Randomness or coincidence… or does it even matter? Make my first flight after leaving the checklist with my wife.
• Change plant litter
• water cat
• return the kid and give the movie lots of love
Who the heck designed Washington D.C.’s Reagan airport? Make a note to exterminate said engineer. During a layover I sat between the ranting, homophobic, hippy-hating redneck from hell and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell. After an amusing 30-minute Abbot & Costello remake, turns out Page isn’t on his way to Tennessee for Bonnaroo, but headed to a family reunion in West Virginia. His plane leaves first. As soon as he splits, the redneck starts in on all the “hippy and fag juice” invading Tennessee.
Rather than subject myself to any more bigotry, I decide to silence the Rebel Rube by showing him a picture of “my partner and our adopted Russian baby,” which is really a picture of my son with The Roots’ ?uestlove during an interview at the Ritz last summer (see above photo). The Rube can’t speak, and starts to shake with fury. I board my flight before Civil War II breaks out in our nation’s capital. Ah, the melting pot.
I Find the best radio station south of the Mason Dixon, east of the mighty Mississippi. 91.1 FM out of Nashville. Blaring Gomez’s “Tijauana Lady” into Emmy Lou Harris’s “Luxury Liner,” I try to navigate “backway” directions, which actually include, “take a right at the large oak by the old brick ranch house.” I let the Oldsmobile Alero gallop over the Kelly green curves of Murfreesboro, Tenn. Splitting the landscape with jersey cows and cacophonous cicadas, I spy a rainbow illuminating a solitary grain silo. The idyllic rural splendor is abruptly marred by the flashing blue lights of Patrolman J. House. After one of Woodbury County’s finest offers some better directions and a polite citation which severely dents my libation budget, I slowly pass into Coffee County on 55 west. I’m greeted with nothing but empty asphalt, cavorting fireflies and a massive hand-painted bolt of cloth tied to a fence welcoming the road-weary with the satiric question, “Ain’t Life Grand?”
After the Southern Hospitality of the redneck and Patrolman House, I hope the weekend will hold a truer answer.
FRIDAY and SATURDAY:
Experiential education is crucial in surviving four days and nights of music. To this effect, the serial Bonnagroovians can be easily spotted by their Camelbacks and colorful mud boots briskly zagging and zigging through the meandering herd of zombied neophytes. They know where and how to locate the What and Which stages, who’s playing in This and That tent, and that The Other Tent can be the best place to begin the day. This year Josh Ritter christens it with infectious joy. His bouncing red-fro rhythms and mile-wide melodies power his piercing lyrical spotlight aimed at a world brimming with sanguine bliss, greed beasts and one or two capricious lovers. When the set ends I suddenly find myself on the verge of skipping.
• Joss Stone in a sun dress booming the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Boy (Girl)” with libidinous delight. Check.
• Listening to live Jurassic 5 while taking cuts in the backstage batting cages: A+.
• The Gourds whooping up their eponymous cover of “Gin and Juice” before sliding into “Pickles” with Jimmy Smith dancing and slapping a paint brush for no apparent reason—makes me hungry and thirsty.
• Rap with the Allman Brothers’ Butch Trucks over a ham sandwich about how their long-time producer Tom Dowd helped create the atomic bomb at age 16, before his drummer in crime, Jaimoe sits down with a heaping plate of ribs.
“You know they‘re gonna send you to the farm if you keep eatin’ like that?” – Butch to Jaimoe.
“What farm would that be?” – Jaimoe to Butch
“The fat farm. Hell, I’ll be surprised if they let you back on the bus; don’t you know we gotta make weight limits on some of them bridges.” – Trucks
“Is that burger number two on your plate?” – Jaimoe
“Sit down and shut up.” – Trucks
Well fed, the Allman Brothers highlight their set with covers of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Mornin’ Little Schoolgirl” with Jerry Douglas on slide guitar. Confederate despair and sonic concupiscent never sounded so good. As “Whipping Post” is unleashed the drizzle turns to rain. Once again, Warren Haynes wins the annual omnipresent artist of the weekend award.
Backstage virtual Golf with Galactic’s Jeff Raines and Paste editor in chief Josh Jackson. I’m 5 over after 3. Need to work on my short game.
Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters featuring John “I swear I am a serious jazz freak, not a Tiger Beat cover boy” Mayer on guitar was the hotspot for want-to-be-seen artists on the backstage-poser platform. A throbbing cover of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” pulses through the storm. Good to see the drenched crowd appreciating the improvisational patriarch of an often ignored “jam” genre. However, the real jazz gem was not so hidden under That Tent.
Hanging on for dear life in the photographer’s pit, my musical paradigm was slapped silly by the Benevento/Russo Duo. The intensity of purpose imposed on their instruments is a gale force of youthful bravado. While Marco Benevento generates mountainous swells of organ wash and wields javelins of avant-garde keyboards, Joe Russo plays a trap drum set like a runaway red-headed Cerebus. Just when you think the rubber band is about to snap sending the whole sound into splintering particles, they turn on a dime and Tangerine Dream your mind back into melodious mirth. Having Phish Bassist Mike Gordon as your recurring guest doesn’t hurt either. Especially when the set ends with Phish’s appropriately titled “Mike’s Song,” and to the utter delight of the phrenzied crowd Benevento turns his B3 mic toward them so they can sing the entire song, which we do with great aplomb and finesse.
Soon after its set, I watch the band mug and posture for legendary music photographer, Danny Clinch, Benevento draped in young women and Russo torching the muggy night with a zippo and a bottle of lighter fluid. By the time Dave Matthews hits the main What Stage I’m in the artist tent sipping a novel concoction of Go Fast’s energy drink, Grey Goose Vodka and Glaceau Vitamin Water. Josh Ritter, smartly sticking with the Jack Daniels, eloquently captures the whole shindig with, “I feel like Jane Goodhal walking around this place.” Behind him the cookie-monster-blue hair of sitar-slinging Asian chanteuse Gabby La-La is a dead giveaway that the playing field is starting to warp. Soon elfin harpist Joanna Newsom is conspiring with SNL comedian Fred Armisen to turn down the live Dave Matthews feed streaming loud-and-clear into the tent. They’re up against the stiff competition of a devil-stick-flinging freaker clad in tight tennis shorts and a pink izod windbreaker. The windbreaker wins.
I end up outside the trailer of Sound Tribe Sector Nine while they rehearse a few numbers with hip-hop foot soldiers, Mr. Lif and Akrobatic from The Perceptionists. The all-nighters swaying out front are going to love this. I head off for my pillow passing the Mars Volta in full swagger and sustain. The time space continuum starts to blur.
The Benevento/Russo Duo on the Sonic Stage being interviewed live on XM radio by some straight-laced DJ between songs.
“Wow. Pretty impressive. You guys have played four times in the last 48 hours, how the heck you have the energy to do that with the way you play.”
“Acid,” says a completely sober Benevento. The crowd roars.
“Well…umm…okay…I guess we’re okay, it’s satellite, so okay… here’s the next tune for all you radio listeners.”
A ripping rendition of “Becky” ensues. Mister Flustered hops back onstage for round two.
“So this is your first Bonnaroo—having a good time?”
“Well, like I said, we’re on acid, so yeah.”
In case you are keeping score: The Duo - 2; XM DJ - 0. Game on.
M. Ward hiding beneath his natty, sweat-soaked L.A. Dodgers cap, in fact he doesn’t look like he’s changed since backing Beth Orton in This Tent last year. But does it really matter when you have such a voice? The way he sings the word “Helicopter” is so hypnotic he could be clad in cow dung and still command respect. The low-fi, “Hi-Fi,” the acoustic pounding of “Four Hours in Washington” and the lonely “Fuel For Fire” all swim together in a sweet haze. The spell intensifies when Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis saunters onstage like a lost Austin Powers extra in mod skirt and white go-go boots to harmonize on the jaunty crowd pleaser, “Big Boat.” To keep the synapses firing, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James plugs in for a note-perfect falsetto on “One Life Away.” Monster’s of folk unite.
Gov’t Mule. Let’s just say the end of the set list was Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and a medley of Mule’s “Fallen Down” into the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” into Temple Of The Dog’s “Hunger Strike” into Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” back into “Hunger Strike .” Put that in your pipe and, well… you know.
I’m standing on What’s side-stage viewing platform with Matisyahu bassist Josh Werner as The Black Crowes go for the throat on Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It” and their own rocker “Sting Me.” The recharged Robinsons—long-lost guitarist Marc Ford and original drummer Steve Gorman in tow—battled Jack Johnson for listeners and made it a draw by redlining “Thorn in My Pride” and “Soul Singing” before flowing into the Dead’s “Brokedown Palace.” Watching Kate Hudson shimmy backstage to a “Remedy” encore had to beat out watching burnt pledges climb trees over at Johnson’s Hawaiian sing-along. Or as Werner said, “Thank all for the Crowes, they finally gave some balls to the day.”
Back to the artist tent for the same tri-sponsored sippy cup of dubious alcoholic innovation now named “The Bitch Slap.” Ordering the next round, Amos Lee is overheard asking the bartender the origins of said drink. He slurs, “When the energy drink finally wears off, the vodka, well…” he gives his face a nice spank. So that explains it.
Swaddled in red-light saturation and baptized by sweaty funk stalactites dripping from the brows of Crescent City’s collective backbeat, I join the revelry of Galactic’s Krewe De Carnivale. With New Orleans Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and The Gold Eagle Indians in full regalia, “God’s own rhythm section” the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and The Meters’ own Leo Nocentelli on lead guitar, it proves you can take the boy’s out of Tipitina’s but you can’t take the Tipitina’s out of the boys.
After losing founding member Michael Houser a few years back, Widespread Panic returned from an extended hiatus rested and road-hungry. To celebrate, Mr. Pink Windbreaker is handing out a whole bag of glow-in-the-dark yo-yo’s. I walk back and forth between the poser platforms and the live feed in the tent practicing my “walking the dog.” A not-so-surprising guest joins in for at least three songs. I start playing six degrees of Warren Haynes with the local Jack Daniels rep. We both win or lose depending on point of view and functionality.
Trey Anastasio wins most eclectic set of the festival, but with new backing band 70 Volt Parade the music seems overly disjointed and dispirited. However, playing Zeppelin’s “In the Light,” Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman,” Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and the entire second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road showed off the musical versatility and prowess of Trey’s hired gunslingers. Anastasio also brought out former Phish-head and rising Hasidic Reggae Star (name another one and you can have my press pass next year) Matisyahu for “Close My Eyes” and Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” The set’s chugging train made a quick pit stop at Bizzaro world when American Idol runner-up and grand marshal of the Bonnaroo Mardi Gras parade, Bo Bice joined Anastasio onstage to wail Van Halen’s “Panama” complete with Roth’s improvised erotic aria “reach down between my legs…” This was my cue to run (not walk) over to catch the end of RJD2’s set.
The mesmerizing MC’s, “Good Times Roll pt. 2” could be the most infectious head-nodding, affirmation for adding turntabilism to the general lexicon. However he’s just the tantalizing appetizer before the main course of hip-hop this weekend—De La Soul. Standing stage-right in a fog of skunk smoke: Gabby La La shaking her indigo pony tails, Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill and his bevy of beauties bobbing wide-eyed, the afro twins of neo-acoustic’s New Train, Mr. Lif unleashing his dreadlocked coif, and professional hula-hoopist and sphere dancer Spiral hypnotizing everyone with imperceptible gyrations and contortionist back-bends. Everyone’s getting limber, the freaks are uniting, and their hands are swinging in the air like they just don’t care. It’s like 6,000 people trying to wave down the mothership by playing an absurdly obedient game of De La Soul-style Simon Says.
I awake with deep beats in my chest and “3 feet high and rising” still ringing in my ears. Tough to beat, but Matisyahu picks up right where the night left off with hands raised, preaching to the dancehall choir on a fine Sunday morning. While Matis serves up his sermon reggae-style, bassist Werner gives his own balls to the day; a fantastic wake up call.
Salivating to describe what transpired during My Morning Jacket’s Sunday shakedown, easily one of the best sets of the entire festival, I was pleasantly surprised to see Paste writer Palmer Houchin’s completely steal my thunder (Click here and see what I mean). I’d just like to add the following corrections and addendums, it was not a cockroach but a praying mantis, the Polynesian Icon was actually Jabba the Hut with a twenty-foot wingspan done Easter Island style, and Dr. Frederick Von Guggenheim not only conducted but controlled the entire band through tiny black boxes and broke his baton with dramatic flair while strumming Jim James’ flying V on the last note.
With all the carnal and incontinent musical debauchery weighing on my secular shoulders, it was time to save my soul. Luckily The Word was waiting. One part Robert Randolph, One Part John Medeski, and three parts North Mississippi All-Stars, The Word offers gospel rock on a pedal-steel platter. Stomping in jubilation and rapture the band whips the masses into a frenzied fervor with southern-fried salvation. At one point, Randolph leaps off his chair and starts smacking the skins while drummer Cody Dickinson funnels Hendrix through his electric washboard. With bassist Chris Chew asking the crowd to testify with some Hallelujah hand clapping, and Medeski pounding his B3 in Bible-thumping splendor, the quintet launches into a rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” so spiritual it feels like both Luther Dickinson and Robert Randolph are fighting to win back Robert Johnson’s soul. I answer their call with some gut-bursting, sweat-spilling Amens, then call it a day. The mud caked to my shins has washed away, I’ve literally been cleansed by dancing my ass off in the rain.
Looking over a fellow writer’s shoulder in the press tent as he tries to meet his deadline, I take issue with his estimation that Bonnaroo is nothing but a jamband hippie festival. Yes there’re more than a few tie-dye-stretching pot bellies and finger bells, but I also see a myriad of backward, Greek-lettered white baseball hats, Angel of Death tattoos, studded belts, lips, eyebrows and ears, indie fashionistas and Elton John wannabees. In short, the spirit of the festival seems to be a musical gathering of misfits and musical omnivores and I’m proud to be one of them.
As Widespread Panic opens the weekend’s last set, I sit on a couch with Danny Clinch trying to wax poetic about what this type of gathering means to people. He shares a story about how sometimes when he sees fellow photographer friends documenting war torn countries and starving nations, he wonders what the hell he’s doing capturing the rock ’n’ roll moments. His own answer is simple.
“People do love music and it does help people’s souls, so I guess it has to matter to some extent.”
I quickly nod in agreement, and just as I’m about to head off into the sunset in my rented Alero, he mentions a proud moment that made him feel like he had the greatest job in the world. After directing several shoots with The Roots, he ran into ?uestlove at Bonnaroo a few years back. ?uestlove had a camera slung around his massive frame and told Danny that he was his one and only inspiration for his new obsession.
Naturally I tell Danny about my layover in Washington D.C. with the homophobic cowboy and my use of a photograph as a weapon of tolerance. He laughs at the thought of ?uestlove being my big, black gay lover and my son as our adopted commie offspring. We shake hands and make plans to catch up down the road. As I make my way to the exit, I’m floored to see my “partner” in crime having some dinner. It seems ?uestlove just sat in as a last minute surprise guest for Herbie Hancock’s Superjam. We hug, I grab Danny, and tell ?uest to get ready for a revelation of pure serendipity. Randomness or coincidence? It doesn’t matter.
Ain’t Life Grand?