Friday, June 27, 2008

The Hold Steady in Boston 6/26/08

The best concert is also an event. Whether it’s Tom Waits’ opening show on his first tour in forever (read here), or the one-off reunion concert of a band like Led Zeppelin, knowing you are sharing a unique experience with a group that values it just as much as you do adds something you can’t get on a random stop of a fifty-city tour. So even though this was just one stop for the Hold Steady, they billed it right, in a few ways.
1) It was the opening night of their long summer tour.
2) It was announced only a week bef
ore the show.
3) It was free
4) It was in a 650-person bar.

And what a bar. The Paradise Rock Club is as small a venue as you’re likely to find these days, with patrons leaning on the stage in front of a floor no bigger than a rich person’s living room. Since the room was arranged wide instead of long, one could have come halfway through the show an
d still been fifteen feet away from the stage. This meant many, if not most people there were getting a side view of the show, but with the ample bars around the sides, that seemed to be the preferred choice.

Right at nine local openers Aberdeen City scurried out with little fuss. The Boston area’s go-to opening act, the four met at Boston College (where Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn also went) in 2001 and have been working the local circuit since. An unusual-looking collection of individuals as you’re likely to find, you had the Hives-esq lead singer, Lynyrd Skynyrd-esq drummer, Sex Pistols-esq guitarist, and another guitarist who looked too Entourage-metrosexual to have anything to do with a rock band. Though talk before the show circulated about how sikc locals were of this group, they performed dark but lively capital-r Rock with guitars and choruses as big as U2. Though songs like “God Is Going to Get Sick of Me” come off as a little angsty, the quartet played like a group comfortable enough with each other to go through the songs like they were second-nature. A shame that this ease came to an end tonight, as it was guitarist Ryan Heller (the metro one)’s final show.

Quick and precise crew movement opened the stage up for the larger Hold Steady, and by time the lights dimmed to splash the brand-new infinity logo across the curtains, the crowd was worked into a frenzy. Appropriate enough for the “Constructive Summer Tour,” the band opened with the song of the same name. Though the Stay Positive album doesn’t technically come out until July, the band knew everyone in the place had been listening to the leak. So they focused mainly on the new songs, hitting every one during the night except “Both Crosses.” It proved a worthwhile risk, when the crowd’s singing was as enthusiastic for “Sequestered in Memphis” and “Stay Positive” as for older material like “Chips Ahoy!” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend.”

Such crowd participation, tangential to most concerts, give Hold Steady concerts the energy that has made them legendary in the indie world. Constant “woah-oh-oh” choruses are tailor-made for singing along, but the mass managed to keep up with the hyper-wordy verses just as well, so much so that Finn ignored the mic half the time and just shouted the lines about prescription drugs and bored suburbanites out with the crowd. As he tells us in the opening moments of the album (an
d concert), “Our psalms are sing-along songs.”

It’s a classic Finn trick, but only one of many that have led me to this conclusion: Craig Finn is the best frontman in rock today. That’s right, I said it. Better than veterans like Springsteen, better than upstarts like Jack White. His enthusiasm and unbridled energy onstage rival what you always hear about The Boss’ shows in the 70’s, Finn running all over the stage dragging his mic stand with him, perching precariously on the edge amidst the crowd’s arms and faces. When he doesn’t have lines to sing, he shouts them off-mic anyway, adding big facial expressions and grand gestures to match. Moreover, he makes grinning cool again, having such a sweat and beer-soaked blast onstage that his bandmates spend half the show grinning at him themselves.

More than just foils for Finn’s exuberance, the band gives the music the energy to match the vocals. The bass-drum rhythm section pounds out the backbeat to support Tad Kubler’s lead guitar riffs (played at one point on a double-necked guitar completely unironicly) and poppy keyboard melodies by Franz Nicolay, looking like a double-breasted Mario. Though due too the word-heavy lyrics and unusual subjects, Finn may be right when he sings “The boys in the band, they know they’ll never be stars,” with such arena-friendly material and energy, they damn well should be.

Constructive Summer
Sequestered in Memphis
The Swish
The Cattle and the Creeping Thing
Yeah Sapphire
Massive Nights
Joke About Jamaica
Navy Sheets
Lord I'm Discouraged
Stuck Between Stations
Chips Ahoy
Don't Let Me Explode
Stevie Nix
Hot Fries
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Slapped Actress
One For the Cutters
Stay Positive
Southtown Girls

Unlimited Enthusiasm Expo in Cambridge, MA 6/25/08

If this blog has a theme, I like to think it would be “serious” artists. You know, ones with “talent.” So this entry may come a little out of left-field, a review of a high-energy show where none of the artists take themselves all that seriously and are as into having a good time as they are making music. Welcome to Camp Jump and Yell.

That’s right, this a camp-themed tour. All attendants had to wear name-tags. There was punch available, a photo booth, and little kids running around everywhere (though plenty of adults too, making this the most truly “all ages” show I’d ever seen). The tour’s other official name was the Unlimited Enthusiasm Expo and, as you will see, this pro
ved an apt titling.

I walked in to the riotous noise of Uncle Monsterface covering “Like a Prayer” and it was quite a scene. A lead singer dressed as Popeye, a guy wandering around with a monster helmet (this turned out to be the band’s namesake), a video screen showing videos for each song (like this one), a sock puppet stage, audience members dancing around with inflatable lobsters, and a dinosaur crowd-surfing around the room. Songs about the Dungeons and Dragons inventor (“The Gary Gygax Song”) and the aforementioned crustaceons (“Lobster Building”) had the crowd jumping around to the band like a hyperactive DEVO, while others necessitated a trombone here, and audience member playing Super Mario Bros. on the big screen there. Sure, they weren’t “good” by any standard music-critic definition of the word, but their A.D.D. pop proved too infectious for anyone not to be grinning.

After a transition interlude of Werewolf Remus teaching the crowd how to cook babies and an ad for Wizard Rock the Vote (yes, it exists, here’s the video), three-piece Math the Band came onstage in a choreographed dance to “Step By Step.” Once again, there wasn’t a whole lot of music actually being made – the vast majority of it was played off a laptop – so the group’s purpose onstage seemed mostly to dance. That they did plenty of as they led the audience through rave-bop sing-alongs of “Home on the Range” and some beautiful bastardization of the national anthem. Each song racing by at a frenetic clip, the synth beeps and drum bashes backed vocals about jumping jacks and werewolves as they leapt around stage, in and out of the audience, at one point even giving the crowd drum sticks and holding out the cymbal for them to play.

An unannounced next feature was a real puppet show, but the creator of the Youtube sensation Potter Puppet Pals. He did a mini-musical with all the favorites from the show, with spot-on voices and imitations. Here is a video of the same routine, worth watching over the audience noise.

Needless to say, that made a perfect segue into the main attraction: Harry and the Potters. Even if you have never heard of them, you can probably guess exactly what they’re like. Two guys (and a drummer) dressed up and acting like Harry Potter, singing songs with titles like “Save Ginny Weasley” and “Voldemort Can’t Stop the Rock.” Once again, if not necessarily musically talented, they’re unlimitedly enthusiastic. Though many of their songs didn’t break the 45-second mark, I was amazed to discover that they were more than just a live novelty act – the crowd knew every word to every song, shouting along about wizard chess and basilisks. Like the Sex Pistols via Hanson, the songs were absurdly danceable for a crowd crazy with enthusiasm, joining into a giant swaying hug circle for “The Weapon We Have Is Love” and dividing into a two-part choir for a number about Cho Chang.

Just as amusing was the between-song banter, never breaking character or finding a problem with the fact that there were two guys pretending to be Harry. Reminiscing about their many adventures, they even threw in a little pitch about how the way we all can fight evil is by registering to vote. The guitarist played a very realistic-looking broomstick guitar, while the keyboardist occasionally busted out a sax, showing more musical promise on that than seen in the rest of the show together. If these guys are a novelty, it’s in the most fun way possible and while you might not sit at home listening to their albums, I’d definitely catch their show if it comes your way.

For the show – I mean, camp – finale, all three bands crammed the tiny Middle East stage for the Unlimited Enthusiasm Theme Song. You can download it here and, though it’s not all that good, imagine what a blast it would be screamed out by a dozen people onstage and a hundred off. In that way, it’s very fitting.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Orchestra Baobob at Dartmouth College 6/24/08

Fresh off their run at the Bonnaroo farm, which I unfortunately missed, Orchestra Baobob were scheduled for a free outdoor show on the Dartmouth green Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, while the show stayed free, rain warnings moved it to the school’s stuffy seated auditorium. That couldn’t damped the energy of the nine Senegalese musicians onstage though, who if anything may have amped up the performance to compensate. Though different from Western music sensibilities, their polyrhythms and warbling lyrics seemed familiar enough that the audience found them easily accessible. Helped in part by a rock-band set of instruments (guitars, bass, percussion, sax), they turned into a sub-Saharan jam band, laying down basic grooves and soloing over them as one song smoothly transitioned into the next.

Despite the cramped space, the band turned it into the biggest dance party that auditorium has ever seen, inviting everyone to fill the aisles and rows, and even bringing kids they spotted onstage to dance along with the band. And, despite usher’s constant pleas for everyone to return to their seat, the audience obliged the band's requests, packing every free space available to groove along. The crowd's energy was nothing compared to the bands though, lead guitarist Barthélemy Koffi Atisso getting into head-to-head solo duels with sax man (and comedy relief) Issa Cissokho. They all switched instruments around, hung out side-stage dancing on songs where they weren’t needed and seemed so overjoyed to even be there it was hard not to get caught up in it. While the sounds may have been a little Starbucks-bland in its attempt to cross-over to Western audiences, the energy and dancing both onstage and off overcame for any lackluster material.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stevie Wonder in Boston 6/22/08

With Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Stevie Wonder all hitting the road in ’08, it has become quite the year for reclusive songwriters finally hitting the concert stage. An infrequent-at-best performer, Wonder has kept from the standard washed-up piano player casino circuit by making his “Wonder’s Summer Night” tour a bit of an event for the music world. Unfortunately, this news seemed to miss much of Boston, as empty seats and sections spotted the moderately-sized Comcast (formerly Tweeter) Center everywhere you looked.

The stage started off pretty empty itself when Wonder came on helped by his back-up singer (and daughter) Aisha Morris. Taking the mic, he began a long speech before playing a note, ri
ffing on everything from the championship Celtics to Obama in a style humorous, but not altogether memorable. The crowd began to grow impatient with the rambling, but just when it looked like we were in for An Evening Chat with Stevie Wonder, the 13-piece band came out and he got down to it.

From the first few notes, he proved to everyone there that though age had receded his trademark braids a bit, it hadn’t sapped his energy. He bounced around his piano stool, and even occasionally walked around and climbed up on it – certainly not something you’d expect him to be doing. A performer as much as a songwriter, he led the audience in singing and clapping along so much you just wanted him to ignore us for a minute and play some music. If the tour circuit dries up, the man’s got a future in a Vegas residency.

Vocally, however, he proved less impressive. Though on target with the sound, hitting the notes and scat-riffing around familiar phrases, the diction was so unclear any words you didn’t already know were incomprehensible. I don’t know whether this is a result of age, or a standard issue when he leaves the cozy confines of the recording studio, but on songs where the sing-alongs weren’t drowning him out, it proved frustrating.

If he was trying to compensate with the enormous band though, he overdid it. Though the songs are sonically complex, three percussionists adds little to the mix except more solo spots, and Wonder’s keyboard playing is good enough that having two additional pianists seems almost insulting. Indeed, on a long calypso instrumental where every band member had a solo spot (like I said, it was long), Wonder’s jaunts around the piano keys on numbers like “Isn’t She Lovely” so thoroughly upstaged everyone else you wish he’d try out a solo song or two.

Such experimentation would not have gone over well with the temperamental crowd, however, as prone to wildly dance and shout during songs they knew as to go for beer breaks or check email during songs they didn’t. These outdoor venues are a boor on the music lover for a reason and, though you can’t fault those being there for the party over the performer, it makes focusing on the stage difficult. Wonder knew how to work the group though, drawing cheers for his imitation of the Boston accent and attentiveness for his inspirational messages about overcoming hardship, his own history implied but never stated. Eventually een he grew frustrated with the constant cat-calls though; after the fifth or sixth “I love you Stevie!” he shouted back “I can’t talk if you’re talking too!” like an exasperated kindergarten teacher.

Adding to the crowd’s wandering attention was the show’s poor pacing. All the songs one might want to hear were there (with the notable exception of “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), but they were all clustered in the one-two-three blow of the finale. While that made for a very exciting twenty minutes of music, it meant the whole middle chunk was one bland slow song after another. They quickly began to sound the same, with good exceptions like new song “Keep Fooling Yourself, Baby Girl” (“Anyone recording the concert tonight, turn that off now. I don’t want this shit leaking for someone else to do.”) balanced by bad exceptions like a stomach-turningly overdone “I’m Gonna Laugh You Out Of My Life” by his daughter, who sounded like the singer the strip club puts on in the wee hours of the morning to get people to leave. On albums like Songs in the Key of Life Wonder has such a stockpile of fast upbeat material it’s a wonder (pun intended) he didn’t mix more into the wannabe jazz standards.

For those that made it through that – or came back from the beer lines in time – that finale proved worth the wait. One crowd-pleaser after another was performed with the energy Wonder had built up in the slow section, a tipsy crowd dancing through the aisles despite the ushers' pleas to return to seats as hits like “Sir Duke” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” were wrung out for all they were worth. Working the crowd on fun singalongs – except when a radio contest winner came out to duet with him on "Superstition" and didn’t know the words – Wonder proved that, with a little more vocal and setlist care and a few less instruments on stage, he had the potential to entertain crowds on tours far more frequent than he undertakes today.

As If You Read My Mind
Masterblaster (Jammin’)
Did I Hear You Say You Love Me
All I Do
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Higher Ground
Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing
Living for the City
Golden Lady
Keep Fooling Yourself, Baby Girl
Sweetest Somebody I Know
I’m Gonna Laugh You Out of My Life (Nat King Cole cover, daughter on vocals)
Isn’t She Lovely
Ribbon in the Sky
Have a Talk With God
My Cherie Amour
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Sir Duke
I Wish
Do I Do
Living for the City (reprise)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tom Waits in Phoenix 6/18/08

Night two of Tom’s only two-night run in the States opened just like night one, with Lucinda. It’s a song I was sure was just a one-off, at least as the opener, but if it becomes a regular I now see why. It’s got the rocking mid-tempo beat and guitar licks, combined with plenty of opportunity for Tom to ham it up with board-stomps and beat-boxing. Though it’s a bit of an obscure choice to open with, no one but hardcore fans filled the Phoenix seats, so that probably wasn’t the problem it might be elsewhere.

I thought h
e’d definitely keep Hoist That Rag in slot two, but once again he threw me off by moving Way Down in the Hole way up in the setlist. It sounded much fresher here, as Tom could throw his whole energy into it and the audience was still enthusiastic enough to reciprocate. I couldn’t help imagining the “In the hole, in the hole” of Steve Earle’s recent cover version as he sang this though – a back-up part to give the other players?

I mistook the next song for Cold Cold Ground initially, but Fall
ing Down, the first of many new songs for night two, was almost as good. A beautiful flamenco intro by guitarist Omar Torrez led it in that, though it had little to do with the main section itself, was breathtaking enough that it didn’t matter. The talented but shy guitarist of last night shone brighter today, feeling his way into bolder solos and riffs that eluded him before. Not to be outdone, however, Tom played the grizzled thespian acting out the title, leaning over when not singing as if the mic stand was the only thing keeping him from keeling over himself. When he got to the “take off your hat” line, he did just that, holding his bowler over his heart like he was singing the anthem for the upcoming chorus. A perfect place for this song, it helped break up the monotony of the openers last night.

Careening, swooping, a bit headache-inducing on the album, All the World Is Green sounded much more focused live. Gone the swamp and swoon, the production here was stripped back to the basic chords and melody, not creating the Phil Spector-esq soundscape it used to try for. This punchy approach gave the song more force, keeping the audience focused and alert as the verses rolled by.

Tonight featured less audience banter than night one, thanks in part to fewer hecklers, but Tom opened the next song with a extended riff about how it was called Misery and was one of his cheeriest songs. Technically, that would be Misery’s the River of the World, one of the highlights of 2002’s Blood Money and improbably an audience participation song. An audience of people chanting “Everybody row” that is, while Tom sang the title line twenty different ways: the pit-bull preacher, the loony homeless man, the carny ringmaster, the Mickey Mouse nightmare.

The acoustic guitar made a much earlier appearance tonight, and those of us h
oping for a Time reprise were treated to something better: the latter-day masterpiece Day After Tomorrow. I saw Joan Baez do an excellent version a few months ago (read about it here), but Tom gave it the raspy depth than Joan’s warbling soprano could never muster. He started the song, the first of six off 2004's Real Gone, solo on acoustic, but even when the instruments came in his surprisingly adept finger-picking stayed at the fore in verse after heartbreaking verse.

Sins of the Father is a song so long on record I’ve only listened to it a handful
of times and still couldn’t tell you really how it went. Tom had the good sense to strip it back live to only a few minutes, taking a loud rhythm lead on electric guitar as Torrez handled some more risky jump-between-octaves solos.

Torrez then switched to the cigar-box banjo for a reprise of Trampled Rose. Though the instrumentation, banjo combined with Vincent Henry on acoustic guitar, was beautiful, Tom did not seem to be putting as much into it tonight. By the end, the repeated “woah wooaah woah” phrase was just getting tiring.

To pick things back up Tom introduced “a dance tune…sort of” in Metropolitan Glide, another unmemorable song on record made a highlight live. The verses still came and went unnoticeably, but the stop-start of the instrumentals gave every band member a four-bar solo, one after the other. It was so fun one really did feel like dancing as the solo slot jumped from drums to bass to guitar to organ blast to horn, back and forth in the most energetic band performance of the night.

Though a nice song, Dead and Lovely failed to capitalize on the momentum just generated, taking it down for this morbid lullaby. The Real Gone songs, four in a row at this point, were also starting to get tiring.

So luckily Tom took it back twenty years with another Cemetery Polka. Unfortunately, it also seemed to take a step back in quality. The band, having sailed through the song the night before, got so messed up by the abrupt tempo changes tonight that midway through Tom had to stop them and start over. The song lost a little momentum as a result, but was a fun enough clap-along it didn’t particularly matter.

Never played live before, Dirt in the Ground was a "Is he really...?" moment for those paying attention, an underrated gem off Bone Machine that, paired with Misery, showed him in a pretty pessimistic mood. Thanks to Henry's clarinet interacting with Patrick Warren's organ, the ebb and flow surges of the original were well represented in a song that sounded like the stage was breathing.

The fast song, slow song trend continued with Hoist That Rag. One difference tonight though, when Tom’s younger son Sullivan came out to join Casey on percussion duties. Taking up his place behind the bongos, he repeated a simple pattern that almost sounded like a Diddley beat throughout: two hits on the bongos, to hits on the metal sides. It’s a good sound, but you wished he’d done it louder. The song has been taken dow
n several notches in performance energy, and with this and Goin’ Out West slower too, the show does not have the super high-caliber peak it could.

Over to the keys for the piano-bass set, everyone wondered how he would top Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis last night. A Little Rain wasn’t it, but the somber take skipped up and down melodically in a way faithful to the original. Nice enough by itself, but one couldn’t help comparing it to what came in the slot yesterday and feeling disappointed.

With such an engaging sing-along last night, Innocent When You Dream was an obvious choice for a repeat performance, and perhaps a tour staple. However, like Cemetery Polka, it had a hiccup or two. Yesterday Tom made a minor lyric flub when he sang “I gave my love a promise” instead of “a locket.” Nothing major, but he must have been concentrating so hard on not making the mistake again that when he got to the line he choked, losing his place and grinding to a halt. He picked it up again like the professional he is, but the dreamy melody lulls you into a pleasant daze, and such a rude awakening killed the mood a little. The sing-along part was still there though for an appreciative audience.

For the final song of the piano section (one fewer than yesterday, unfortunately), Tom moved over to what looked like a tiny toy organ – perhaps a mellotron – for the only Alice song of the two nights: Lost in the Harbour. The band snuck back on and joined him for this one. Again, a very faithful version, but disappointment couldn’t help but set in that he chose to forgo any of the early 70’s material that we enjoyed two songs of last night.

Back on his stand, Tom made use of new props I hadn’t even realized were there in a percussion-heavy 16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six. Stomping on different parts of the stage produced different-toned thumps, but in particularly he used a kick-drum version of a pot top that he stomped on throughout. Stomped isn’t even strong enough though – he kicked the shit out of that little pot top, so much so he lost his balance and almost toppled the mic stand at one point. A crazy bastard rendition straight out of the insane asylum, its ferocity would have been scary if he wasn’t so obviously having a blast.

A song that didn’t so much for me on night one, Jesus Gonna Be Here made a return appearance. Bluesy as always, forcing the audience to clap along seemed to be the only way to get them engaged in this somewhat generic number. At least it opens up a spot for a killer sax solo from Henry, grooving and so soulful it almost seemed out of place in this dirty blues.

I had not expected a return of November, and certainly not to open the encore, where it frankly seemed out of place. Beautiful though the flamenco rendition was again, it suffered the same fate as Down in the Hole: a first-encore song that worked better early in the set. It’s clearly a slot Tom’s experimenting with, and he need to come out from those stage curtains with a bang, not a whimper.

With such a great prop, it was inevitable that the Eyeball Kid would show his face – well, eye – again. However, tonight Tom didn’t put on the disco-ball hat until halfway through the song. Though this loses much of the on-stage excitement, it made it easier to focus on the music itself in a version I realized is actually quite different from the album version. Drum-based and basic, it drove a lot harder than it did on Mule Variations and is clearly a keeper. Unfortunately, band introductions meant this was the last song, one fewer in the encore than last night, contributing to a 20-song setlist compared to yesterday’s 24. Once again, if he hadn’t set the bar so high no one would be disappointed, but four more songs certainly would have been welcome tonight.

Fabulous though these two shows were, they were clearly warm-up shows for the tour proper as the band felt its way through the material with the occasional stumble and Tom tried to conduct from his stand. Feature guitarist Torrez is clearly coming into his own more, and with the double attack of him and horn player Vincent Henry, in a few shows time this could be a band up there with Tom’s best. With the P of PEHDTSCKJMBA out of the way, it’s on to El Paso.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tom Waits in Phoenix 6/17/08

Regular readers will notice that Phoenix is far out of the scope of my normal concert activities. But Tom Waits is not your average concert performer, so when he announced a rare tour that only hit the South and Southwest, those of us up North had to scramble for new arrangements. Phoenix was the only city with two shows, so here I am.

Walking into the Orpheum Theater, the excitement level for this opening date on the tour was eno
rmous. An old movie theater, it only seats 1300, so tickets for both shows were gone in seconds. Those of us lucky to snag some came out in full Tom Waits attire; a good half the people there were wearing porkpie hats – which, incidentally, Tom no longer wears – and various other rolled-straight-out-the-bar ensembles. The theater itself added to the ambiance, a gorgeous place with the ceiling painted like the sky and the walls painted like mountains. Like you’re seeing Tom Waits somewhere in the Alps, instead of 113-degree Arizona. Another unusual aspect of this show – well, unusual for a Waits show – was the bounty of merchandise. In addition to t-shirts that featured an oil stain he’d photographed, there were also little bound booklets of True Confessions: Tom Waits Interviewing Tom Waits. It’s worth a read, and you can check it out here.

The stage had one of the most unique set-ups I’d ever seen, spots for the guitarist, bassist, horn player, keyboards, and drummer all crammed together with little room to breath. Taking up the extra space both in the back and overhead was a miscellany of large megaphones, giving it a junkyard vibe reminiscent of Rent. Even that wasn’t a consistent theme though, as in the back near the floor there were also three large orange squares and a triangle that occasionally during the show would provide the only lighting. Tom Waits’ space had a variety of instruments, some played (guitar, maracas), more not (gong, bass drum). Maybe he’ll use more tomorrow night. Over the PA the Anthology of American Folk Music provided the pre-show soundtrack, a perfect lead-in for an artist who has taken much of this early folk and turned it inside out, upside down, and back to front.

Now onto the show itself. Take a seat, pull up a lemonade, and get ready for some reading. The band came out about half an hour late to wild applause and began setting up in the dark before a familiar bowler-hatted silhouette came out and took his place on a small platform center stage. A few blurry lights rose on him doing his deranged scarecrow pose, leaning over with arms and quadruple-jointed fingers spread wide. The band then went into the song Tom most recently performed publicly, Lucinda. It featured the same medley seen on the Conan O’Brien show last year (watch it) with Leadbelly’s Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well. Standing instrument-less as he would for much of the show, Tom creaked and gyrated around, stomping the floor to the beats where a white powder lay, each stomp throwing up a cloud of smoke. I saw Jack White do the same trick at a recent White Stripes show, and it’s a good one. The song was loud and aggressive, featuring many Tom Waits staples like unique characters (William the Pleaser) and time breakdowns (“I’m a true believaaaaaah”). A perfect start.

Next up a recent live favorite amon
g fans, Hoist That Rag off of 2004’s Real Gone. Tom led it in with some hard-shook maracas, and it was the first show spot for new guitarist Omar Torrez. His off-beat solos and wildly unpredictable runs recalled old sideman Marc Ribot in the best way possible, but he seemed a little nervous, missing the occasional note or goofing a chord. Once the first-night jitters subside he should really shine. Tom’s son Casey Waits on drums is another that could use some work. Whether Tom’s decision are his own, the drum pounding on songs like this and Goin’ Out West was too subdued to give them all the punch they need.

The first gospel number of the night, Come On Up to the House was an unexpected treat. Tom played with the phrasing throughout, often just repeating “come on up” and ignoring the “to the house” part. The verses cycled around each other, the simple melody never getting tiring in Tom’s mad dog bark that channeled a loony street-corner preacher.

“I feel as though we should move right in to the religious material,” Tom once said in his 1987 movie Big Time and he seemed to keep that same thematic approach, following Come On Up with Jesus Gonna Be Here. He started it off a cappella, crooning the warbly tune out at his own pace before guiding the band in for the second verse. The first audience participation of the night, Tom
also led a clap-along throughout, trying to coax the audience into starting and stopping at the right times. It kept the whole thing far more lively than it would have been otherwise, complete with horn man Vincent Henry playing two saxes at one – an impressive feat by itself, before a funky solo that designated him most fun musician in the band.

After a pretty high-energy opening set, cooling things down with a slow take on T
he Black Rider’s November was a welcome relief, especially preceded as it was with anecdotes of several unique laws (apparently no kiss in Phoenix can last longer than three minutes) and some banter shutting up hecklers (in response to a shout of “You look good, Tom”: “You look good too…in the dark.”) The song was beautiful, Torrez adding flamenco guitar lines throughout as Tom stopped barking for a minute and really sang the beautiful ode to a month “much cooler than this one”.

Another off of Mule Variations, Black Market Baby is somewhat unmemorable on record, but enjoyed an energy boost live. Watching the man bark and busk like a crazy carnie, you realized how well the line “a diamond who wants to stay coal” could apply to Waits himself.

The first pre-90’s song of the night, Rain Dogs gave the audience an unexpected treat and Tom yelped and stomped his way through the crazy rhythm shifts while the band did their damndest to keep up. Songs like this illustrated the only small problem of the set, which was typical opening night sloppiness. Tom constantly had to give the band their cues and keep them focused as they were not yet as cohesive a unit as they will surely become, though Henry’s Eastern-influences tenor sax lines in the background of this one would have been worth listening to by themselves.

A song I just saw performed on Sunday by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (read about it here), Trampled Rose was given a very different treatment by its creator. No beautiful harmonies or warbling falsetto on this version, Tom messed around with the tune and rhythm of the lyrics enough that you had to pay attention to even recognize it. Beauty and the beast in the two different renditions, but both interesting takes.

For the first time of the night, Tom picked up the guitar to duet with Torrez on the familiar opening riff to Goin’ Out West. When it stopped and those furious drum pounds should have come in though, we got only light drum taps. The song as a whole was performed in a more stripped-down version that, while interesting, lost something of the high-octane power in the original. It's easily Tom’s most badass song, and becomes less distinctive when not performed that way. It was picked up, however, by Tom being his own back-up singer at the end of each verse echoing “He looks good without a shirt.”

The most drastically reworked song of the set, Murder in the Red Barn got off to a shaky start. Halfway through the first verse, Tom stopped and said “Woah woah, this is too fast, slow it down band” before counting in a slower tempo and starting again. It was worth the delay though, as the former blues stomp got a slow
jazzy treatment helped once again by Omar’s acoustic. The original always got on my nerves a bit, but slowing everything down brought out the tension in the lyrics in a new way, leaving the audience pin-drop silent as they listened. This reinterpretation could well become a live staple, and it deserves it.

Anywhere I Lay My Head has gotten new notice as the title of Scarlett Johanson’s abysmal cover album, but thankful Tom ignored her “creative liscence” arrangement and kept to his own. It was short and sweet, leaving out the instrumental coda and some of the verses, clocking in at barely two minutes. Whether an intentional choice, or a response to the audience’s desire to clap-along arrythmically is unclear, but it seemed over before it begun.

Cemetery Polka, on the other hand, is meant to knock you over fast and hard. Tom went right into the tale “about a family reunion” with not a note wasted. The songs switched tempos back and forth between the verses and brief solo lines in a way perfectly jarring for the number.

In a set of one dynamically-performed song after another, there was only one low point: Get Behind the Mule. It’s a generic blues-rocker about three times longer than necessary, and live with Tom on guitar again it just never seemed to end. The audience shifted around bored as one chorus led into the next over bland instrumen
tals. Only horn player Vincent Henry’s harmonica riffs and solo added anything to focus on in this mule-paced snoozer. Omar Torrez’s cigar-box banjo, cool though it was, was too low in the mix to make out.

For the only time in the set, Tom changed hats for the next song. Now this sounds like a small detail until you know what hat he changed into. A bowler covered with small mirrors, Tom became a human disco ball as he spun around and around under the spotlights during Eyeball Kid, rays of light shooting in all directions from his hat. The perfect song for such an offbeat prop, it displayed Tom at his showman best, looking like the Kid himself with a giant all-seeing eye on his head. With a prop that well-suited, I imagine this song will make quite a few appearances this summer.

As the band left the stage, I must not have been the only one worried the main set was over. I needn't have. A huge cheer erupted as Tom moved to the piano, his trademark instrument, for a mini-set accompanied by bassist Seth Ford-Young, an unannounced substitute for his longstanding companion Larry “The Mole” Taylor. Ford-Young proved quite adept however, adding jazzy counter-melodies to every song on which he could be heard and accompanied the first song here, Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis, quite tenderly. The first of only a couple of his early tunes played tonight, it was one of the most moving moments of the evening, sounding just like it did in the 70’s and making me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t around for in the first place. He had the wisdom not to mess with these lyrics a bit, and took more care in the singing then we saw all night.

The piano set
continued with a more recent track, Picture in a Frame, a pretty little song performed well, but nothing revelatory. A security guy in the front row had on a loud walkie talkie the whole time however, and afterwards when the guy didn’t take a hint from Tom’s jokes about “Is that a truck passing outside? A CB radio?” he tried a more direct approach: “Turn that damn walkie-talkie off!” The audience, having been looking around and muttering the past few songs about it, cheered the admonishment.

In a song I hadn’t bothered even hoping I’d hear live, i was incredibly excited to hear him start "She's up against the register" for Invitation the Blues. A beautiful tale of loss and loneliness, Tom unfortunately cut out several verses, just trying to get through it. It ended up not approaching the majesty of the 70’s versions, seeming somewhat perfunctory, but a good enough song that the audience appreciated its inclusion nevertheless.

The last song of this piano set was another high point, his classic Innocent When You Dream. After going through a lullaby rendition featuring Ford-Smith’s smooth jazz bass work, Tom acknowledged an audience itching to sing along with him, going through the chorus several more times with audience participation, trading off lines with us again and again. The audience did a damn good job too, not overpowering the song, but serving as Tom’s backing chorus. As it progressed, the rest of the band came back out and added themselves into the tune while Tom did a bit of falsetto jazz scatting.

Back to the guitar for
Lie To Me, Tom used the stop-start arrangement seen in recent live performances, repeating verses and choruses of a song generic but lively. This version gained an added boost when as Tom elongated the stops with a long falsetto whine you had trouble believing was even him turning into a descending bass line back in. Proof that arrangement can make up for a lot.

A setlist change or addition, Tom called out Chocolate Jesus to his band members and sound guy, cuing a bare light bulb to descend from the ceiling. The bulb was only on for ten seconds or so before a pop and burst of smoke exploded from the wiring above, so the effect wound up underused. Tom shouting this song through a bullhorn, however, achieved the desired effect of distorting the vocals and tune, coming as close to the advertising barker of Step Right Up or Lucky Day Overture as we saw this evening.

A recent live staple, Make It Rain is worth the repeat performances, Tom’s off-beat shouts channeled a voodoo shaman while Omar’s strange solos switched from Clapton to Beefheart with impressive fluidity. Halfway through Tom took the time to introduce the band, meaning the main set was over.

The first song of the encore has enjoyed rejuvenated popularity as the theme song for television drama The Wire in various cover versions, but Tom proved why his Way Down in the Hole was still the best. Who knew Hell could sound so pleasing, with another killer sax solo?

The next opening riff sounded like a reprise of Cemetery Polka, but it turned out to be the recent classic God’s Away on Business. If God's away and you gotta keep the devil in the hole, sounds like Tom's not much for any non-human creatures around. Torrez on acoustic guitar seemed a strange choice for such a loud song, but it allowed keyboard player Patrick Warren to be heard for one of the first times of the show. The levels overall could have used a bit of work, as Torrez’s solos throughout were quieter than need be.

A rare gem saved for last, the accordion-led Time sent shivers the down the audience’s collective spine in a sensitive and careful rendition, oozing with emotion in the build-up to and release of the chorus. The perfect ending song, it seemed to sum up the emotions of the entire night, dreary and mournful but with the prospect of hope ahead. On acoustic guitar for the only time of the evening, Tom quiet plucking added the rhythm needed to propel the song as Casey left the stage. The last note echoed through the audience before anyone moved, roaring into a standing ovation as Tom took a quick bow and scurried off into the night.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Bonnaroo Day 4: 6/15/08

All good things must end, and Sunday of Bonnaroo always opens with a note of sadness as everyone realizes the music will soon be over and real life is beckoning. The day was especially low-key for me, as there were far fewer acts I wanted to see today than on any other. As it turned out, that just made room for more discoveries, the first of which was Ladytron. Indie electro-pop can get real tiresome real fast, but their disco beats and repetitive dual-female vocals added a gothic Nine Inch Nails touch that kept each song interesting and unique, creating a hipster dance party for the small but appreciative crowd. The industrial beats and the peppy vocals were a great start to the day, but one can only imagine how much fun the set would be as a light-show late-night.

After wandering by the incredible blandness of Wallflowers frontman (and Bob’s son) Jakob Dylan, I quickly decided that Robert Randolph’s Re
vival was where the action was at. Backed by a funk band with three pedal steel players, Randolph topped the rest with wild solos, jumping atop his chair and inviting a bevy of girls onstage to dance along as he played blues and Bo Diddley covers. The highlight of the show was definitely the encore though, where T-Bone Burnett came out for some blues improv. Though Burnett contributed next to nothing, Randolph used the opportunity to riff on some blues lyrics, repeating the line “T-Bone’s listening to some music” (or something similar) before eventually throwing in “T-Bone’s listening to some…KANYE SUCKS” that drew the biggest cheer I heard all weekend. After speaking a bit about how disrespectful that was for a performer to act like West, the crowd broke into a joyous “Kanye sucks” chant that felt purifying after the previous night’s frustration. This chant would be theme of the day, as other performers from Rogue Wave to Broken Social Scene referenced the disaster and every random “Fuck Kanye!” yell all day drew huge cheers. Seeing the unifying power of the anti-Kanye attitude among attendants almost made last night worth it.

The acoustic performance by Larry Campell, Jackie Greene, Phil Lesh, and Theresa Williams (Larry’s wife) was amazingly uncrowded for a set featuring Lesh, one of Bonnaroo’s premier performers, but that just meant good spots were easy to come by. Unfortunately, those who did show up were only rewarded with confusion on the part of roadies as they and the artists wandered around, apparently unclear on how to set up this one-off performance, leading to a long delay. The set was mostly worth the wait, opening with “Friend of the Devil” and going through one song after the other. Jackie Greene took the lead on most vocals, but seemed to be the least interesting one of the bunch as Lesh, determined not to become the leader of this ensemble, did so little as to render himself useless. Being that anonymous seemed disrespectful to a crowd mostly there to see him in the first place, and as one song bled into the next the foursome never quite hit the chemistry that would have kept the set entertaining. Many other than the most zonked-out hippies wandered away.

This just gave people like me a chance to check-out a far better set, Solomon Burke’s soul explosion. He sat up in his throne doing hit after hit (many not his own) in an all-request show. Like Randolph, he invited up a series of back-up dancers from the audience for singalongs like “Mustang Sally” and “Down in the Valley”. His smoothly dressed R&B group laid down the horn-based funk in a way that would have done the Dap-Kings proud. The only downside of the show was not strictly Burke’s fault, but his massive size (he’s well over 300 pounds) led to a need to be ministered to by one of his young backing singers, who mopped his forehead and gave him water with overtones so unavoidably sexual that the whole scene surely induced awkward collar-pulls from others besides me. Though a hell of a performer, in the midst of the party you can’t help feeling bad for someone too large to move independently.

For my final show of the weekend (no interest in headliner Widespread Panic), Robert Plant and Alison Krauss could not have been a better cool down. Their tight harmonies and smooth-lounge backing lulled you to sleep before rousing you back awake with a trademark Plant yelp or country-blues Zeppelin cover like “Black Dog”. To translate the theater show into the larger open-air setting the highs were made higher and the lows lower, replacing the album’s subtlety with attention-grabbing extremes. This worked on some songs, like a rocked-out take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothing,” but others like the Tom Waits cover “Trampled Rose” lost something when nuance was replaced by Krauss blasting your eardrums off like a bad Joan Baez impersonator. The interplay between the two was the clear highpoint of the show, most notable when it was missing. Krauss had quite a few solo slots of songs I assumed were her own that were so country-bland you couldn’t help peering into the wings hoping for Plant’s reappearance. If Zeppelin’s rumored Bonnaroo showing didn’t materialize, Plant’s tasteful but passionate performance provided a perfect capstone to the weekend.

Bonnaroo Day 3: 6/14/08

Today was a day for camping out at the Which Stage for an unbeatable three-peat of acts: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Gogol Bordello, and Ben Folds. As I headed over, however, the sharp indie punk of Two Gallants caught my ear. Like folk songs played through a distortion pedal, this was a guitar-drum duo less jarring than the White Stripes, a full-band eminating from only two guys. Singer Adam Stephen’s lyrics were particularly interesting, reflecting on common themes like lost love with weird twists (sample: “I’m gay as a choirboy for you.”) Definitely music to investigate further.

After that brief detour, it was out into the heat for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. The Dap-Kings are now famous for their work backing Amy Winehouse, but Sharon is where their heart truly lies. They looked straight out of Pulp Fiction in their suits, mutton chops and pencil mustaches, as suave as Samuel L. Jackson could ever hope to be. The music fit the part as the Kings opened the show with a few songs alone, smooth and supple, oozing charm through the horn tweets and guitar runs. Their sleekness would have gotten old eventually without some aid, but when Sharon came out all pretensions of reserved class were gone. Wailing and dancing in her fringy black dress, she seemed determined to get the overheated crowd moving. A mix of originals like “100 Days, 100 Nights” and “Nobody’s Baby” and covers like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” kept things moving as she performed a type of music no one knew was even being made anymore.

Up next was my most anticipated act of the weekend: Gogol Bordello, one of only a couple bands returning from ’07 (read about that show here). I had wandered by the final ten minutes of their set last year and couldn’t believe my eyes. Since then I’ve picked up every album in preparation for another sighting. Time well spent. The gypsy punks came out in full swing, Eugene Hütz wearing bright purple and blue with scarves, bandanas, and ties swishing all over the place. Opening with “Ultimate,” they ran through one chant-along song after another, running all over the stage and joking around with each other throughout. Several songs in the backup singers/dancers came out – two girls dressed wildly enough to make Hütz look downright conservative who spent most of the rest of the show gallivanting all over the stage needling band members and crying out “ai ai ai”s. The group's main hit “Start Wearing Purple” got the crowd fired up, but the band showed newer material like “American Wedding” and “Your Country” to be even stronger. The audience demanded an encore, and Hütz obliged, coming out to start a solo “Alcohol” while one band member after another joined in. And if that wasn’t enough, he and one of the girls tossed a bass drum into the audience, then climbed atop it to continue singing as Hütz poured red wine on himself. Something you don’t see every day, and certainly helped him redeem himself after yesterday’s subpar Superjam.

It’s hard to be a college student without listening to a lot of Ben Folds, and he’s a live staple on the university circuit. However, I hadn’t managed to catch him live yet, so I knew even with the conflicts this wasn’t one to miss. And the man certainly has earned his reputation as a stage performer. For new song “Free Coffee” he put various items inside his piano, Altoids tin and maracas among them, to turn it literally into a percussion instrument when he hit certain keys. Ben Folds doesn’t need fancy keyboard effects; he makes them the old-school way. The highlights of the show weren’t even the real songs though, but the little things he improvised along the way, one song about Bonnaroo (where he’s a returning favorite) and another about breaking a piano string. True to tradition, he photoed the audience flicking him off – he pulled this trick here in ’02, and it became the Ben Folds Live album cover. Also of note, he retired his cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” with a final singalong performance that dripped pain far beyond the novelty of the cover choice. Only downside: all this was predictable, since for God-knows-what-reason the sound guy felt the need to read the setlist aloud during the soundcheck. Idiot.

Unfortunately, I had to leave early to check out another anticipated set. And, amazing though I heard the rest of Ben was, Levon Helm’s Ramble on the Road was worth it. The former drummer for The Band has been holding these Rambles up at his barn in Woodstock for years, but this summer is the first time those of us without the money and transportation to go up to the upstate boonies can see the act in a touring form. The mix of Band classics, old Appalachian covers, and tunes off his 2007 album made the wait worth it. Larry Campbell, one of my favorite guitarists around, performed in the ragtag crew and rocked out on everything from mandolin to violin. Though Helm’s name is on the marquee, it truly was a collaborative effort, with leading parts taken by everyone from Larry to Helm’s daughter Amy, and special guest bluesman Sammy Davis. It was Band songs like “Rag, Mama, Rag” and “Long Black Veil” that made the crowd go crazy, but lesser-known gems like “Anna Lee” were performed just as splendidly, the group coalescing like a back porch jam band. The audience went crazy for each and every word and solo (did I mention the full horn section?) and closer “The Weight” moved some to tears. The set of the weekend, for sure.

Levon’s set ended (no encore, despite the crowd’s pleas), I wandered through Jack Johnson and sat down for a minute. My expectations were incredibly low, and he exceeded them. A little. His music was well-performed, and it was perfect for relaxing the back and chatting. However, there was so little to focus on other than Eddie Vedder’s guest appearance that I can’t imagine what people closer to the front were actually doing. Singing along, pumping their fists, rocking out, crying? Can’t imagine him inspiring that dedication from anyone. Good background music, but not much else.

With Pearl Jam, however, there’s a lot to focus on. A set that featured rarities like “WMA” (first time performed in thirteen years) and “All Night” (first time performed ever), the hits were what really got the crowd going, a “Better Man” singalong in particular erupting throughout the grounds. My only disappointment was only one song performed off of their most recent album. Along with “Life Wasted” I would have liked to hear “World Wide Suicide,” “Big Wave,” or several others. The crowd was packed though, many having waited in line all day for a good spot, and incredibly enthusiastic for every Eddie Vedder vocal or Mike McCready guitar solo.

Tonight’s late-night was the most conflict-ridden section of the festival, with acts I wanted to check out like Phil Lesh and Friends, Chromeo, The Coup, and Ghostland Observatory forced to fall by the wayside for what I knew would be a festival highlight: Sigur Rós. The group from Iceland gives only the rarest stateside performances, but anyone who’s seen their film Heima – one of the greatest music films of all time – knows what an unreal experience they are live. They’re often described as the music of angels, and live they proved that the ethereal sounds coming from your speakers aren’t just computer wizardry, but four guys winding their spacey, echoey instruments around each other in a magestic tapestry. Corny phrases like that are completely appropriate once you hear them, and seeing the number of people in tears at the concert shows just how moving this music can be. The string quartet of Amina joined them onstage along with a mariachi horn section, as they ran through better-known songs like “Hoppípolla” and “Vaka” and new stuff from their upcoming album. Five glowing orbs illuminated the stage behind them as lead singer bowed his guitar for a concert experience that can’t be compared to any other. It’s so hard to describe, in fact, I’d recommend just checking out these videos.

And then…Kanye West. If you haven’t heard about Kanye West at Bonnaroo, you haven’t been reading many music blogs lately. Or the Associated Press. Or Rolling Stone. Or the New York Times. You get the picture…it was a big deal. I’ll get the preliminaries out of the way in a one-sentence summary: after having rescheduled his show at the last minute, he was almost two hours late when he wanted to be the only one performing and as a result infuriated everyone watching, which is hard to do with hippies. When he finally did come on for his much-acclaimed Glow in the Dark show at 4:30am, was it worth the wait? Hell no. The theme was some spaceship crash-landing which, of course, has absolutely no correlation to any of his songs. He might as well have been a caveman inventing fire for all the logic it made. Although in that scenario, you wouldn’t have the lovely scene of him trying to convince his spaceship to have sex with him. Yes, really. The music was just as bad, featuring him on stage alone unable to do anything interesting enough to draw attention. Oh, and the whole point of him postponing the show in the first place was to have it glow in the dark, but did I mention he started so late the sun came up a few songs in? So he ended up cutting the set short, but by that time I, and the vast majority of the crowd, was long gone. Easily the biggest disaster in Bonnaroo history, “Kanye sucks” became the theme for the rest of the weekend, and the go-to topic of conversation ever since.

Bonnaroo Day 2: 6/13/08

Friday started off right with a Grupo Fantasma reprise performance on the tiny Sonic Stage. Though lower energy in the heat, they still played their hearts out for the small but appreciative crowd. The show loses something when the sun is too scorching to dance though – if you’re going to see them, see them in the evening.

After a break, I headed to my first What [Main] Stage show of the fest: The Raconteurs. Anyone who has just heard their two albums is missing a lot. Sure, the songs are pretty good, but it’s the live performance that makes these guys spectacular. Jack White is a showman who could blow your mind working with anyone, but the fabulous rhythm section of Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence really gives him the power to go crazy (Brendan Benson, incidentally, doesn’t do much for me). Jack used his on-stage gadgets to their fullest potential, rocking out his distortion microphone and wailing on an on-off guitar pedal that made his solos wild and jerky. Songs from the new album dominated the set, capped with an intense “Consolers of the Lonely,” while older songs had been reinvented. “Blue Veins,” for instance, featured an instrumental version of The Doors’ “The End” by way of intro before destroying a guitar-rave-up rendition that eclipsed the mediocre album take. Even crowd pleasers like "Steady, As She Goes" and “Store-Bought Bones” were reinvented, the former extended, the latter sporting a new soft-loud arrangement like a harmonizing Nirvana track.

A couple quick jumps between conflicts saw me catching a bit of Willie Nelson, Rilo Kiley, and M.I.A. Willie was exactly how you’d expect: fun country goodness. Rilo Kiley was a bit more of a surprise, far more charismatic live than I would have anticipated. Everyone knows Jenny Lewis is cute and all, but I had no idea she had that good of a voice, belting it out like an old gospel singer. M.I.A. was ridiculously wild, as might be expected. By the time I got there, the stage was so packed with people I never even saw her at all. Her bouncy world rhythms, though interesting, always sort of rubbed me the wrong way though, and live the music annoyed me just as much. Though I’ll take th
e more mellow Eastern sounds of Beirut over this seizure-inducement any day, I was happy to catch what she claimed was her last plive performance.

Though not a musician, Chris Rock commanded an unopposed slot the What Stage billed as the largest stand-up comic performance ever. And anyone who doubted a comedian could work a crowd that size ate their words when Rock's jokes had the tens of thousands watching in tears from laughter, riffing on everything from Obama (“The only name blacker than that is Dikembe Mutombo.”) to increasing gas prices (“If I invade IHOP, pancakes gonna be cheap in my house”). The only slight regret is that he did very little Bonnaroo-themed material. For such an important show, I expected him to have a little fun on the obvious topics of hippies, drugs, and crazy musicians, but instead he just went through his normal spiel.

At this point I went back to my tent. I’d already seen Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett introducing Rock, and that was enough Metallica for me. So I thought at least. From their first song, you could tell they were playing their damndest to win over a crowd pissed at their presence. They did such a phenomenal job I ended up listening to every note in my tent. The anger in the music was definitely there, but the fun they were having playing it was just as apparent. The band took care to verbally acknowledge themselves as an unpopular choice and talked about why they had come, clearly understanding the spirit of musical development and band-fan respect that Bonnaroo has become known for. The desire to show why they belonged with all the jam bands and indie rockers seeped through every riff and growl. It’s a stretch to call a Metallica show beautiful, but they way they performed was as close as metal can get.

Another annual Bonnaroo first is the first late-night set. Few other festivals can have acts go past midnight or 1 due to noise ordinances, but Bonnaroo rocks the crowd til dawn. The honor of opening the late night scene this year went to My Morning Jacket, one of my most anticipated acts of the festival. Though pouring rain prevented me from seeing the whole thing, the two hours I caught showed why they were the Bonnaroo band to beat this weekend, their aggressive riffs countering their soaring vocals in a mix of songs new and old, well-known and obscure, with covers of everyone from James Brown to Motley Crüe thrown in. Before the show, many worried about how they’d live up their three-hour ’06 set. Thirty-five songs later, they had their answer.

Also competing for attention at this time was the annual Superjam. Though officially unannounced, it had leaked a few weeks prior that it would consist of Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett (who also guested with My Morning Jacket), and Les Claypool doing a set of Tom Waits covers. The rumor was right, if you add in three more members of Gogol Bordello and a dancer that turned out to be Hütz’s girlfriend. As Gogol Bordello was my most anticipated act, and Tom Waits is an artist I’m currently traveling over a thousand miles to see live, this should have been a match made in heaven. It wasn’t, for a few reasons. First and foremost, Gogol Bordello is not a jam band. They do not improvise well, and so any section without someone singing was just dead air, the chords played repeatedly with not much else happening. They seemed lost onstage; Hütz got more and more plastered as Claypool tried to ease the awkward nothingness with lame jokes. The second reason was that the rearranged songs were all bland. Kudos to them for rehearsing the songs weeks in advance, but the renditions just made them sound like Gogol Bordello songs without the flair. The crowd started out double the tent’s capacity, and when I returned an hour later there were only a few hundred left. A disappointing resolution to what could have been a legendary combination.

Bonnaroo Day 1: 6/12/08

Thursday night is always a slow night for Bonnaroo, opening the four-day festival quietly to save the biggest acts for Friday late-comers. For a packed weekend though, the low-key, big-stage-free, no-late-night evening proved the perfect beginning. Opening up the festival proper was What Made Milwaukee Famous. Where The Little Ones killed that opening slot last year (read that review here), Milwaukee proved far less memorable. Talented but generic, their set proved as bland as the city itself for anyone unfamiliar with the songs. The occasional pretty harmony could not compensate for the singer's whiny vocal and disinterested attitude.

Grand Ole Party, however, was a perfect festival-starter. Like a female-fronted Franz Ferdinand, their lively alt-pop was fun and danceable whether you were familiar with them or not. With songs were punchy and to-the-point, the three-piece for the crowd moving throughout the tight run. My only criticism lies in Kristen Gundred’s vocal-drumming combo. The singing drummer is certainly a fun novelty, but only a few can do it justice (see Levon Helm on Saturday) and Gundred suffers from the obvious critique: by concentrating on hitting her vocals, her drumming was simple and sloppy. Music this fun should have lively funky drumming to match, not just a rhythm thud that pulls it back from the edge of excellence.

I heard so little of Back Door Slam I normally wouldn’t even bother men
tioning them, but the few minutes I heard were so memorable I had to throw it in. The first thing everyone mentions about this band is always Davy Knowles’ guitar heroism, and he certainly is a rising star. What impressed me more, however, was just how tight this group is. They presented a thick and unified sound, taking risks and experimenting without ever veering off-track. Like a full-band Black Keys, this is blues-rock at its finest.

Current blogosphere hit MGMT’s set came with high expectations. And, as is often the case with bands built on buzz, they fell drastically short. The songs were tight live, every note orchestrated and concise, but for a festival setting that was not enough. The crowd quickly lost focus, the energy onstage not enough to reverberate through the thousands watching and applause was sparse. Though the occasional extended solo or guitar-freakout outro held forth a glimmer of hope, this was clearly music meant for small, sweaty clubs, not a large distraction-ridden festival.

The beauty of the festival scene is that there’s always something else going on though, and without leaving halfway through MGMT I would not have discovered Grupo Fantasma. This 11-piece latin-funk group was clearly the dance party of the night, the small crowd grooving and jumping to song after song of conga solos, horn blasts, and smooth Spanish vocals. Though an unexpected discovery for me, Grupo Fantasma have a much bigger fan: Prince, who used them as his backing band in the Super Bowl. Good choice.

The description “math rock” doesn’t mean a lot by itself, but from the first few notes of a Battles song you understand. They replicated their dense and polyrhythmic sound well live, pounding drums forming the backbone of tightly coordinated noises, distortion, and programming with nary a recognizable word or riff. Even the vocals were just another warped instrument to add to the mix, as the singer’s warbled wails weaved around the other instruments. And for a four-piece, there were a lot of instruments at work, several members doing a feat I would have thought impossible: playing a guitar and a keyboard/synth/laptop at the same time. Strange music indeed for the crowd that didn’t seem quite sure what they were hearing, but wonderfully performed.

Most stayed around that tent to wait for another blog-favorite, Vampire Weekend. Featuring a singer who looks like he has yet to hit puberty, these guys fit their Ivy League (Columbia) pedigree perfectly as a set of fellows you could take home to meet your mother. Their light afro-pop matched the personas in a set filled with two-minute singalongs off their only record. Yelping along with every “oh ah oh,” the crowd rocked out to indie hits like “A-Punk” while I saw more promise in the new song they debuted which sounded like the soundtrack to the monkey cage at your local zoo. Sure, this buzz band will probably be forgotten by this time next year, but they’ve got a live show that’s fun enough to keep an eye on.

A drastic shift in store as I wandered over to Dark Star Orchestra, a well-respected Grateful Dead tribute that bases their show on a Dead setlist from the past, but improvises enough to make it their own. The jury’s still out on what show they were replicating late Thursday night, but whatever they picked it was the right choice, including “Tennessee Jed,” for which the relaxing crowd came to life. The jams were jammey, the guitar lines meandering, and the vocals slow and spacey – just about what you’d expect from a better-than-most cover band. Like many others, I used the opportunity for a little napping before heading back the tent, because Friday is when the real fun begins.