Earth, Wind & Fire Crack The Night (Bonnaroo Installment 5)

Earth, Wind & Fire Cracks the Night

            It is still, walking away from This Tent, walking into the soft darkness. Ahead there is a ferris wheel, twinkling like a wagon wheel for some earthbound constellation. The Christmas Pub, candy canes at the entrance, glitters green and red against a worn wood barn – as if Santa ran a grizzled roadhouse in the off-season.

            But that’s Bonnaroo: everything you know is, well, slightly different.

            There is no pushing, shoving, struggling to get there first. People take their time, they’re in the moment. They have come for the weekend, and that means every single part of it. Why rush something you’re here to enjoy?
            The pace has slowed, a muffle has descended. The clusters sometimes shed pairs – young lovers tentatively twining people, people old enough to know better in public rubbing stomachs, sloppily trading tongues. Smiling to see it, I walk on with the grass yielding gently to my feet.

            There is a bit of time before the next show I want to see, a few minutes to think about the music I’ve already seen. Like the other years, Bonnaroo offers a platter of anything you could want; but more importantly, they strip it down to people playing music instead of a lot of production tricks.
            It suits the land Bonnaroo sits on, a place where the whole county makes its entire tax year from the people coming in for these four days. Someone says there are 100,000 or more converging on the land for the event. People love to talk and stretch, but maybe... And if not, does it really matter?

            The vendors stay open late, knowing some sleep until sunset to catch the late bands, the silent disco, the EDM sets that go until almost 4 a.m. Amish donuts, vegan rice bowls, cold brewed coffee, humane ice cream, a rainbow of ethnic food: Mexican, Indian, Italian, Cajun, Thai, Jamaican kabobs.

            They hawk their wares, tell you what makes their food so special. But it’s not a hard sell, more a share the love kind of pitch. They’re proud of what they’re cooking, proud of what they’ve brought to contribute. It’s like that.


            Text messages are failing to send... or land. Cell phone calls are ringing into space, but not connecting. In some ways, you’re out here on your own, knowing if you split off from your group, you may not see them again until you return to base camp.
            To battle that, people walk around with icons on sticks: Uncle Sam top hats, a Cat in the Hat, a dead skunk stuffed animal, rainbows, teddy bears, a Mrs. Potatohead. Later I will see two unicorns getting frisky above the crowd’s heads, wondering if it’s metaphoric for the merging of the two groups no doubt co-mingling below.

            There is a beauty, though, in being free. Drifting or sinking like the pearl in Prell bottle in that commercial from long ago. Heavy, but weightless, slow, but suspended, moving through it. Watching everything in a suspended animation, smiling and nodding at all that’s going by.
            They say the Molly enhances that, just like they say this year, there’s a lot of meth in GA camping. I don’t know. I don’t need it. Being out here on my own, that’s enough. People are friendly, they smile back. Maybe that’s all that matters. I think so.


            Backstage, Ken Weinstein gathers up a posse. He’s taking photographers to the pit, dropping journalists in the viewing GA near the front. Like Make Way For Ducklings, the glob of lenses and shutters, flack vests with too many pockets starts to move like a lava lamp blob.

            The rest of us follow behind, stay close. Though it’s approaching 11:30, the energy is collecting again. Behind the staging area, over some boards over the swamp made by catering run-off, we march march march, laughing as we go. Lee Ann Womack as delighted as anyone to be ushered before what will soon be Earth, Wind + Fire in full-rut.
            Under the stars, it is a clear night in Manchester. A slight breeze and the cool of evening finally in possession of the atmosphere. If the days are brutally hot and burning down, the night is calm and cool – and the people are ready to ignite from the grooves, the vocal swoops and the crisp horn parts.

            And without some of the fiery production that defined the power-funk group in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it is an extended jam that brings them to the stage. Rhythms comingling, flying almost at each other, carving new possibilities with a bass reverberating like post-coital waves. It is the depth of what the Grammy-winners emerged from: jazz and sex and groove, and it’s a perfect set-up for what is going to happen.

            When the instrumental break drops down into “Boogie Wonderland,” the crowd erupts. Five grown men – including Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Phillip Bailey – are on the front line, stepping and dancing with a staggering precision. That most of the originals are well into their 60s is irrelevant, they are feeling the music, cresting on the euphoria of what they’ve created.

            It spills into the crowd with equal abandon. Tired 30-, 40-something undulating like they’re taken by the spirit as the gusts of harmony wash over them from the stage – and then Bailey’s rafter scraping voice lifts up from that pillow of parts. This is old school rhythm & blues, y’all, from back when showmanship meant those razor sharp dance parts and horn blasts you could shave a 5-day growth with.

            Earth Wind & Fire came up when bands cut each other for the sport of it. Who was gonna outplay whom? Lay waste to which audience? It forged James Brown’s bad-ass band, ground Parliament-Funkadelic into a wicked proposition, made Stevie Wonder’s road shows legend.

            Without missing a step, the entire front row – percussionists, guitarists – takes a side-step and smacks into “Sing A Song.” The notion of joy exploding into song is euphoric. The melody sweeps up, the sweat pours, the audience is right with them – singing every word, following every whoop from Bailey.

            When a show is beyond words, that is when the songs take over. Exhausted sunburned white people are throwing it over and beyond their limits. People I know who have no groove, real rhythm or rump-shaking capability are boogie-ing down under the partial moon smiles slicing their faces in two.

            It is surreal to watch. It is a miracle of what can happen when you free your soul so your hips can follow.

            The chicken funk guitar scratch gets pierced by a couple sharp horn blasts, it is getting serious out here at the Which Stage. It’s a corkscrew groove, the kind that twists and bears down. It is funk, and it is fraught as the horn players wipe their heads between punctuation marks.

            The humidity of the midSouth is no match for what is happening on the stage. “When you wish upon a star,” starts the vocal “your dreams are taken very far... But when you wish upon a dream, that ain’t always what it seems...”

            A few sneaky keyboard lines trickle down, but it’s when the song breaks down and Verdine White finger slaps that bass worn tilted from his trunk, emerging from a pair of gold lame wide legged pants, that the inescapable pop hit takes on its full potential. Against the throb and the drum cracks, the endless circle of the chorus suggests that our potential is our decision.

            It’s easy to miss the empowerment in the feel-good, but live, the band celebrating 43 years of making music makes sure their deeper intention isn’t lost. As the song builds and builds, the sax, trumpet and trombone players come to the front, take a break, a blast and BANG! Done.
            Three songs and that jam in, White and Bailey take turns talking to the crowd. This ain’t your casino or nostalgia gig, and the language is different. Rather than go with the Up with People standard jargon those gigs require, they use humor – talking about how these songs were nursery rhymes for a lot of the assembled, how “some of you were conceived to this music...”

            For the next 75 minutes, they moved the crowd from emotional plane to cosmic groove. “Hold Your Fire” got a subtle undertow of desire, four part harmony floating above the ground and White down front. Lee Ann Womack, as hard country as they come, looks at me and bursts into laughter: it is that good, that sweet, the former small town Texas cheerleader can't help herself. Someone in the pit started blowing bubbles into the night, catching the lights thrown from the stage as a collective sway moved the audience like wheat in a Kansas field.

            Up on the stage I see a slight man in a white shirt by the monitor board. Four nights earlier I talked with a member of the Dazz Band, who told me I knew someone in the realm of EWF – and I should reach out. Laughing Kenny Pettus informed me it was their old tour manager, someone who’d watched me grow into a full-blown critic – and the innocence of all that swept me over, too.

            Music when it’s right melts time and notions, the disappointments of what life is when it’s not what you’d hoped. But it also lifts you up, inspires, makes you believe in impossible things in the best way. Standing here with 40,000 exhausted Bonnaroovers, it seems empiric proof I am not wrong.

            There is not a moment of stillness, not a second when the energy lacks or the kinetic snap falters. Horn curlicues mark the staccato “Got To Get You Into My Life,” originally recorded for the disaster rock flick “Sergeant Pepper” with Peter Frampton, Aerosmith and many cross-genres explorers.  The urgency of need, White’s slap-slap on the bass as his long silky mane drifts behind him is all the jack-hammer you need to keep going.

            It’s like that: better than Red Bull. Drop the needle on something you know, feel the lift, the push, the pump. It’s a drug you can’t not need. Standing on the stage, feeling the moment as palpably as the sweaty, stinky mass, Kendrik Lamar and Chance the Rapper were bopping to the set... and in one sweeping motion, they found themselves onstage with the soul legends, caught up in the moment with no planning and somehow igniting another freestyle moment of jamming.

            Those two songs – “September” with its helium harmonies and pushing grove and “Let’s Groove,” decidedly funky and down low in the cut – represent the best of the intersection of dance, urban and suburban culture. At the height of disco, when the funk was down and pop radio was a wide open place, there was a hedonism espoused that wasn’t about excess but feeling good, not about being hard but embracing joy and making the world a better place, not about being hot but beautiful from the inside out.

            With the beats pumping, Lamar and Chance joining in the tsunami of bliss rolling off that stage, Earth, Wind and Fire dominated. Yes, most of their voices are worn from the years, but to hear them rise as one, to see them spin and drop, cop the moves that always set them apart, it doesn’t matter.

            On a day when many of music’s biggest acts – across time, genre and niche – brought their best, Philip Bailey brought his incandescent tenor – equal parts gospel and the big naughty – to a field in Manchester, Tennessee. With the mighty Verdine White on bass, it was a full-tilt celebration of Bruce Springsteen’s manifest: it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

            Dragging across the ground spent in the way only great sex or a marathon can, I know that DeadMau5 is playing. Intellectually, I want... Physically, I can’t... Spiritually, I know there is no need. Nothing will feel better, or last longer, and so I fade into the night, “After the Thrill Is Gone” gently buzzing in my soul.


Going In (Bonnaroo, Installment 2)

Going In

            It’s later than I’d’ve wanted. Black out curtains really do the job. But I shower, throw clothes in a bag, get my backpack zipped with socks and sunblock, my trusty MacBook and head out to the car buzzing with the promise of the day. I’ve got some fruit for a bus where I’m day camping and a long sleeved camo t-shirt that declares “Trouble Finds Me.”

            Hard to believe to two turns, one beyond a Starbucks, and time melts. Single lane black-top, speckled mostly gray from the weather, a junk car lot with cars so old it borders on antique. Then the fields turn to inky green pines, branch limp in the heat and a KOA campground from a 50s wanderlust Airstream pamphlet.

            The humidity just hangs here. Even it’s too heavy, too listless to think of moving. The dust is more a notion that the swirling dervish it can be.

            A little further still, there’s the check point. Two men in Bermuda shorts, highway orange vests, wave – and you wave back without thinking. The country makes you friendly like that, reflexive in a way that’s good.

            A little further again, they check your skews, scan your wrist band, make sure your parking pass isn’t a fake. They smile, too; tell you to “Enjoy your day.”

            The day hasn’t really started. The sun is up, the mercury’s closing in on 90. But it’s still hours before the real action begins. People walk, slowly. Scattered dots along a brown expanse thatched with dusty green canvas. They’re moving slow, too. There’s no rush.

            A late teen waves me into a line of cars parked at an angle in the field. Smiles. I shut off the engine, put my head back. A quarter of a mile away, trucks whizzzzz by on I-24 racing time to delivering another load. Here it’s still – with a promise of music.

            I get out. Grab my backpack, my Bitter Southerner tote of clothes and fruit, balance some cherries and blueberries in a plastic container and lock the door. I almost feel guilty hitting the button that makes the locks click, the ting. This is bucolia... but there’s a parking pass inside, like kidneys on the organ market.


            A few drops fall from a too blue sky. Surely not rain, not with me in my hardcore New Balance. But it just plinks droplets down. The sun never recedes, the clouds don’t gather. Just drop... drop... drop...

            “A rainbow? No way. Too cliché.” I walk on, never looking. Some things are too hackneyed for the momentum. This is the escape from real life, but I want it to stay real. To stay something you can believe on, something without unicorns or evil queens.


            Real life happens in the bus lot. No guard or proctor. Just sun and rows of Prevosts, lined up like soldiers at presentation. The only sign of life outside Rita Houston’s bus, the joy of full engagement, card tables set with food and mixers, Bloody Mary mix. Coolers filled with ice sit open. People laugh and talk about the night before.

            Rita has summer hair, shorn close, it’s a gilded halo of golden doodle down. The WFUV maven, considered by many the most powerful woman in alternative and Americana music, bursts into a bigger smile, offers a hug, laughs like the earth opening and throwing flowers to the ground. She is warm and bright and happy.

            “Do you know which bus is Lee Ann Womack’s?”

            She laughs, says no. We talk about the bands we want to see, she laments missing Dawes because she’ll be on the air. She is that way: loves the music from the inside out, but loves bringing the people who listen inside the moment wherever they may be. She gives them the feel, the flavor, talks about and with the people making the music that makes the day.

            Looking at my hands, she suggests I can put my fruit on ice, when the singer – or her family shows up – they can come retrieve it. “You’ve got things to do,” she teases me, and reaches for the container in my hand.

            Relieved I dig for the plums and apples in my bag, making small talk as I do. Thankfully my voice carries.

            “When Lee Ann Womack gets here,” sparkles a little voice. Turning, I see Lee Ann Womack in running shorts, a little tank top, looking quizzically at the party. Introductions made, new friendship seeds thrown, Bonnaroo has no truly begun.

For the Love of Richard Corliss: "Everything's Worth Seeing"

Richard Corliss spent 35 year's as TIME's movie critic. In films, he saw life, love, hope. In his friendship with me, there was country music, good books & a whole lot of charming conversations. Losing him broke my heart -- and made me remember the grace of truly amazing unlikely friendships.
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Viva Las Vegas

It's 4:30 in the morning, and I'm in a hotel room 37 floors above the ground. Thirty-seven floors into the sky, with the promise and the jagged crash laid out before me like the busted dreams of everyone whose ship missed the shore and ended up in shards on the rocks. But from up here, it just looks like a rolling carpet of rhinestones against midnight blue velvet --churning and undulating away from me, away from my fingers and into an ever after that is suspended between how it is and how it might be. Las Vegas. The Radio Music Awards. Lee Ann Womack -- of the 11 weeks at #1 on the Adult Contemporary and 6 weeks on top of the Country Radio charts, of the Grammy, Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Awards for Song and Single of the Year for "I Hope You Dance" -- to be dressed pretty and sent out to present an award for Top 40 Act of the Year. Lee Ann Womack who proffers potential and the capacity to make it everything one can wish for, who believes in the quality of the music and the power of song. And so I am here, and I am awake, and I am thinking about all that I saw as I swam upstream in a river of whatever you want. Viva Las Vegas and a black velvet Elvis and billboards that make the kinda now and the once were larger than life once again, in a state of suspended superstardom that's never real, but yet indisputable. Great restaurants serving food beyond many of the consumers' palates. High end retailers taking the money of those who don't understand the value of the price, merely the sizzle of the name. And the mid-to-low-end sellers who give people a little more than they could normally buy into, but they get a reprieve from their grooved-in price point from a good couple hands of black jack or one lucky pull on a slot machine. This is the short-term, nominal pay-off on the no impact American Dream -- the I-want-and-it-should-be-mine, which has most likely supplanted the work-hard-for-what-you-want mandate that once drove this nation. Now we're a land of lotteries and scams and quick fixes. It's about Aqua Net and SUVs, Versace fantasies and the promise of notoriety. When N Sync named their latest recording Celebrity, it had the opportunity to be a commentary on fame from the tongues of five Fabians currently being consumed and defined by it. Talented young men? Perhaps. But that's not where they derived their voltage and their value. For we've become a nation where fame has surpassed art, celebrity is the new medium of defining expression -- and we're not sure what to make of insight into the human experience or emotional content. Now it's sizzle and rage and shock. We're about being hot or how it looks. And for every Bob Dylan or Rodney Crowell or Lucinda Williams, or even Lee Ann Womack and Patty Loveless -- two women with their hearts in their throats, the true center must be massaged with some sense of flash, some promise of momentum. <p>It's odd what we've come to value. If Madonna celebrated sexual liberation for us girls and the genius of changing the personna, what does Britney Spears represent? Lolita with a low IQ and the willingness to strip and flip and dance for us? Is she all promise AND an empty, non-threatening delivery? If Madonna reputedly cruised the seedy neighborhoods looking for Latino boys to rough ride the ridge with, would Britney -- America's turbo-virgin --ever do that? If one was a wildcat -- capable of more sexual bravado and libido and teeth gnashing arrival, is the other more of a tame housecat capable of all the machinations but none of the thrilling terror of beyond this one explosive moment? No danger, just a beautiful stranger in a nude bejeweled body suit who will come and writhe and cum and leave without a whimper. There is no fall-out from Britney Spears, just as there's no pushing the flesh or the envelope. This is a two-dimensional automaton of sexual iconography that won't scare, won't impose, won't intimidate. She will be a "Tiny Dancer," a pocket princess to take out and put away on one's whim who's happy enough to be there -- and that is exactly what we've become: a nation of "do ME, baby, then fade to nothing, not even black." <p>It makes me think of Buck Owens and Gram Parson and Emmylou Harris -- hillbilly idols who understood that emptiness isn't nondairy whipped topping that froths and giggles and tricks you into thinking it's lots of fun. For them, emptiness is the echo of regret, the knowledge of what shouldn't have happened, the ghosts of every bad decision and sideways reality that chase you through the lost hours, the buzzing glow of motel lights and the barely humming white noise that is the fringe where the disenfranchised move like the waking dead in the lost hours. "Sin City" is the anti-"Viva Las Vegas." With it's keening melody and plangent harmonies, it turpentines the illusion, leaving a rough streaky truth that is anything but flashy veneer. It is splinters and age and a brittle wood that threatens to bust apart if roughly handled. It is neon that's blinding and neon that's zzzz-zzz'ing out. It's show girls in their sequins and feathered head dresses turning into baggy eyed, aching feet women who just look tired and need to figure out how to fill the gap between child support and what they need now that the BIG STAR ship hasn't come in. Here everything can be had for a price here. Thick steaks. Prettier women than you'll ever find back home, who want to run their fingers through your hair and call you "Big Daddy" and make you feel like John Holmes on holiday. Gold watches. Diamond rings. Italian suits and custom leather. Fine shoes. Every kind of fur. Suites that're larger than most houses. Whatever one desires, it can be created. It can -- as long as the winnings hold out -- be tangible and real. Except, of course, love and happiness -- which come from within and can't be brokered at a baccarat table or through the rounds of a keno girl. Which make them so precious, they flicker beyond the pale, spectres that may not be real -- so why put one's faith there? <p>After all, for a moment or string of moments, Vegas' promise and occasional delivery is more than plenty. More than you'll get back home. And they keep coming back on the promise of what might be. But this town ain't built on winners…and the dreams are even less than the dimestore baubles another generation embraced, long before "Dynasty" and "Dallas" showed us how the other half lived and upped the aspirations of the M-Generation, a generation where material replaces spiritual and what we have substitutes for what we need. Unless you're one of the lucky ones, the ones who surf the moment and blink as the human tide rushes past. Last night, it was a merging of three pretty dominant divergent worlds, creating a surreality that would've made Fellini proud. For not only is Las Vegas a place where a faded someone like Wayne Newton is a big draw and a powerful presence, an electrifying constellation holding down the mainroom and the incoming horde, but it's a place where the bulked-up steroid-thickened Mister and Miss Universe candidates bench their competitive edge as the Pro Bull Riders reach for their 8 seconds of glory and the rockers and the poppers and the gold-roped hip-hoppers wait for word of just who the Radio Music Awards deems the best of the year. They're all out there, these icons in their respective worlds and aspirants stretching for their own grasp of the brass ring, mingling and drinking and playing a little five card stud -- taking in the pleasures and promises. These people have other mandates, but why miss the glory of Vegas? Why lose sight of what makes this town a destination? And they're here with their bravado and their entourages -- relatively pumped up companions, girls in roper boots with heart-shaped asses and little kids in matching cowboy hats or stringy handlers dripping black, squawking into cell phones about limo calls and missing shoes. <p>Does a bull rider have a crew? Does a weight lifter need an posse? And what about Bob and Myrna from Kansas City in their flannel shirt and her over-processed bubble perm? Maybe they're just having a little fun. Not seeking the big cash-out. Catch a show -- "THAT Clint Black. Now THERE'S a star!" -- eat some shrimp, toss back a couple watered down drinks comped from your run at the $5 table. Tell a few tall tales and to the folks back home, you're a high roller. Because compared to the fuzzy gray of back home, this is technicolor. Oz, or at least ahhhhs, to the flatness of Kansas. Oooooh, Las Vegas. It's written in flashing lights, outlined in maribou and set against jet black velvet for maximum pop. Back home, pop is something sitting in your refrigerator waiting to be sucked down -- and if you don't look too close, Vegas isn't a pop, but more a BANG! waiting to suck you in and perhaps suck you dry, strangling you with your own dream of being a big guy for a moment. But, oh, until it does. . . <p>Buck Owens understood that when he wrote the bittersweet "Big In Vegas," a song about hope derailed and hope redefined and accepting what was left on the table. It may be his saddest melody, but it was also one of his truest moments. For while Buck was the happy guy in the Hee Haw overalls, mocking his pain with the superstar pay-out of "Act Naturally," he also defined the California country insurgence with Merle Haggard and Buck's personal Sancho Panza guitarist Don Rich. Vegas for so many is the end of the line … the last, perhaps only, place to feel more than alive. As the movie of Mikal Gilmore's book Shot Through The Heart, about the final days with Gary Gilmore, the brother he barely knew who became the first American to be executed under the reinstatement of capital punishment in the U. S., playing on the t. v. and still no threat of dawn, I think and I type -- just like so many nights. <p>Somewhere in this same hotel, Lee Ann Womack sleeps. Last Sunday, she sang "I Hope You Dance" and "The Preacher (Won't Have To Lie)" for Nashville's concert to raise the spirits of a country demoralized by Sept. 11 and some money to aid the clean-up. They were simple, true wishes -- and they spoke volumes about the little things that truly define us. Or do they? As someone who's always believed in music's power to inspire and elevate, who was heartened by the crossover success of a song about "still feeling small when you stand beside the ocean" and who wants to think when people are ready, they will hear, I'd like to believe there's still room and validity for this other kind of truer truth at our cheaper, faster, harder, now NOW table. <p>Walking through the corridors of Bellagio's shopping concourse and Caesar's Palace's Forum shops, I'm not so sure. Though surely we've not come to believe that a painted sky that never dims is truer than the stars and the sun and the moon. As long as we can walk outside and look up, we can know the difference -- and maybe that's what we need to cling to so we don't get -- as the prophet Springsteen once wrote -- "lost in the flood." I don't know, but as there's still no threat of dawn -- here where we sleep off the losses both fiscal and emotional -- I may as well step outside and look at what's left of the night. Maybe I'll catch a falling star... -- Holly Gleason
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