By Bo White
This was my third straight year communing with the masses, over 80,000 brave souls enduring long hot days and cold spring-like nights. I would wake up each morning at 5am, stiff yet ready to move, walk a mile down the road and get a 12oz coffee for two bucks, walk back to the tent with an empty cup. It was fine with me. I would read quietly under our awning as the sun rose in the sweet azure skies above. This could be two hours before my daughter and her husband would awaken. They had their own rhythmic patterns and would set in motion a more leisurely pace instead of my get up-and-go. They would rise up quietly, yawn and stretch with just a hint of a shiver to shake off the damp morning air. The anticipation of the next four days of music is imagined like a clean breath. The lineup is spectacular, but secretly I wondered if I could do it again, just one last time. The next 96 hours would prove to be my gauntlet, my test of endurance. It's like I'm a tree that grows a new branch and my energy changes course - I can reach up and touch the sky or just become another psychic knothole. I was uncertain.
The first day started like a whimpering dog in a briar patch. I was tired and sore, my feet hurt and my bones ached. I cursed myself for being so wimpy and for not remembering my cherry concentrate. I was moaning like Rose Morton when she didn't get paid for godsakes. It's like I wasn't ready for the funfest and I was thinking like a curmudgeon - that Bonnaroo was built on a musical Ponzi scheme that sucked all the love and integrity into a musical black hole. But it didn't happen that way at all. I joined the legion of young Zenist warriors who truly believed in a communal sharing of good vibes, honest commerce and great music. The game is on!
Thursday June 7th
Dr. Dre protégé YELAWOLF performed with all the gusto and bravado of a man with nothing to lose. He sampled the Doors' Riders on the Storm and Folsom Prison Blues, Lynyrd Skynyrd (Sweet Home Alabama) and Metallica. This cat rocks even when his set turns political. At one point Yelawolf does a tribute to Adam Yauch and sings the Beastie Boys hit You Gotta Fight For Your Right (To Party). YELAWOLF has a great stage presence and incredible energy - lots of movement, jumpin' and dancing. He is a charming contrast of the profane and sublime. He got real with a dramatic reading of Pop the Trunk and Marijuana, a tribute to his mother. His Crystal Meth song reflects real human misery up close and personal - both feet in hell. Great set.
Soja is a 5-piece reggae band based in Arlington Virgina. They just released their 4th CD Strength to Survive and the show focused on their new material as well as songs from their Get Wiser DVD. This band can rock steady with danceable grooves and supple riffs. The singer has an excellent voice but doesn't sing with the passion of Bob Marley or Peter Tosh. All told this is music that puts a smile on your face and gets your legs moving and your toes tapping. Mass popularity will probably elude them.
Friday June 8th
Shahidah Omar did her set at the tiny Great Taste Lounge (by Miller Lite). First of all Omar is knock down gorgeous. She has a beautiful smile and she's sexy - every man's dream girl. After you get beyond the window dressing she sings her ass off. She has a strong voice but is able to whisper and mold lyrics with an incredibly limber delivery. The music is atmospheric, psychedelic disco. Her dream-like wordless intonations create an ancient prehistoric vibe that communicates without language. She is a new-age Donna Summer. Her song Stop the War was simply stunning. She exudes integrity that colors songs like What About the Living and People of the World with her own brand of social consciousness. She is a rising star.
The Kooks, performed on the Which Stage, one of the largest platforms at Bonnaroo. As British imports they are a bit less known than their American counterparts. The Kooks are a throwback to the great power pop movement of the seventies led by Badfinger, The Raspberries and Big Star. It's hook-laden music that has wonderful harmonies and a fabulous lead singer who sounds a bit like the Small Faces, especially Ronnie Lane. The timing is impeccable, stops and starts and acapella interludes. The band performed several songs from their latest LP Junk of the Heart including the title songs as well as Killing Me, Runaway, Rosie, and Is it Me.? This is upbeat pop music that would fit nicely in Herman's Hermits stage show. The music is powerful yet melodic. The guitarist allows the music to breathe without having to solo through every bridge and chorus. The riffs are catchy like a jingle on the radio. British charm and Beatle haircuts give this set a major retro vibe. Keep the music alive.
I eagerly anticipated the appearance of Colin Hay @ the Sonic Stage - it's up close and personal with a minimum of standing room and zero space for seating. So I hung out by the cool breeze of the Garnier Fructis tent where they were giving away free hair shampoos that were heavenly and restorative. Hay is the leader of the Australian jazz rockers Men at Work and his years on the road with his band or his solo excursions has refined his skills. He is a quiet and unassuming master of his art. He was relaxed and talkative during his set and pulled out The Land Down Under, and Who Can it Be Now, two of the greatest songs exported by the Aussies to America, right up there with AC/DC, the Easybeats and the Little River Band. It was a thrill to see and hear a master work his craft. His hair has thinned but he's aged gracefully. He performs his later compositions that are more reflective, quiet and contemplative. He sings about brewing tea and driving his car. He sings about the simple pleasures of life like coming home early, swimming in the sea and watching sunsets. I Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You is lyrically brilliant with a knowing ambivalence, He sings with the conviction of a modern spiritual;
He sleeps with Marie
She doesn't love him
But likes his company
Waiting for My Real Life to Begin is a righteous plea…
I'll Leave the light on
Show me the way to Freedom
You must make the choice
Laura Marling is a British singer who made a big splash in the London folk scene - no wonder, she is magnificent. She sings with a three-octave range, writes great contemplative songs and is movie star beautiful. She has the nuance of Debbie Harry and the power and range of Nora Jones. She sang six songs from her 2011 release A Creature I Don't Know and is a superb cover of the Allman Brothers masterpiece Whipping Post. She is a great singer but when she talks like an insatiable earth mother she sets my soul free. When she sings, “You know what I want why don't you give it to me and leave,” she erects all my smoldering fantasies. Her songs contain threads to deeper issues about death, despair, triumph, recovery and a fear of living. On Muse Marling's elliptical lyrics speak volumes;
God's Work is plans
I stand here with a man that talked to me so candidly
More than you need to
My lips once rosed
I feel again the blues of longing, ever longing to be confused
She does a modern country waltz on Hope in the Air. It's dirge like tempo inform the lyrics;
No hope in the air
No hope in the water
Not even for me
Your last serving daughter
Radiohead is not a rock & roll band. They are progressive with a capital “P”. It seems as if the no longer create music in a song format. It's all synths, odd minor keys, tempo changes and wordless vocals creating an otherworldly soundtrack that seems somewhat inhuman. Thom Yorke is a great singer but is underutilized in this mélange of electronic noodlings. Since they no longer perform songs with standard structure of verse, chorus, verse, bridge, I was unable to tell one song from another though I was able (with help) to discern where Kid A started and left off and was able to identify Morning Mr. Magpie, Karma Police and Idioteque. Yorke dedicated Supercollider to Jack White and did a Tom Waits (True Love) intro to Everything In Its Right Place. Don't get me wrong Radiohead is a great band that defies genres - are they rock, progressive, electronic or none of the above. I like them as I do Jethro Tull. True Genius…but sometimes I just like to hear Creep.
Saturday June 9th
The Ford Tent proved to be the place to go for great obscure bands that are a little odd and off-kilter with the current zeitgeist. Bubblegum hooks, pop satire and soaring harmonies are the call of the day. It's like Weird Al meets the Beach Boys. I saw a band named Oberhofer that was a throw back to the days of 2-minute pop songs, little gems with good singing, soaring harmonies, and hooks galore. Get it in & out quick and make sure the lead singer has a teenage voice. These cats were all around odd, even did a xylophone solo. I loved 'em.
But the next band really shook me up. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is a Detroit fixture with Weezer-like whimsy, great singing and bratty songs that are so good that you're not sure if they are kidding or serious, offensive or just plain funny. They are great players and the synth accents went along way to coloring the musical landscape. They are spontaneous and deadpan outrageous. The audience loved the sardonic humor, “We're glad to be in this little Persian orgy tent with you - need any grapes?” They did a Whitney Houston Tribute (I will Always Love You) followed with a whistled intro to the dead serious satire of a Simple Girl. She doesn't need you to meet her family (even though you're boinking her). These cats are hilarious without being pushy about it. At one point they shifted to straight renditions of the Beach Boys' God Only Knows and Gil Scott Heron's We Almost Lost Detroit. It was stunning performance in a small space kind of like having a sing-a-long with a few friends in your kitchen. Great Band!
Flogging Molly was inspired by the punk bands in Los Angeles - The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. Celtic meets Punk is sometimes a rocky marriage of but when it works, the humor bites, political statements are brash and bold and the music is transcendent. Flogging Molly music is energetic and tongue in cheek - a good mix of punk, Gaelic (Irish, Scottish) blarney, and social consciousness. Their 24-song setlist included six rebel yell anthems from their new LP Speed of Darkness. Highlights included The Powers Out, A Prayer for Me in Silence and Oliver Boy. They rock hard yet still retain core Celtic folk instruments such as accordion, fiddle and banjo. Amnesty International had commissioned leader Dave King to sing These Times Are a Changing, a Dylan song written back in 1963. King gives it a straight acoustic reading with his wife on the pennywhistle. The rest of the band joined in on the second verse. Incredible! They performed If I Ever Leave This World Alive is one of the most poignant and tender songs I've ever heard. Flogging Molly has integrity. They are a band that talks the walk and takes a courageous stand to embrace civil liberties and human rights while railing against war, corruption and greed in America. This was one of the best shows @ Bonnaroo 2012.
The genre hopping Punch Brothers performed a tight set that included unusual covers for a progressive bluegrass band. Leader Chris Thile plays mandolin while the rest of the cast fills up the sonic landscape with violin/fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass. They have close harmonies, unison and falsetto vocals. Their music ranges from the popish This girl, the rock oriented Heart in a Cage (The Strokes cover) to Flippen, a straight up bluegrass gem. This is a band that has something bubbling up to the surface. Their talent is apparent but they need to corral the right mix of energy and virtuosity. When they get it right, they just might rocket into the upper echelon of national touring acts. Their covers of Radiohead (Kid A) and Beck (Sexx Laws) show that they are able to take risks and expand the parameters of bluegrass music.
Ludacris just may be the highlight to Bonnarroo 2012. He tours with a full band that includes lead guitar, bass, keys, drums, percussion, and a deejay. He has a big full sound and incredible energy and he does all his hits like area Code, Southern Hospitality, Rollout, Stand Up, How Low and Move bitch. It was hard to keep track of it all with his rapid-fire delivery and his crowd pleasing F-bombs and Mother-F bombs. It was less profane than it was a greeting or a call to arms for the counter culture to express itself.
Ludacris sounded tough at times but his message was love and acceptance. He did several cool covers including; Break Your Heart (Taio Cruz), Tonight I'm Loving You (Enrique Iglesias), Glamorous (Fergie). It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ludacris enjoys weed. He instructs the audience “Let's get high” and dedicates a song to all the weed smokers. Ludacris tells the huge crowd that he's been on a never-ending tour across the United States and the world. He's always been a trendsetter and a risk taker. He hasn't had a big hit in a few years but he's still a star. When he raps I wanna lick you from your head to your toes, the girls scream orgasmically. He marches to his own industrial beats and his music is a harsh mistress to the heavy sounds of the street. Love is like a beacon of light on a dark night but violence is the promise. Ludacris speaks in a language that is common and profane. It is how people communicate today, it's real. Ludacris combines samples with his own sounds and his band is up to the task. He rocks a cover of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was a brilliant! He pulls songs from Chicken & Beer - “for all the alcoholics in the house”. Ludacris put on a perfect show with well-conceived sampling, a great band, positive energy and a message of love. Ludacris is Back!
Foster the People made it to Bonnaroo on the power of Pumped Up Kicks - the sleeper mega-hit of 2011. Everyone was talking about this catchy little sing-a-long ditty about school shootings. The jingle jangle nursery rhyme beat and whistled chorus gave it an adolescent vibe that belied the darkness of the lyrics - “run baby run faster than my bullet.” I liked the song and wondered if Mark Foster intentionally created an improbable dialectic between words and sounds to lighten it up like an irresistible commercial jingle. This was a surprisingly well-crafted performance from song selection, top-notch players and a great light show. Foster proved to be a master showman/shaman who won over a doubting crowd with his great singing and ability to play several different instruments. His use of falsetto was over-done yet he still delivered a great show. Welcome to the big leagues.
Red Hot Chili Peppers are a great rock band and they know it, from Flea mugging for the cameras to Kiedis walking across the stage on his hands for the encore. Ok, they're showboats and peripatetic actors repeating the same role in a never-ending loop of sameness that forbids any semblance of spontaneity and exacts a worshipful cackle of fans whose only worry is the barometer of cool and who brought the reds and windowpane. The band performed Dani Califonia and Californication as well as Scar Tissue, Snow and Suck My Kiss. Kiedis' bold expressive tenor hasn't lost a bit of its power and he never once lost pitch. The band is mostly shirtless and they bound over and through every nook and cranny of the large stage. The show is well-timed melodrama with a lot of excitement and a peripatetic level of energy. They celebrated Motown soul with Higher Ground, an erstwhile tribute to Stevie Wonder and the finale was an all-out, no-holds barred, muscle-flexin' rock & roll jam (like always). That's it. The Chili Peppers should be several years past their prime. But they aren't. They are the hard rock equivalent to Bruce Springsteen - aging like a fine wine.
Sunday June 10th
Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds helps me greet the new day, my last day @ Bonnaroo. I'm was tired and sore from the hard living that consisted of sleeping on the ground with my trusty sleeping bag, eating less due to the heat, walking more and drinking water willingly and really enjoying the taste. I started each day with a reassuring cup of coffee.
Once again I turned to the small stages to hear the real down home talent. This time it's Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds. They have a typical rock band formation except for the 4-piece horn section and amazing harp player who blew it like a B-3 Hammond organ. Sister Sparrow has a soulful tenor that sounds like she's channeling Janis Joplin. She is just a wee pint of piss and she appears almost fragile but she sings like Big Mama Thorton. She does a rip-snortin' version of Up On Cripple Creek. She captured Levon Helm's understated sensual delivery. It was perfect. The band rocked like Chicago on several numbers my favorite, Too Much, ended the show with an exclamation! Sister Sparrow is an excellent band that deserved better coverage from the press.
The Comedy Tent
Rhys Darby (Flight of The Concords) talked about training horses to bow and walk backwards but from the horses' perspective. “Yeah, I had to do some sideways walking and bowing…weird.” Rhys has a gift of taking everyday situations and making them larger like when a man misplaces his wallet. He looks left, he looks right. “it's not here.” He retraces his steps at home - still can't find it… gets into his car and drives backwards to the last place he's been. Nope, still can't find it, goes home, wife found it on the nightstand.
Moshe Kasher started riffin' as soon as he took the stage. “I'm a Jew, we blew our wad a long time go. We don't have live births. We are reptilian.” He explains transgender “to those folks in Tennessee” and then admits that he's a trans, transgender, “I'm a man who felt he should be a woman but that woman really wants to be a man.”
Reggie Watts had a comedic mix of the physical and cerebral. He complains about girlfriends who squeeze toothpaste in the middle. He'll hide his tube or buy her one of her own but it don't matter because she still find his toothpaste and squeeze it in the middle - a test of love, to be sure. Reggie told a long story about his father, a bio-geneticist who experimented with children raising dinosaurs…many children died. He did an incredible rap about it with mix tapes and samples. Reggie is totally insane in a cool deadpan way. He spoofed Carol Burnett and her secret career as a space traveler and her unpopular belief that machines will take over the earth - like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator. Ok, you had to be there
Kenny Rogers - not my favorite cup of tea - though I did love all those early First Edition songs like Heed the Call, Tell it All Brother, Rueben James, But You Know I Love You, Something's Burning, and Just Dropped In. I was familiar with his country catalog and I was never impressed by his soft middle of the road love songs - though it made him a wealthy man. Alas Roger's fortunes tumbled in the last few years as his recording career stalled. And his stock plummeted following extensive plastic surgery that made him look noticeably in-elastic and quintessentially vain. In an unexpected twist of the knife Rogers' show at Bonnaroo was a down home understated masterpiece. Rogers did all his hits and I found myself re-examining his extensive body of work, He sang one right after another and they were uniformly excellent - Daytime Friends, We've Got Tonight (Seger Cover), The Gambler, Lady, and She Believed in Me. I loved the folksy swagger of It's a Beautiful Life that conjured up images of backyard barbecues and good times with friends and neighbors. He sang about celebrating life where “we dance till we die ” and “Times that really matter.” His rendition of Ruby (Don't Take Your Love To Town) was perfect and I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition) was a blast from the past, a psychedelic relic of an ancient past. I loved every second of it. The Gambler was a sing-a-long favorite. No one coming of age in the seventies would forget the lines.
There were several surprises at this show. The Mayor of Manchester presented Kenny with the key to the city and after all that hub-bub quieted down Lionel Ritchie appeared onstage and proceeded to sing a duet with Kenny on the 1980 #1 hit Lady, Ritchie then proceeded to tear the house down with a raucous version of his mega-hit All Night Long. The crowd was stunned then frenzied…everybody was shaking their groove thing. To top it off Rogers ended the show with Islands In the Stream, a huge hit he had with Dolly Parton. This was another unexpected highlight of Bonnaroo.
The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Tour rolled into Bonnaroo in mid-afternoon. A huge crowd greeted the band, their legendary status secured. But for me it was difficult to listen and pay witness to the fractured image of a dying band on its last legs. I recall their early to mid-seventies heyday when Carl Wilson was the musical director and he was singing those incredibly intricate and layered masterpieces such as Long Promised Road, Good Timing, Caroline No, Feel Flows, Surfs Up, Wild Honey, I Can Hear Music, God Only Knows. Al Jardine would sing Wouldn't it Be Nice, Help Me Rhonda, Cottonfields, Heroes and Villains, and Sloop John B. Mike Love to a back seat during this time of ascendance and hippie cool. His primary role was reduced to the baritone backdrops and a medley of early hits (I Get Around, Catch a Wave, Be True to Your School and Fun, Fun, Fun).
But today is a decidedly pickled and canned affair with Mike Love singing lead on about eighteen songs. At 71, Love is unable to stay on pitch and his wavering baritone has lost its punch. It's only when Al Jardine takes the lead vocals that the band sounds like the Beach Boys. He provides the vocal power and finesse that gives Wouldn't It Be Nice, Heroes and Villains that sunny west coast sound. Brian Wilson's tenor has deepened and he can still sing well though his mush mouth delivery sounds a bit muffled. He's never been able to regain that brilliant four-octave range that powered Caroline No and Don't Worry Baby. His mere presence is reassuring and it reminds us of the brilliance of Wilson's pocket symphonies. But the brotherly togetherness appears stilted and inauthentic. After Carl Wilson's death in 1998, Love began a series of lawsuits against his partners including Brian Wilson and Al Jardine. Love was granted exclusive rights to perform at live concerts using the Beach Boys registered trademark by the parent corporation BRI. The three surviving members of the Beach Boys - Mike Love, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine each own a share of the Beach Boys Corporation. It's messy, very messy.
Phish closed the Festival with a four-hour marathon performance in the rain. I could only tolerate about an hour or so. I was squeezed into a tent with hundreds of other fans while thousands just wrapped themselves around the wetness like an old comfortable raincoat. I heard some righteous jams including Funky Bitch, The Moma Dance, Sample in a Jar, and Possum; but my favorite was when Kenny Rogers guested with a high-energy good time rendition of the Gambler. Phish sounded spectacular but I just couldn't usher the gumption or the energy to stick it out.
We trekked back to our campsite. Earlier in the evening we knocked down the tent, folded it up and squeezed it into the back of the Dodge Caravan. The vehicle was already jam packed so we took our time walking back from the main stage. We kicked back, slept the night away and hit the road early the next morning tired but happy.