Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bonnaroo Day 4 (6/17/07)

I was disappointed to be half an hour late for Mavis Staples, but the half I did see was one of the most energetic shows I saw, and this from a senior citizen. The crowd, though few in numbers, made up for it by being more into the show than any other set I saw the whole weekend. And for good reason. She's not a classic gospel belter, but instead has a loud low rumble that occasionally rasps more than you might expect, but just adds to the passion. Backed by a tight three-piece band, she also had just as many back-up singers, including here sister Yvonne. Lots of great songs, but a highlight was her first encore song, a cover of Will the Circle Be Unbroken that redefined the classic.

The next few hours were slow, so we headed over to the Blue Room Ca
fe behind the What Stage to wait for Ratdog. While we sat in the shade, we enjoyed a little group called Christabel and the Jons. They were pretty strictly bluegrass, but with a slightly poppier element that would sometimes come through. After about half an hour they left and Bob Weir & Ratdog came on the main stage as we watched from the rear on the big screen. My first impression was how small the crowd was for a main stage show. I thought this was one of the leading jam bands - it's fronted by a member of the Grateful Dead for goodness sakes - but apparently they're not as popular as I thought. I didn't really have a second impression as I quickly fell asleep, but when I woke I realized I hadn't missed much. I simply don't do jam bands.

So I just left to get a good spot for an obscure act I was really excited about, Junior Brown. I saw him open for Dylan twice last summer and his brand of humorous country twang is awesome. He plays a custom-made two-necked instrument called the guit-steel, have electric guitar and half pedal steel, switching back and forth often mid-song at lightning speeds. He is good at both, but I'd forgotten how truly excellent a guitar player he is. Having a longer set than he did opening for Dylan, maybe he took more solos. At any rate, the small crowd there was quickly blown away by him and his two-man rhythm section (all in thin-tied suits). His deep bass voice makes every song sound cooler, and is augmented nicely by his solos where he just hits the low E string and tunes it down--it almost becomes a race who can go lower, his voice of the guitar. He opened with my favorite, Broke Down South of Dallas, went into Party Lights, and played others like Long Walk Back to San Antone and My Wife Thinks You're Dead before I left, well after I had planned too.

Eventually though I hurried over to another exciting group, The Decemberists. Stephen Colbert called them "hyper literate prog rock," and with their songs about mariners, barrow boys, and The Tain, that's about right.
The first thing I'll say about the set is my main lasting impression: how disappointed I was with the setlist. Other than the first song (which I missed), they did not do anything from their next-to-latest album Picaresque. Instead, most of their set came from their most recent album (and, in my opinion, worst) The Crane Wife. They also did all of The Tain, which was impressive--it's over twenty minutes long--but that's the only album I don't have, so eh. As far as shows go though, they put on a good one. Most of the five seemed to be multi-instrumentalists, involving thing like steel guitar and lute where needed, as well as some weird mini-keyboard you blow into to sound as you play. One thing I'll say for them: the definitely win for Best Banter and Crowd Interaction of the weekend. Frontman Collin Melloy had the whole crowd pushing the sun below the horizon (unsuccessfully) and doing some weird shakey-hands dance moves during The Perfect Crime 2. Near the end of the set, Collin announced a special guest and who should walk on the stage but Mavis Staples herself! I could have predicted her to guest in a lot of Bonnaroo sets, but not this one. The proceeded to nail The Band's The Weight. Mavis was, not surprisingly, awesome and Collin's vocals looked pretty pathetic next to hers. An unexpected highlight of the weekend for sure.

The weekend was winding down but first, two of my favorite bands, Wilco and the Stripes. I wasn't sure what to expect with Wilco. I loved their live '05 album, but was really disappointed with their new release Sky Blue Sky. I shouldn't have worried. They were in peak form, subdued and subtle aided by new guitarist Nels Cline who was as important as singer Jeff Tweedy in the overall sound. The quiet songs would turn into mind-melts and then suddenly go back again. Perhaps the greatest shock was how happy Tweedy seemed. Awkward and uncomfortable--he made accurate jokes about how he never went to frontman school--but happy. He even said, "I usually don't enjoy these things, but I'm having fun." And they went all out, dramatically changing old songs like War on War and Shot in the Arm which I didn't even recognize for a while. They played all my favorites, and even the new songs were given an extra kick live so they weren't quite so boring. Then again, they only played my few not-hated tracks off the new album, so that helps.

Near the end, though, I was getting antsy, so I scurried over to get a good spot for my most-looked-forward-to band of the weekend: The White Stripes. Even an hour early, it was packed, and I couldn't get very near the stage. No worries. They came out and immediately kicked it into high gear with Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground before going into a personal favorite (a long category) When I Hear My Name. I was really excited to hear Jolene later on, and enjoyed Blue Orchid as I always do. Meg even got to sing a little (and play some organ
!) on In the Cold Cold Night. As I didn't download the new album before its release date, this was my first time hearing the new songs live. I'm Slowly Turning Into You was ok, but A Martyr For My Love For You was breathtaking, aided by solid red lighting. It was prefaced by something even more special: Jack White announcing that a man in the audience was about to propose and getting us to cheer him on. Hope she said yes.
They left after only 45 minutes, but soon came back for another full set. The whole thing was much more bare-bones than when I saw them in '05. No more xylophone, mandolin
, marimbas, fancy costumes and stage, etc. Too bad, I king of liked Jack's Zorro look, and the other instruments added nice variety. I was also exhausted by this point, so frankly may not have enjoyed the set as much as I otherwise would have (though I was stoked to hear I Think I Smell a Rat for the first time).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bonnaroo Day 3 (6/16/07)

With nothing planned for the first few hours of the music, I wandered into This Tent to check out Dr. Dog, a band the Cold War Kids lead singer had recommended. I'm glad I listened to him. Their sound was very Beatles-esq, like side two of Abbey Road. Their sound would occasionally get experimental without ever getting too far from the main melody. Didn't know one song they did, but I'll have to change that. An unexpected highlight.

The exact opposite was the case with Regina Spektor, an artist I was quite excited for and made some effo
rt to get close to the stage for. She did her first few songs solo on piano or (shudder) on guitar. When an artist jokes about not being good at an instrument, they usually aren't serious. Otherwise, why would they be playing it? Ask Regina about the guitar - she was truly terrible. More to the point though, she was high as a kite, spending half her set giggling inanely and the other half forgetting the words to her songs. After four or five songs the band showed up and things improved slightly. The first song they did was On the Radio, my favorite, but it was pretty half-assed. A few songs later, after she played Fidelity, I couldn't take it anymore and left.

Wandering back into This Tent to get a good spot for Fountains of Wayne, I stopped short at the site on stage. Gogol Bordello was going wild on stage, dressed in elaborate costumes and running and leaping around. One girl played only cymbals, one only a bass drum, and they were augmented by accordion and violin in their brand of "gypsy punk". My biggest regret of the weekend was not seeing more of their set. The wild Salvador Dali meets Frank Zappa frontman contorted around the stage, finally taking the girl's drum, putting it on top of the crowd, and leaping on and singing from there as the crowd held his makeshift platform aloft. A performance I couldn't even believe, and I only saw five minutes of it.

Fountains of Wayne got a lot of crap from the Bonnaroo crowd for not being "sophisticated" enough. If they'd never had that Stacey's Mom hit, they would have had a much easier time. Sure, they're a pop band, but they're absurdly catchy and a fun act live. Although my first impression when they came out was quite different: they're old! After I got over that fact, I had a good time. I was right near the front and, though everyone else seemed to be waiting for Ween who was up next, I sang along to every word and had a blast doing it. They didn't change their songs up much, with an occasional longer solo, but they're s
uch perfect pop gems it didn't matter. Many songs they played I'd forgotten even existed, but I liked them all. I did not stay for the whole set due to the biggest conflict of the weekend (with the Hold Steady and Damien Rice), but I loved hearing Denise, Hey Julie, and the song I'd really hoped they'd play: Mexican Wine. A good time.

I practically sprinted across the grounds to catch the second half of The Hold Steady and the tent was packed. For good reason too; that lead singer is something. He would go to the front of the stage multiple times during a song yelling stuff to the people within hearing distance or periodically throwing his arms back and grinning, as if bathing in the adulation. A very charismatic frontman, but I was a little disappointed that I did not recognize any of the songs. Being moderately familiar with their most recent CD that was a surprise and if they played my two favorites, Chips Ahoy and Chillout Tent it must have been earlier in the set.

After stopping by to catch a bit of Keller Williams, his set didn't start for the fifteen minutes I was there so I scurried over to grab a good spot for Franz Ferdinand. They seem much less likely to be a Bonanroo band than Fountains, but I was psyched. Turns out I was right, as their show is simply not made for festivals. Introduced as the "greatest dance band in the world," it would need to be tight and coordinated with lights and visuals. Instead it was plagued with technical difficulties. The keyboard, key (no pun intended) to many of their songs was nonfunctional most of the show and they seemed a little frustrated. It was still a blast, I just got the sense it could have been even more in a different settings. Nevertheless, it was full of catchy songs that every audience member knew, coupled with an absurd amount of foot stomping by the guitarists, one of whom was in a three-piece bright red suit. I got most of the songs I was hoping for, including opener Jacqueline, Michael, This Fire, and 40', but the highlight was the drummer being joined by the guitarist and a couple stagehands for a drumming frenzy on his kit during one of the songs (This Fire maybe?). It was so tight and coordinated, and they could barely even fit on the drum riser. An extra bonus was glimpsing Regina and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips grooving backstage.

I was amazed at the great spot I got for The Police. Nowhere near the stage by objective standards, but way closer than most people. Not only was this the headliner I was most excited for, this was the only headliner I was excited for. And boy did they deliver. Drummer Stewart Copeland had said beforehand that he was going to try to get the other two to do something a little different for Bonnaroo, and he succeeded a little with a bit of jamming.
They opened with Message in a Bottle, which was good, but not spectacular. After that though they were warmed up and went into an awesome Synchronicity II, which I hadn't even thought of to think if they'd play live. From there on out, every little thing they did was magic. Copeland is a beast on drums, pounding em in an appropriately 80's way, while occasionally switching to bells, xylophone, or gong and guitarist Andy Summers, though he looks his age, proved far better than I'd expected. And Sting, of course, was Sting. They nailed how to do a reunion tour, reinterpreting some songs, extending all of them, but never taking them far enough from the roots so that the crowd couldn't sing along. Every Little Thing got a calypso intro, Truth Hits Everybody was slowed down, and Can't Stand Losing You refused to end. They kicked off their encore with King of Pain, another favorite that I had forgotten even existed (having been introduced to it by Weird Al's parody King of Suede) and went into my favorite Police song that I wasn't sure if they would play, So Lonely. It wasn't as epic as the Live! (disc 1) version, but it was close. By the time it was over my voice was gone and as they left their stage I thought they'd probably come back as they hadn't played Every Breath You Take, but sort of hoped they wouldn't. Not playing it would be a ballsy move, plus everyone's heard it too many times. But when they did came back to play it, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time as I was reminded what a great and beautiful (though creepy) song it was. They closed it all off with another great choice, their super-early Next To You, and I headed out happy.

As we walked over to grab a spot for The Flaming Lips, we realized they'd al
ready begun, an hour early. Turns out it was just a soundcheck of Black Sabbath's War Pigs, and they didn't come back until midnight. There are few ways to describe a Flaming Lips show. By far the best performance band of the weekend, perhaps in existence. Every audience
member got a laser pointer to use at will, a couple dozen of the biggest balloons I'd ever seen were bouncing over the crowd, there were confetti shooters covering the crowd, streamers being fired off, random people in weird costumes dancing on each side of the stage. The entrance, of course, is stuff of legend. An enormous UFO descends from the ceiling and they all exit, lead singer Wayne in a giant plastic ball that he rolls ov
er the audience in, the bassist dressed as a skeleton. And then there was some music too, which was good, but I think this one we'll just describe with pictures:
































After all that we stopped off at Gov't Mule. Now THAT is what a jam band should sound like, not too bland like String Cheese, not too one-man-soloing like the Superjam. The solos were each incredible, having a purpose beyond random noodling. I wish I could have stayed to see more, but I was cold and exhausted by that point, so after fifteen minutes we left.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bonnaroo Day 2 (6/15/07)

The sun wakes you up every morning by eight, so it's a little ridiculous that the first shows don't start until one, but Cold War Kids were worth the wait. They build a very unusual sounds with dissonance, unexpected rhythms and unlikely tunes without ever straying too far from a standard rock format, making the interesting while still accessible. Live they looked like they just rolled out of their mom's Kentucky basement, adding instruments like glass bottles to their arsenal. The leader switched back and forth from guitar to keys to simply vocals while the drummer kept things interesting by never quite hitting the beat you'd expect. As I mentally took notes I thought they sounded like a slightly more mainstream version of Tom Waits, and apparently I was dead on as they proceeded to play a Waits cover, Dirt in the Ground, segueing into Hospital Beds. They later also covered A Change Is Gonna Come, rocking it out without losing its soul roots, before the audience went nuts for their sort-of-hit Hand Me Up to Dry. A highlight of the day.

As I was wandering over to see the Br
azilian Girls, I got sidetracked by the sonic stage when I heard Uncle Earl. There are no uncle no, given that it's five girls, are any of them named Earl. I had heard of them because John Paul Jones (more on him later) produced their album, but they stood on their own with a very nice Dixie Chicks sound accompanied by mandolin, ukulele, banjo, guitar, and violin. Just when I thought I had them figured out though, they mixed it up by doing an acappella number where they did a more rhythmic version of patti-cake to provide the backing. Then, to close it off, the did a cover in honor of a Bonnaroo headliner: the Police's Canary in a Cave. I haven't heard the original, but I can't imagine it sounds like that bluegrass stomp. A fun surprise.

I was especially glad I'd stopped there when I saw Brazilian Girls. I didn't have any expectation for them, which was good as they certainly would not have been met. It seemed to be just loud, nondescript beats being thrown out as a girl wearing a huge circle behind her and a guy with "Don't Stop" decoratively
painted on his chest wandered around on stage. I left pretty quick.

Having nothing better to do, I wandered over the the main stage (the What Stage - there was also the Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent, The Other Tent, Another Tent...you get the idea) to get a good spot for Kings of Leon. I'd seen them opening for Dylan last fall and thought they were good, but not worth the hype. I came away with my opinion unchanged. Their Southern rock is sometimes catchy, sometimes clever, but many of the songs sound too similar.
They're good at the whole Lynyrd Skynyrd Re
dux thing, but that seems to be about it. I was pleased to hear more songs than I'd expected from their previous release, the only one I have, but they were very similar to the album, with occasionally an extended solo here or there. I left after half an hour for...

The Nightwatchman. A solo protest album from Rage Against the Machine's guitarist Tom Morello sounds unpromising. When he doesn't even use his real name, but called himself the Nightwatchman, it's even worse. Somehow, though, Morello managed to have a very impressive album and concert despite that. He occasionally comes off as a little too earnest, and his habit of referring the himself in the third person gets old fast ("The Nightwatchman wrote this song...", "The Nightwatchman welcomes you", etc), but the crowd, fists in the air, was more than ready to follow him wherever he felt like leading in his many calls to arms. His rich, percussive playing and deep bass voice gave authority to the songs of anger and pain. I thought it might be downhill after he opened with my favorite track, One Man Revolution, but he kept the energy high all the way through ending with a furious version of This Land Is Your Land, complete with the verses you never heard in elementary school. Stops along the way at Rage's Guerilla Radio and The Road I Must Travel kept the crowd jumping, and he even played his new song from Michael Moore's Sicko, Alone Without You, twice in order to film a video for it. That sort of unbridled enthusiasm for the Roo crowd was a trend throughout the weekend, Morello even going far enough to publicly declare that "if Bonnaroo wants the Nightwatchman back next year, he will serve! This crowd is awesome!"

As I'm not a huge reggae fan, I hadn't planned to check out Michael Franti & Spearhead, but when the Nightwatchman got out early, I wandered past and, hearing the only song I knew (Yell Fire), stopped in for a few minutes. The three songs I saw incorporated a lot besides reggae, rock not least, and were surpri
singly enjoyable. Plus he has the added benefit of being funny to watch as a 6'6" guy with dreads almost as long and muscles everywhere jumping around as his band cowers beneath him.

I'd heard great things about The Black Keys live,
so I got a good spot to check them out. Their two-piece blues-rock group is obviously reminiscent of the Stripes, but with a much more Dave Grohl-esq drummer. The guitarist was far more bluesey, though just as heavy on the distortion. The difference was, where the Stripes mix it up with a piano song here, a mandolin song there, every single loud, wild song the Keys did sounded pretty much the same, some raspy yelling followed by frantic soloing. After four songs I'd had enough.

I saw The Roots at Dartmouth in the fall (even was their personal driver for the day) and wasn't hugely impressed, so I hadn't even been planning on checking them out. With the free time I now had having left the Keys, I headed back to the What Stage. And boy am I glad I did, being able to see half of what gets my vote as set of the weekend. I don't know if they were way off at Dartmouth or way on here, but I was absolutely blown away every minute of the show. For one, they had a full horn section rocking along with them that gave the whole show an element of tuneful funk. One song in from when I arrived, I was floored with the greatest song I saw the whole weekend, a cover of Dylan's Masters of War. The Roots are about the last group you'd expect to do a Dylan cover, so when they did they really mixed it up. Consisting for guitar, drums, and sousaphone, the first verse was sung to the tune of the national anthem. From there it got an army snare roll and some great stop/start breaks--not to mention guitar and drum solos that had vocalist Kirk sprinting through the crowd with the sousaphone in tow--that took it past the fifteen minute mark. From then on the show stayed hoppin, the rest of the band coming back out, bouncing around in sync, playing each off each other whether it was Black Thought rapping, Kirk singing, of ?uestlove doing something in between. They really had the fun, improvisational festival feel down. They busted out another cover, of the Police's Roxanne with some girl on bass. Most of the band wasn't playing for this one, so they spent their time jumping around, hyping up the crowd, and clearly loving it. The normal bassist Hub, with nothing better to do, started bashing away on ?uestlove's second drum kit. From there they went into my favorite song, The Seed 2.0 which transitioned into ten minutes of funky repeat-after-me greatness. Periodically the band would stop dead still in an action-shot freeze frame as BT wandered around getting the crowd riled up which made for a very cool effect before they came crashing back in. Like I said, set of the weekend.

Nothing else before the first headliner of the weekend, Tool. That meant there w
as nothing else happening when they played, which was a shame. No amount of fancy lights and lasers could make up for the terribleness of their "music". A truly terrible choice for a headliner.

We left after ten minutes, which meant we could snag some good spots for a set I was pretty excited about, the Superjam. There is one every Bonnaroo, with different musicians coming together in a band of covers, jamming, and general awesomeness. Except this one was greatly lacking in the latter. The line-up should have been enough, with ?uestlove on drums, Ben Harper on guitar and vocals and surprise guest Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on bass, but it wasn't. First off, Harper and Jones were sitting down, so except from the first row they couldn't be seen. And other than Harper, neither of the other instruments was doing anything too interesting. Plus I don't like Zeppelin, which is all the songs they played, so there you go. We left pretty quick.

Decided to check out our first classic jam band of the weekend, String Cheese Incident. This was a big show as their lst Bonnaroo (they're breaking up soon), so it got a lot of hype. It was nice music, very textured, but there was not enough to keep attention, nothing really to focus on. It would be great background music, but I quickly got bored during the concert. And with lyrics like "My brain is just a jellyfish in the ocean of my head"...yeah.

Back to Superjam. I was glad to see Kirk (from the Roots) in there playing and singing, definitely adding a lot to the mix, but it was still nearly impossible to see.

Then to a set I was excited about, DJ Mike Relm in the arcade/disco tent. I knew he was going to be at Bonnaroo, but he was nowhere in the program, so I only found out a few hours earlier when I saw a flier. I had seen him at Dartmouth a few times and he is great, remixing not just music, but DVD's on a custom-made turntable. A lot of people had come to the set to dance/rave, but it was more for sitting back and watching as he spun discs including the Peanuts theme song and the classic O-Face bit from Office Space (a huge hit with the crowd). The Sound of Silence and My Doorbell also got the Relm remix treatment. Low-key, inside, and fun to watch.

With nothing better to see, I headed back to String Cheese to cap off the night. They were singing, which helped the focus a lot, and the instrumental parts were a tad more lively as well. Still a little too laid-back to focus on at 3am though.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bonnaroo Day 1 (6/14/07)

After a 16-hour drive from Connecticut, schlepping all out stuff twenty minutes from our car, and setting up camp in the heat, 7:30 rolled around and the music began. First up, The Little Ones. I had downloaded the only thing the band had released, a six-song EP, and enjoyed their breezy pop to a certain degree. However, the production left them lacking substance, resulting in the sort of songs you enjoy and then immediately forget when they're over. Not so live, where a little volume and a lot of thumping drums gave it the oomph it was missing. They're not profound - all their songs feature a "la la la" or "oh oh oh-oh-oh" singalong, with one track actually called Cha Cha Cha - but their enthusiasm made them enjoyable. After yelling "Happy Bonnaroo!" before the first song, the singer was so awed by the response he got that he yelled it before every other song too. They grinned the whole time as they went through every song on their EP and, though the crowd only seemed to know the last song, Lovers Who Uncover, they quickly got into it. A five-piece band might seem excessive for such simple bounce-rock, but when one wasn't playing he was busy adding percussion, dancing around, or just getting the audience to clap along. A lot of clapping along.

Next up, after wandering by some tent where we heard old people cover the Beastie Boys, we headed over to check out the Black Angels. We lasted about five minutes before I had a migraine. It was like prog rock lite, with a one note drone that never seemed to change from song to song. The thump of the bass drum was incessant and if anyone was singing, it was drowned out in the wall of unchanging noise. Horrendous.

So we headed over to The Other Tent to see the only other group playing then, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. Though we were so far back we could barely see anything, it was a good set, very different than norm
al Bonnaroo music. In addition to the guitar/bass/drums set, you had a violin, an accordon, and a clarinet jamming out. Though there was a little too much soloing for my taste, the focused parts were very catchy, and I thought I even recognized a few tunes from my bar mitzvah days. At the end of the set they even got the whole audience breaking up into concentric circles and doing one of the classic dances.

Mute Math was a band I'd heard of month's ago when I downloaded Plan B as the free iTunes single of the week. A good song, but I hadn't thought of them again until I heard they were gonna be at Bonnaroo. Their CD was a little less fun and catchy than I'd expected, but they had no real competition live, so I headed over. Their songs sounded basically like they did on the album, but the stage setup made up for a lot. Three banks of vertical lights that would flash in different patterns as they all danced an thrashed around. And a lead singer playing a keytar is pretty cool (offset for one song by the naked guy who ran onstage). Typical opened the show and, after a new song I really liked, they hit into their single Chaos. Plan B came next, and at that point I'd seen all the songs I wanted to, so exhaustion and the fact that I could barely see took priority and we headed back to the tent. I hadn't realized how low-key Thursday was, but it just meant I needed to use it to rest for the next three days.