I sleep in vans a lot. On tour you can’t help it, but sleeping fitfully in a rental mini-van for three hours is no way for a journalist to live and I vowed that next time I’d make sure to get a hotel. The premise of this festival is that the whole 90,000-odd attendees come for the entire weekend to the remote backwater of Manchester, TN. and camp, Burning Man style, making puppet art, fire-dancing, and waiting for twenty minutes in line for the Porta-potty.. It was suggested to me that I might enjoy the bonhomie of camping myself, as it would give me a window into the heart of the festival, but in retrospect I’d much rather be wearing a three-piece, white linen suit and sitting in a hotel bar somewhere. As it is, the Kentucky sunshine heated my van to a turkey roasting 400 degrees by nine o’clock in the morning. I downed a cup of water, washed the sleep from my eyes and headed off to the first press conference of the day, where the singer of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Alec Ounsworth, was giving a private, acoustic performance just for the press.
This is the kind of press pandering that publicists always tell you is a good idea, and maybe it is. Since I’m only masquerading as a member of the press I can’t really attest to the way they think. Still, as a fake member of the press, I thought his voice sounded like someone skinning cats. His songs were decently folky, and he honked along on the harmonica, which was passable. Maybe it sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel or Talking Heads on the records, as I’ve heard reported, but it didn’t pass my dorm room test, which is: If you were stuck in a dorm room at SUNY/Purchase and the same person was singing these songs, would you be thinking, “Holy shit, this guy is great!” or would you be trying to figure out how many songs was the polite number to endure before you could reasonably claim you had a ton of homework? Frankly, though, I didn’t understand Neutral Milk Hotel when I first heard it either and now I think it’s great, so maybe Pitchfork is right and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are brilliant. But I think there should henceforth be at least a short moratorium on Brooklyn songwriters, (and Ontario songwriters, for that matter), who yodel like West-Virginia coon-hunters.
When it was over I stood around for a while drinking in the glamour of the press area, sneezing occasionally from the dust and pollen as bearded men of every shape and size schlepped camera bags hither and thither, until I was roused by the ferocious guitar tone of Buddy Guy from a nearby stage. I raced over to bask in the blues and soak in the sound of Fender Stratocasters chooglin’ really loud. His band was great, his guitar playing was pretty fun, and he played Hoochie Coochie Man, and Sweet Home Chicago, and I’m a Man, etc. It was quite wonderful and even felt sort of historical, but after five songs it was clear that no truly great blues songs have been written since 1970, or if they had Buddy wasn’t going to play them. I knew if I left early that he was really going to burn the house down at the end of his set and I’d regret it, but at a certain point I started to get the blues so bad, and I felt I’d been down so long, I had to leave. Ten minutes later, sure enough, I heard through the trees some seriously major chooglin’.
Over I hustled to see Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint with the Imposters. I was slightly wary of this new incarnation because it smacked of Elvis fully transitioning to an adult-contemporary artist who makes records with hurricane victims and Brazilian war protesters, but in fact his band was killer! They plowed through a bunch of Elvis’ hits and some numbers with Allen Toussaint singing and it was both classy and sweaty in equal measure. Elvis was basically doing the same thing as Chan Marshall, colonizing our southern friends, appropriating their cultural forms, engaging in a form of Orientalism, but I, for one, thank God they’re doing it. It seems to require a New York or London sensibility to give those Southern musicians something interesting to play; otherwise they’d just be vamping on St. James Infirmary for the thousandth time. See Buddy Guy. One good thing about Hurricane Katrina is that all these awesome musicians got chased out of their comfortable gigs on Bourbon Street and are filling the world back up with decent horn playing and cool piano. I can honestly say that any chance I get to see this show in a theater I will take!
After Elvis I walked past Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley on my way to see Gomez. Damien Marley was playing reggae music, and someone on the stage was waving a Rasta Flag, and there was some dancehall-style Jamaican rapping, and that’s that.. It all sounded quite presentable, but something about it made me a little sad. I almost felt that Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detective had been a better use of the Reggae beat than this “carry the flag” cult-of-Marley, but perhaps that’s inevitable of me to say. The thousands of people feeling “Irie” might have disagreed. I think my problem was that, because of Bob Marley, reggae music is identified with the third-world struggle for liberation, which means it gets combined with Che Guevara iconography, some Marxist rhetoric, and an idea of Africa, that are all thirty years past their sell-by date. In 1977 it still seemed plausible that revolution could be inspired by music and might sweep the globe, inspiring people to emancipate themselves from mental slavery, but most of those third-world poor are now working in tennis-shoe factories and neither Marxism nor Reggae music has changed its message to reflect the times. There’s something triple-discomfiting about the son of a Reggae legend preaching Marxist agitprop to rich American hippies, considering the utter failures of Pan-Africanism, Marxism, and Hippyism in terms of actually changing the world.
Gomez, on the other hand, were not saddled with the responsibility for post-colonialism and as a result were free to explore the outer fringes of Britpop, a worthy endeavor. Their music is all over the map, and despite the fact that most of them look like social-studies teachers and their drummer has too many cymbals, they seem completely unpretentious. The Brit-pop parts sounded like Oasis if Oasis were smart, (and I always wished Oasis were a little smarter.) The big parts got BIG, the fun parts were fun, the heavy, dark parts were a little scary, (until you looked at the band), and the energy was high and lasting. I admire these guys; there was a brief moment where they were considered the new saviors of British rock, only to be passed over by Coldplay and the next new saviors of British rock, yet they continue to expand their sound and go out on tour. Most bands absolutely don’t survive that kind of thing.
From Gomez I hightailed it to the main stage and climbed up in the scaffolding stage left to watch Beck. I was excited to see Beck because he’s a legendary weirdo, and he does that soul-boy thing that I dig, so I was hoping he would come out, play some funk, and dance up a storm in a cool suit. His band, it turned out, each was dressed in what I think was meant to be an ironic form of hipster drag. The bass player had a Ashkenazi-fro and a funky striped suit, the guitarist had a Williamsburg indie-beard, tight pants and some Foster Grants, the keyboardist was wearing a sleeveless sweatshirt and headband and looked like Emilio Estevez, the drummer had sideburns, goatee AND an afro, and the “hype guy”, Beck’s Flava Flav, was Weezered out in black framed glasses and short-sleeve shirt and tie. They hit the stage and started banging it out on thrift store guitars, woo-hoo! Except the bass was a thousand times too loud.
This is something I’m seeing more and more with live sound. The technology has changed over the last few years so that sound engineers now have HUMONGOUS sub-woofer systems capable of transmitting bass frequencies through mountain ranges and into other dimensions and they think that since they can, they should. Add to this the influence of Hip-Hop, where the bass is turned up because it’s the only thing happening in the song, and it’s a recipe for disaster. The bass frequencies were completely overpowering Beck’s music. The kick drum and toms were triggering huge sub-woofer explosions that sounded like the destruction of the planet Alderaan, the bass guitar was just ROOMBLA ROOMBLA ROOMBLA, and then squeaking along up on top was the whole rest of the songs, two guitars, keyboards, and vocals, barely audible. The bass was so loud it went past the point of hurting my ears, even past the point of hurting my stomach, until it was hurting my feelings. I honestly couldn’t enjoy the set for this reason, even though the band played great and he brought along a puppet show and everyone appeared to be having a blast. Beck is a Hip-Hop artist, after all, so he has every right to make his music unlistenable. Maybe this is the modern version of “If it’s too loud, you’re too old”, only it’s: “If it sounds like a new government weapons program to cause people to have uncontrollable diarrhea, then you’re too old.”
Immediately after Beck the Bonnaroo security came through and cleared everyone off the stage in preparation for the arrival of Radiohead. Rumors had been flying around all weekend that, for Radiohead’s set alone, most backstage passes were going to be worthless and even the normally tight security was going to quadruple in intensity. I tried to mill around in the area around the stage, looking busy, then looking very important, but the cordon tightened up and I was expelled like the “foreign matter’ I was. The security were like white blood cells, or scrubbing bubbles, until no specks of filth remained.
Well, that’s not entirely true, as I’m sure the backstage area was being cleared out so that the REAL music business swine could descend on the place, but at least they got rid of the proles. Anyway, after a few more abortive attempts to slip through the line, I jumped in with the photojournalists long enough to get escorted to the front of the stage, and then slipped the noose and plunged into the crowd. Wow. It was truly an amazing throng, stretching into the distance to the point where the eye could not distinguish individuals but only saw a tapestry of color. The effect was described to me by one of the musicians who played an earlier show as being like a backdrop painting of a crowd, with a small crowd in front of the painting which you could actually discern, but to my eyes it was almost like seeing a crop in the field. Seven hundred acres covered with a very strange fruit.
I maneuvered out far enough to have a clear view and tried to find someplace where I wasn’t standing in front of some tiny girl who’d been waiting there for hours, eventually settling in the midst of a group of fairly tall, drunk ding-dongs who shouted “Woooo!” at moments completely unrelated to what was happening in the world around them. Then the lights went down, the crowd went ballistic, and Radiohead took the stage. To say that they were superb would be a criminal understatement. They were one hundred percent better than any other band I’ve seen. I fully expected to be disappointed, given how my expectations had bloomed over the years, but they were capable of pulling off all the contradictions their reputation entails. They were innovatively brilliant, but seemed human and reachable, they were intellectual but everything was deceptively simple, they were furiously artistic, but hardly ever ridiculous, and they were aloof but still likable. Unlike U2 they were able to communicate progressiveness without being preachy, unlike Coldplay they were searingly beautiful without ever being treacley or saccharine, and unlike almost all of the bands that follow in their wake they are innovative without being either incredibly derivative of what came before, or consisting of shallow tricks that have a six month shelf life.
The giant video screens on either side of the stage, which showed a fully cinematic version of the show spliced together from about ten different camera angles, was captivating veiwing, but after the first three songs the screens started shorting out. For the first half of their set the screens would spring to life and then shut down again, then turn to color bars, then to video menus, then go dark, until finally they stabilized on what appeared to be a Radiohead-supplied feed from their onstage video project, which looked like security footage. I pictured all the Bonnaroo video staff running around some production facility on the back lot absolutely tearing their hair out at the catastrophic failure of their system during the headliner’s set, but then it occurred to me that maybe Radiohead had sabotaged the video feed as an artistic statement meant to convey alienation and ennui. Either way, the lack of ginat video screens was a bummer at first, but it focused the crowd completely on the stage which ended up being a better concert experience.
I tried to imagine what Thom Yorke would think of the guy standing in front of me, weaving drunk, head-hankie askew on his blonde buzz-cut, sleeveless tie-die and Marlboro Lights, actually doing the dance of the seven veils, with the waving fingers and the snake-charmer swiveling, along to the song Karma Police, but then realized that it didn’t matter whether Thom Yorke got the creepy-crawlies and had to cover himself with antiseptic wet-wipes at the thought of this guy. Musicians can’t pick their fans, and Radiohead deservedly is loved by all.
They played two encores and seemed to bask in their glory, which was great to see, and during their final song the crowd started throwing glow sticks in the air by the thousands, in dozens of different colors, until it looked like a Hawaiian volcano erupting out of the sea of people. It was actually trippy, and cool. Viva Radiohead! Viva Bonnaroo!