The continuing adventures of Jesse and Athena at Bonnaroo 2011. (For Part 1, please click here.)
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Day three dawned, and we were already battle weary. It gets hot early, and unnecessarily bright. Next time we will bring better fort building materials.
This was the day with the hardest choices about what to see and what to miss. It was the longest day. Overall, it was the best, despite a couple of so-so misses.
First on Saturday’s docket…
Cheer Up Charlie Daniels – An up and coming Nashville indie rock band with good costumes, good energy, and a killer live set on one of the smaller stages. Bonus points to the lead singer lady with an awesome fro and wearing a wonder woman outfit first thing in the morning. This was one of those caught-my-interest-while-walking-by bands that I hadn’t planned on seeing and wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I’d see them in a club any day, but not in a big venue.
We caught Cheer Up Charlie Daniels playing first thing in the morning.
Shahidah Omar – Interesting. Good interesting as opposed to bad, but interesting in the way a new food might be not exactly gross, and possibly even good, but nevertheless not something you would order again. Shadidah brought an all female band, and played an entirely unique hybrid of thrash rock, electronic dance, smooth R&B, aaaaand…. opera. Sometimes all in the same song. She also dances a lot and flings her long hair around with vigor. I really wanted to like her music more, but never quite got over the hump. Too esoteric, or she was having an off night, or she’s just not talented enough, or maybe I just don’t like her style of music? The jury is out. I’d give her another shot, but I wouldn’t pay for it.
Shahidah Omar had style, but substance?
Abigail Washburn – Athena and I came back for a second dose of Abigail today – this time with a different set than yesterday and a different duet partner. Equally good. I’m totally smitten, at least with her live show. Rumor has it that she and Bela Fleck got married last year (2010), which happily means that she’s a local Nashville girl now. The joke is that their offspring will be the one banjo player to rule them all. Mostly I just like to see smart, friendly, talented people playing smart, friendly, talented music. Two thumbs up.
Old Crow Medicine Show – We got great spots near the front. OCMS puts on an excellent, high energy string band show. Sort of a rock-n-roll punk energy applied to bluegrass and old-time music, with good songwriting to boot. They were on the #2 big stage and easily held the audience, which is saying a lot for a bluegrass band in a big outdoor rock venue. “Wagon Wheel” was of course a highlight. I also really enjoyed the songs from their new Tennessee Pusher album. The horn section from Mumford and Sons came out to join them for a couple of songs. Horns make a great addition to the OCMS sound! One of the band members was sporting a Purity Dairy baseball cap. I grew up with Purity Dairy milk and Ice Cream. I want one of those hats, but Athena asked a driver the other day and he says even the employees can’t get a hat anymore. Bummer.
Old Crow Medicine Show hitting all the right notes on Saturday.
Black Uhuru – Sadly, Jah has left the building. Black Uhuru were a reggae superpower during the late 70’s and early 80’s. I have a bunch of good music by them on CD, but this Bonnaroo show presented a band a bit past its prime musically, and well past its prime in terms of excitement. They were not bad, and would still blow most small-time reggae bands out of the water in a head-to-head roots reggae battle, but the fire is gone, and with it my interest. They still play their instruments and sing with professional aplomb, but their old songs sound old, and their new songs sound blah. Maybe it was just the after lunch hot afternoon sleepy time slot, but Black Uhuru didn’t do it for me, and the meager crowd seemed to agree. I’d still see them in a club, but I won’t waste an outdoor festival pick on them again. I saw Toots and the Maytals a few years ago, who are older and have been around even longer than Black Uhuru, and I’m sure they would still kick Black Uhuru’s ass in terms of excitement and musicianship.
Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas – I have a complaint. Alison Krauss always sounds EXACTLY the same, which is to say that she sounds really good, and so does her band, but seriously, I’ve seen them perform live four times now, and each time they performed exactly note-perfect renditions of the songs on their studio albums. That takes a huge amount of talent, but eventually it’s also really boring. This Bonnaroo set was a prime example. I love Alison’s voice every time I hear it. She plays great fiddle, but NEVER lets go and jams out (at least not at any of the shows I’ve been to). Jerry Douglas on dobro is consistently amazing. Her band leader Dan Tyminski (of O Brother Where Art Thou fame) is top notch. In fact, he and the band outshone Alison both on this occasion and the last time I saw them. Alison and Union Station have the talent to rock it out hard (in a bluegrass kind of way), but instead this performance seemed fairly robotic. It’s Bonnaroo for God’s sake. Have some fun Alison. Also, stick to bluegrass. Stay away from middle-of-the-road contemporary country crap and slick production, and yes, PLEASE make another album with Robert Plant. Unlike this Bonnaroo show, that Raising Sand album kicked ass!
Alison Krauss and Union Station played every note perfectly. Again.
Mumford and Sons – Wow. Here was the biggest miscalculation of the festival on the part of the organizers. They put Mumford and Sons on the #2 big stage instead of the #1 main stage. What were they thinking? This was by far the most overcrowded show of the whole festival, but it was also one of the better ones. Roots music meets alternative pop with an English accent. Is there such a genre as British Americana? A big excited crowd makes for an exciting show almost regardless of who’s playing, and in this case Mumford and Sons was in good form and the crowd knew all the words for singing along. I didn’t even get close to the front for this show, and short of crowd surfing there was literally no way to get there. I had fun in the back though, and I hope these guys won’t turn out to be a one album wonder. For now though, I’m digging it, and expect to see them again someday. I’m crossing my fingers that there’s no sophomore slump for these gents. More of the same please.
Loretta Lynn – Simply. Amazing. Loretta Lynn has the kind of old school showmanship that younger acts just don’t get, and she was definitely the master of ceremonies on this stage. Not only that, she looked totally psyched to be at Bonnaroo. So, after spinning nearly effortlessly through the best of the classic old-school country canon (not just her own hits), with a solid backing band who all looked to be less than half her 80 years in age, she opened up the floor for requests, saying something to the effect of “I can sing any song you can think of.” And she did. She took every request and sang it. She warbled here and there, but mostly sounded strong, and as experienced older masters do, she let her band take up the slack and seamlessly fill in the holes or stall for time as needed. This was the first time I have seen the “Queen of Country Music” play live, and I suspect it will be the last… but man it was good. It was awesome to see an elderly Kentucky backwoods country gal completely win over a crowd of 20-something college rock fans and hippies. I almost cried.
The Queen of Country Music, Loretta Lynn, sang every request.
Bootsy Collins – Bootsy came on late. I mean really, really late. Like 5 minutes before the next act was supposed to come onto the same stage late. But who cares. It was Bootsy Collins. He doesn’t give a shit. As the former bass player for both James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins has a legitimate claim to the title of “funkiest bass player in the solar system,” and trust me, he would be the first to tell you how cool he is. He’s not what I would call shy. Bootsy is what I would call awesome. He came out into one of the bigger tent stages with a huge contingent of players (the “Rubber Band”), including the bassist/guitarist from Public Enemy, and basically funked up the joint until whenever the hell he wanted to stop. Stage manager be damned. The kick ass bass playing was only matched by the outrageousness of his outfit. AHHHHHhhhhhhhh…… the name is BOOTSY baby! Yeah.
Bootsy Collins points to the funk on Saturday night.
Buffalo Springfield – On the #2 big stage. This show was both an overall festival highlight for me, and probably the most frustrating show of the whole weekend. GRRRRRR. Buffalo Springfield were incredible. They rocked hard. They looked 30 years younger. They sang like teenagers. They had energy to spare. But the sound was turned off! It was almost inaudible beyond the first thirty rows (where I was not). The main speaker stack blew out at the end of the band before Buffalo Springfield, and the sound techs couldn’t get it fixed until after Buffalo Springfield finished. It was like listening to a rock concert while submerged at the bottom of a swimming pool. The sound thunder from this stage for all the other bands this weekend blew everyone away, from the front row to the campground. So why the hell did the the stack have to blow before they went on. GRRRRRR. They sounded so good. I just wanted it to be louder. So. Much. Louder. Thankfully, the band seemed completely oblivious as they thrashed about on stage. Presumably their mix through the monitors on stage was plenty loud. Stephen Stills looked and sounded better than I have seen him in 20 years. Neil Young still runs circles around all of his old rock-n-roll buddies though. My favorite moment of the whole day was the entire crowd (including me) screaming along to a super hard, super distorted, super long version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World,” which I had never actually seen him perform in all my days of seeing Neil’s live shows. It was the best encore they could have picked. Wow that was great! I’m guessing I’ll never see Buffalo Springfield again, and if I do, they’ll never be this good. So, this was a definite highlight for me. Neil Young reportedly said after the show that it was “the greatest thing [Buffalo Springfield] has ever done.” At the very least, it was the biggest crowd they had ever performed for as a band. They were excited and it showed. This could have been like the Rolling Stones or The Who looking old and sounding terrible at the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t. This was top notch classic rockers getting the real Led out one last time. I hope somebody got a soundboard mix or professional video that didn’t go through the PA system… everything I’ve seen online is crap from the audience.
Dr. John with The Meters, Alan Toussaint, and Arthur Neville – A New Orleans super group. Pretty much the pantheon of New Orleans musical royalty really. This was great, funky fun. Dr. John’s starting to look and sound a little old, but he’s still got the rhythm, and he can still tinkle the keys with the best of them. The Meters lived up to their funky selves of yore, and the Toussaint and Neville names are inexorably linked with 60’s/70’s New Orleans jazz, blues, and “second line” street party music. This show was a little bit of all of these, and not enough of any of them. I wanted to get a closer view and had to settle for being off to the side in front of a speaker stack. All I could see of Dr. John behind the big grand piano was his snake skin shoes sticking out the bottom, and his wild gris-gris hat sticking out on top. His piano playing always makes me happy. This time was no exception. The Meters were reunioning just for this Bonnaroo gig, so I’m guessing this was yet another once in a lifetime musical catch for me. This show was good, but it should have been great.
The String Cheese Incident – My notes for this show simply say, “Good. Same as always.” Which is to say, hippie rock meets bluegrass. Long, extended jams. Lots of noodling. Lots of fun. Lots of spaced out sections interspersed with the whole audience jumping up and down in happy unison. A normal String Cheese show. Nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe a little rusty. I like SCI, and when they are on, they’re quite good. Michael Kang is a good mandolin player, but not as good as he thinks he is. Any number of professional Nashville musicians would kick his butt in a mandolin picking accuracy or speed contest, but the fact that he more often plays electric rather than acoustic mandolin helps him hide the flaws. It’s fun and the band sounds good regardless, still, I cringe a little bit when he misses. It’s like a singer going for a high note that he can’t quite reach. In this case, Kang goes for fancy runs that he can’t quite strike all the notes on without flubbing a bit. He’s always done it. He probably always will. I probably shouldn’t care. But I do. Thumbs up for this show.
Girl Talk – The biggest dance party of the festival was surely this one. A giant sweaty, dirty, bouncing, epileptic fit inducing mass of flesh and fun and flashing lights. Athena and I watched from the back for awhile, but we were on our way to Gogol Bordello, so we didn’t wade in. Girl Talk, whatever the guy’s name is, is a wizard with popular samples and good beats. Just the right combination of clever, fun, and raunchy. A good time was had by all. At some point I’m going to have a proper dance party with this…
Gogol Bordello with Devotchka – Bizarre. Fantastic. Crazy. Mixed-up. Outrageous. Wonderful. I honestly had no idea what I was going to see, and after the fact, I’m still not sure. All I can say is that it was entirely unlike anything else at the festival. Musical. Theatrical. Kind of like Rocky Horror with an Eastern European Gypsy punk rock string band sitting in for the actors. There were lots of musical guests who’s names got lost in the chaos. All I can really say now is that whatever this was, it happened at 3 AM, and I liked it.
What a day.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
We slept in Sunday morning. Saturday was epic. Sunday, the denouement.
Railroad Earth – I thought I knew all the good jam bands. Turns out I was wrong. I had never heard of Railroad Earth before, but as there was nothing else I wanted to see in the same time slot, I went over to check them out. It turns out they’re a pretty darn good band from New Jersey. I would classify them as lightly hippie flavored country-rock jam band. Kind of like Pure Prarie League meets Yonder Mountain String Band meets The Allman Brothers, but without the southern accent. This was a happy surprise. I love discovering new bands/music. I’m going to find some albums by this crew, and see if I can find them playing a longer set at a smaller festival somewhere in the future. Good stuff.
Mavis Staples – I would go see Mavis Staples perform 50 more times, and enjoy it every time. She and Athena had a soul connection going on, and I was getting it too. Hot damn can she sing with feeling. This was yet another case of a 70+ performer showing the younger acts how to take-us-to-the-river. Yes! This set made me feel GOOD. Classic soul, funky gospel, and an amazing version of The Weight with guests Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller. She sang her classic “I’ll Take You There,” and boy did she ever. I wish I was still there. Catch her while you can kids, cause she ain’t getting any younger, and her sets are getting shorter. But she can still bring it, and she is the most friendly person as well. An absolute Bonnaroo highlight for me, and my favorite mass sing-along artist of the whole festival [a possible tie with the Buffalo Springfield set]. This was a great way to spend a Sunday morning.
Junip – Well now, this was funny. I went to see Junip based on the strength of just one song that I had randomly picked up on a free sampler at a record store somewhere. Musically, they were nothing at all like I thought they were based on the song I heard. This could either be very bad, or very good, and in this case it was the latter… once I got over wondering if I had gone to the wrong show and found an entirely different band. I was thinking they would be rootsy acoustic, but instead they are indie rock with a strong electronic element. Also, they’re from Sweden. I admit to being mildy distracted by the perkily bosomed topless woman who came and stood in front of me halfway through the set, so another Junip show, perhaps with a bit more pre-show background listening will be in order before I can decide how much I really like or don’t like their music. It appeared that I wasn’t the only one with a quizzical look on my face, so I’m guessing some other folks were feeling the same.
Galactic – These guys always put on a good show, and this one was no exception. It seemed like there was some kind of New Orleans theme going on at Bonnaroo, what with Galactic and Dr. John, and the Meters etc. all hanging about. Galactic is a good fit for Bonnaroo. They play jazz, funk, and rock, and they dig long instrumental jams. Plus they have a horn section. This was not the best Galactic show I have seen [ok, I’ve only seen them once before, and yes, it was better], but it was far from the worst, and most everyone seemed to be having a good time. On the plus side, this show featured former Living Color front man Corey Glover on vocals for most of the set, and it’s clear that he’s lost absolutely nothing since his “Cult of Personality” days. The more I think about this show, the more I like it, but liking it retrospectively is not the same as liking it in the moment, and for whatever the reason, I tuned out part of this show. There was though, a particular drum solo coolness moment, that I cannot begin to describe. That part had Athena and I talking for awhile after the show, but I’m not sure a drum solo should be the main thing you talk about after the show. Final verdict, very good, but missing that intangible something to make it great. I would definitely go see Galactic again.
Robert Plant and The Band of Joy – Athena and I somehow ended up in the front row of a Led Zeppelin concert at sunset on a farm in Tennessee! Well, ok, not Led Zeppelin, but let me be clear, this was one of my favorite sets by any band all festival long. An absolute highlight, and one I’ll remember for a long time. First of all, some people just exude Rock Star. Many musicians try to exude Rock Star, and many others think that they exude Rock Star, but only a very limited number of people actually exude Rock Star while just walking down the street or buying groceries, or standing in a room. This level of charisma and sheer force of presence is probably possessed by only a small elite of musicians, world leaders, and religious figures. I imagine that natural born Rock Star is a genetic selection rather than a learned trait, and I’m pretty sure that Robert Plant is one of these rare people. From the very instant he stepped on stage, he was rock superhero incarnate. His hair, his clothes, his swagger, the way he stood, the way he walked, the way he tilted the microphone stand. This dude has lost NOTHING over time. It was awesome. Robert Plant backed by a Nashville based super group of Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott, and Byron House. I couldn’t ask for anything better. This was musical bliss. Buddy Miller shreds like nobody’s business on the guitar, Patty Griffin is very much a match for Plant in both the vocal power and nuance department, and it turns out that Robert Plant can still do the patented Led Zeppelin era wail and moan. Darrell Scott played 4 different instruments, and Byron House is always rock solid on the bass. I’m pretty sure they had been on tour for a few months before this gig, and they were firing on all cylinders at this show. I haven’t heard the studio album this group produced, but I’m willing to bet that this live show would blow it away. As I noted with Mumford and Sons, is there such a thing as a British Americana genre? This excellent reimagining of the Led Zeppelin canon, and the other songs that fit in naturally with that ouvre, makes me think that there is actually something to that idea. Irregardless, when a band is having this much fun, the audience does too. Great stuff. Great show!
Former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant brought down the house on Sunday afternoon!
Merlefest Superjam featuring Dr. John w/Dan Auerbach and Friends – I was almost too tired to care anymore at this point. It sounded great, but I couldn’t bring myself to push up towards the front. I did manage a couple of photos of Dr. John where I could actually see his face, but I wasn’t nearly as close as I wanted. Supposedly Dr. John has a new album coming out with these guys, and if that’s true, it should be fabulous. The good doctor really looked like he was having a great time, but he also looked really tired. We only stayed for part of this show, then went over to lay around in front of the main stage and wait for Widespread Panic to begin.
Gris-gris master Dr. John let the good times roll on Sunday. Scary good.
Widespread Panic – Athena and I were completely exhausted by this point. Widespread was the closing show for the whole festival on Sunday night. All the other stages had been shut down. This was 80,000 blissed out, tired people on the big lawn jumping up and down for 2½ hours of nearly unbroken rock-n-roll jam band goodness. I have never seen more glow sticks circles balloon thingamabobs etc than I saw at this show. There were literal explosions of glow sticks going off for 2 hours. There was also a constant stream of candle powered paper lanterns being released from somewhere and floating off into the night in a beautiful/peaceful sky parade that seemed contrary to all the noise on the ground. As much as I enjoy Widespread Panic, this was a little too long for Athena and I. We must be getting old. By the end we just wanted to get back to our tent and go to sleep for 4 days.
And so, at the last note, we filtered out into the night with our 80,000 friends. Super satiated. Super satisfied. Super psyched to have experienced Bonnaroo for the first time. What a great 4 days of music. What fun people watching. What a good event.
My favorite shows: Ben Solee, Bela Fleck & The (Original) Flecktones, Abigail Washburn, Del McCoury Band w/The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn, Buffalo Springfield, Mavis Staples, and Robert Plant & The Band of Joy.
We’ll be back.