Postcards from Bonnaroo, 7
The Morning After The Night Before
Reggie Watts isn’t music in the traditional sense, but to watch him use a keyboard and build wondrous masses of rhythm, groove and clouds of ambient melody is its own reward. When it comes together, like some volcano spewing, and he takes his often acerbic story to rafter-scraping highs and Barry White kinds of lows, you can knock me over.
Then there’s the Kinisonian aspect of his commentary: right between the eyes, the stuff no one wants to say. It’s blunt force trauma with an ice pick on a stick – and often you don’t even realize until you’re walking away woozy just what you got hit with.
And unlike Kinison, who just wanted to strap on a guitar and play like a rawk star, Watts wants to have fun with the technology template.
So, that makes committing hard. Knowing there is a line to stand in, or at least a wad of people to stand in with my artist pass, hoping to be let in after the 1000 people who stood in line hours earlier just to get a ticket to get under the high circus big tent that’s been erected in the name of laughter, getting too far afield from where I need to be, or drawn in is impossible.
But being Bonnaroo, that doesn’t mean I have to miss the music. Indeed, NAS comes wafting across the field as I forage for something to sustain me – a couple locally sourced tacos, one pork-braised in coffee, the other the Cuban equivalent of sloppy joes – and sweeps me up in that rhythmic way he has. Too far away to make out the lyrics, the beats feel good and propel me through the food stalls and picnic tables.
It’s amazing how few musical boundaries there are at Bonnaroo. Indeed, they’ve thrown out the definitions as the business holds them: the notion of modern country anathema here, the idea that hip hop is urban ludicrous for the mass crammed beyond the edges of the furtherest point of Which stage’s plain for Wu Tang.
When people lament the loss of freeform FM, they might plan a weekend vacation at any of the juicy festivals… or join the 80,000 in Manchester, Tennessee.
Making my way back to the Comedy Tent, Cat Power’s ferocious voice tore through the air. No matter what she sings, that intensity she brings penetrates everything. You can hear her voice wafting through the idle chatter, the noise spilling off the smaller stages, set up for discovery and releasing some intriguing music into the crowd, the barkers luring people in and taking orders.
I pause, remembering. Her records, like Liz Phair, such powerful statements of a feminist perspective in rock. It was taking every phallic-centric orientation and flipping it on its head. Even in the burning heat, the disorienting mass of people, that much of her raison du chanson comes through.
Snippets manage to reach me back in the clot of VIPs and Artists without tickets outside the Comedy Tent. Am I wrong to miss the music? Should I run now? Wait and see how Watts’ barely contained by a tv show (“Comedy Bang Bang) and YouTube reality translates?
It is rare comedy reaches inside, and yet… I am a musico, the songs, the voices are all calling.
I wait. I wait, and am rewarded. Again, by people do nice their t-shirts (pink w blue writing, no less) say “Safety” instead of “Security.”
A seat on an aisle, waiting for the show. Or rather the happening, since Watts has already done one “experiment” in the campground. Hard to explain, heck, hard to understand reading the account his people put out, which is the beauty of experiencing Watts’ performance-driven comedy.
Sadly, whether it’s the heat or the notion of trying to format something that should be even more random, I sat there watching what felt like routines. A variation on what they do, perhaps the moment not finding enough yeast. All the earmarks there, not quite enough something.
Looking at the phone, Dwight Yoakam had already begun. Looking at my map, it was the place farthest from me. Yoakam, whose Oak Records ep arrived in a package with TSOL and Hell Comes To Our House all those years ago, has ascended to an icon. Thirty years, almost, since Guitars, Cadillacs became a long player on Warner/Reprise, when he was an outlier on the storied California cow-punk scene that had already spawned X, the Blasters, Lone Justice and the Screamin’ Sirens from the ashes of the Cramps, the Motels and the scene at Madame Wongs.
Yoakam never adapted, never changed. A record deal like Prince gave him autonomy, a stubborn perniciousness made him blame the game more than look at a need to morph with the times: the result a seamless brand of hard honky tonk swagger infused with an almost metallic lash.
If many of the people at That Tent didn’t know Yoakam’s music, they knew the lore. But like ZZ Top the night before, who’d come to follow McCartney and burn it down, this was a crowd met with a vengeance.
The tempos were often slower, played with even more force, yet the velocity of Yoakam’s always hardcore freneticism lost nothing. Blinding with rhinestones, it is a younger band than he had carried, and they seem to have a different kind of reverence for the material. Tight, if not kinetic, intent if not fiery.
While drawing a few songs from his Three Pears, including the delightfully trippy “Waterfall” that reads almost like a Salvadore Dali painting set to song, Yoakam also laced his 90 minutes with enough hits to be a human jukebox. The wham bam slam of so many songs reminded even the non-country, non-Yoakam-ite why this man could exist beyond the Nashville mainframe on his own terms for over thirty years.
“Fast As You,” “Honky Tonk Man,” “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” “ Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” “Guitars, Cadillas” and on, and on.
If the crowd didn’t come for country or funk or alternative, they came for great. Whatever that meant. They were open, they were thirsty – and they drank copious amounts of music.
Floating back to the Which stage, the Lumineers in many ways were plying the same notion that Yoakam once flexed: follow a path that feels true, strike a hook and build out. Their lean folk-driven chant-pop made “Ho Hey” the song of 2012 turning into 2013, earning them Grammy nominations, big tours and a prominent slot on many of the year’s biggest festivals.
And what they do onstage doesn’t disappoint. It is real musicians playing actual instruments in their depression-era/post-dust bowl fashion. But in the end, it is songwriting realized through a strong rhythmic undertow – something that suggests polite, almost hynotic tribalism filtered through the folk scare of the 60s.
Sincere without being saccharine, the Lumineers have expanded from their core three, but they retain the focus and clarity of purpose that makes this more than a reductionistic throwback to more “acoustic times.”
“Stubborn Love” sweeps with the urgency of youth, of want, of refusing to budge: all attributes which will be necessary as the future is navigated. Looking like much of the crowd, it’s not quite an identification sweep going on, yet the reflection of similar attitudes isn’t lost on the clearly tired from the sun mass who sway in time and cheer in all the right places.
With brutal heat, it’s a wonder – even with the rain stations, the water refills, the frozen lemonade stands every 15 yards – more people aren’t passing out. But they’re not. The music – and their friends – sustain them.
Indeed, they want more. Even as energy levels wane, there is music to consume, and people hungrily waiting for the next dollop. Though Mumford & Sons cancellation was cause for pique among many, Jack Johnson stepped in to headline Saturday night, giving the main What stage a decidedly mellow vibe.
Johnson, regardless of what people think, understands where rhythm fits in his music. Charming to a fault, he takes the subtle and pulls people in. Where the Lumineers use the beat prominently, Johnson’s arrangements are always wafting and whispering beats that lend his free-form imagery their architecture. But subtle doesn’t mean missing, and that adds a deceptive likability to what he does.
Dedicating his set to Mumford & Sons, suggesting next year they play the show together, he took that melodicism in myriad directions. Interjecting “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” with a snippet of the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” spinning the Bonnaroo experience into “Improv,” a cover of Mumford’s “The Cave,” even playing the brand new “I Got You,” there was a seamlessness to the spell he created.
Self-knowledge is a powerful thing. For an ex-pro-surfer who liked to sing, he understood to keep doing what he did was to find the tribe who’d buy in – and they would spread the word like the music business can never have the grace to do. Which is why over time, Jack Johnson has quietly built a career that is “festival-closing,” while many music biz honchos have no idea, beyond perhaps the Curious George soundtrack.
And yes, “Banana Pancakes” have no place anywhere neat Trent Reznor, but “Animal” might not be something to play for another slice of your friend-base, and that’s the beauty of the Bonnaroo live’n’let-live, curious-about-it-all reality. It’s all good, and if you’re bored or not feeling it, move on.
Bringing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band out for the set closing “Mudfootball” was the euphoric cherry on top of three solo songs. Bringing the energy and the fun level up, the crowd was set free to quest through the night’s biggest debate: R. Kelly? Billy Idol? Weird Al? Yes, clash of three mighty titans, and how does one pick?
And after one picked, what about the Soul & Rock Jam at This Tent? Starting at Cinderella’s witching of hour of midnight proper, it was a Jim James/John Oates/the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste and the Preservation Jazz Band romping through Stones covers, Sly and the Family Stone, Temptations and whatever else struck them – including a post-set Billy Idol coming in for a little T Rex and “Bang A Gong,” the mighty Larry Graham on bass and the Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard sitting in.
With camping nearby, it’s hard to know who starts early and stays late, who filters in and filters out, but clearly, it doesn’t matter. Everywhere you go, pleasant polite people stand watching the music, taking it in and enjoying the experience for what it is: a communal moment of songs, life, sharing.
Not to sound like an old hippie, but perhaps past the profit motives of the modern record business, there’s a new ethos emerging – and the folks in the multi-national corporations still haven’t got the memo.