You get hurt, you get back to it slow. Maybe not dive right in, but drink some tea, think about what’s left… and savor what’s there. You decide sampling might be better, savoring what you get to see and really being with the music.
Clouds pile up like newspapers people forgot to cancel before going away for the summer. Maybe it’s going to torrent. After all, what was muddier than Woodstock?
But weather isn’t a worthy deterent.
Del McCoury and Sam Bush are playing That Tent at 5. McCoury is now the reigning father of bluegrass, Sam Bush its longstanding innovative maverick. Together they represent the history and the expansion of the genre, grounding and exploring what bluegrass can be.
Supple in their embrace of timeworn classics like “Hang Your Head In Shame,” it is the (re)inventiveness of U2’s “Pride (In The Name of Love)” that demonstrates music’s universality. Almost petoit-pointed whorls of Bush’s mandolin sets up McCoury’s sand-paper tenor to hacksaw through many of the attendees’ 24/4 exhaustion to become a siren’s call for Bonnaroo’s not-so-subtly-stated higher purpose.
As the crowd recognizes the familiar rendered in the unexpected hardcore traditional style, they whoop. It may not be a revelation, but they’re drawn into Bono’s words to consider the notions of equality, sacrifice, togetherness and the future that can be made. At the end, there is an explosion of cheers.
For all the neo-hillbilly dancing to the bluegrass music, and in certain groups it borders on burlesque-ing, if not mocking, there is reverence, too. Whether they listen to this music at home or not, the greatness is recognized.
It’s the perfect set-up for Ed Helms Bluegrass Situation Superjam. And it’s funny what a movie can do: because while it had nothing to do with a traditional Appalachian art form, the electricity was palpable as the Bush/McCoury stage was struck – and new gear was moved into place.
To use that sort of fame for something like elevating bluegrass is a good thing, and Helms clearly enjoys his role in fostering awareness, as well as playing with some of the genre’s best practitioners. Never mind the chants of “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!,” the newspaperboy-capped Helms side-stepped fan fair, plugged in his banjo and declared “Let’s do this thing…” and embarked on a brisk “I Was Born To Be With You.”
From there, it was a cavalcade of names, licks, jams and the sheer joy of playing. And play they did! Bryan Sutton, Luke Bulla, John Fullbright, Jesse Cobb, Barry Bales, members of Black Prairie, the Punch Brothers, Chris Stapleton, and Dan Tyminski were among the embarrassment of riches taking the stage with Helms. Indeed, Stapleton, who’d turned in a hybrid Skynyrd/rebel country set the day before, really showed himself to be a power-singer with his two song turn doing truly rooted bluegrass.
The beauty of what Helms has conjured is there’s plenty of room for everybody to come and stomp and play. Not just the comers, but Sam Bush and Del McCoury joined in, making it a truly powerful summit meeting of the tribes, something to rival the cross-pollinating Superjams of the two nights previous.
And it didn’t stop there. Wandering back down to the media center for the walk to position for the event’s Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers closing set, David Byrne & St Etienne come into range. The man who’s seemingly reconfigured punk, art rock, world music and performance art has never flinched at reinvention, and listening to “Wild Life” floating at me slightly stop-start, slightly downhome, you can’t help but smile.
Even grazing, there is so much music of merit, the experience glistens with reminders of what music contains. Joy, mostly, but also catharsis and transformation. Who do you want to be? How do you want to feel? Change your mood? Really commit to what your emotional plane is? Well, set your ears – and go.
Of course, few things can match Tom Petty, the quiet man who makes his music, stays below the radar and remains one of the most pungent straight-up rockers there’s ever been.
Lean songscapes, devoted to losers, not quites and won’t fit ins, Petty has taken his Southern regionalism and made it national in the same way Springsteen turned the Jersey ethos, Mellencamp mined the heartland and Seger took the Rust Belt and made it frame larger realities.
Opening with the Byrds “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star,” the once song of straight reportage almost invites a social commentary dialogue of fame in the age of YouTube. Not that Petty necessarily thought it through that far; he and the Heartbreakers delivered a chimingly muscular take on a rock standard that showed the power of masters savaging a much loved song.
More than anything, at this point, that’s what this organization is: pirates who know how to plunder. Steve Ferrone hits those drums like he’s killing his worst habit: precise, hard and with purpose. It’s columns of pounding that give shape, drive the songs and provide sculpture and a pulse on the subtler moments.
Mike Campbell remains the man capable of stinging strings of notes that dig into the scalp and tear your most visceral places apart, creating motifs out of rock songs that stay with you long after the lyric’s gone. A clean player, he doesn’t fear the effects, but he’s best on things like the charging “Listen To Her Heart” and the nervously thrilling “American Girl,” while creating the tension that gives “I Won’t Back Down” its charge and the brittle narrowing of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”
But it’s more than technicianship with the Heartbreakers. Whether the surprisingly early in the set suspended want and run of “Free Fallin’,” the utter sadness of “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” or the shimmering hope of “Learning To Fly,” Petty understands the evocative nature of emotion in songs better than any. He can take 60,000 people standing in on ongoing rain and bring them to feel myriad emotions without manipulating or Hallmarking the moment.
When he leans into the brazen “Rebels,” that taunting song that evokes the polemic indignity and pride inherent in life below the Mason Dixon, then matches it to the Dead’s acoustic reckoner “Friend of the Devil.” Later in the set, he will take that outlaw biteback to his breakout “Refugee” with a vengeance.
Largely a set strewn with hits, Petty still managed to bring “Love Is A Long Road” into play early, tackle the Wilburys’ “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” and find a place for “It’s Good To Be King.” Even those moments that fall a little short of “Running Down A Dream” hit hard, offering the release the best rock & roll should: spending your sentiments and making you scream in recognition.
Never quite counter-culture, not a punk though marketed (initially) as one, Petty has always infused those realities to his stripped down take on what rock is. It’s why standing in the rain with a father and son from greater Nashville, a couple teens from California and a girl from somewhere in Canada, all of the voices raised with equal vigor when it came time to howl along on the choruses.
Great rock is more than timeless, it’s always alive right now. At the end of a hot, wet, dusty, muddy Bonnaroo, there was no better way to set one’s sites on 2014.
And as for the rest of “the experience,” there will be more.
but getting the music while there’s still some echo in the fields was important --
So less than perfect, but vital in the moment, here are the postcards from the final day…