I took my mandate as Bonnaroo Festival correspondent for CMJ very seriously. My first order of business upon waking, before even breakfast coffee, was to try and secure myself better credentials. Festivals like Bonnaroo have about twenty-five different levels of backstage pass, which allow access to twenty-five increasingly small and restricted areas. I had backstage passes to a U2 concert once, and it was only when I got backstage that I realized my passes only allowed me to stand in a back hallway under a nearby highway, a quarter of a mile from anywhere Bono was likely to set his drink. CMJ secured me press/photo credentials, which weren’t so hot, but since I was barely a journalist and definitely not a photographer of any kind, I felt hardly constrained by them. There are all kinds of places that a festival like this doesn’t want the press and/or photographers to go, but those are PRECISELY the areas that I, in the service of CMJ, most want to be.
By calling in a few favors, and by variously acting entitled, conspiratorial, and deeply humble, I managed to finagle a laminate that basically allowed me to stand naked on every stage and advertise my MySpace page with an electric sign. The fact that I’m a musician confused everyone just enough that they extended me a musician’s courtesy, which suited me much better. I could climb on every stage, that is, except for the Radiohead show, which rumor had it would be visible only from space.
I’ve never actually been to one of these big festivals except as a performer, so I was excited to act as a correspondent and to finally get out and mingle with my fellow Americans. Bonnaroo has a reputation as a “hippy” festival, probably because in the first couple of years Widespread Panic played four times, but this year the acts are more varied and it’s starting to feel like the south’s own Reading Festival. I had some press/photo credentials and decided to charge around like an un-high Hunter Thompson, pressing my luck where appropriate to get the real story.
I set out onto the festival grounds with confidence and authority, trying to blend in with the locals by “following my bliss”. I quickly realized that Bonnaroo, no matter what bands are booked to play, is still a hippy festival in every way. It’s built into the very concept of camping out for four days watching bands, but I was surprised that so much of the hemp necklace/Guatemalan skirt thing had survived the Irony Wars of the late 90’s. Normally I would approach huge crowds of sunburned, naked, twenty-something, white, doo-ragged, goateed, and Rhiannoned Southern college students with a tremendous Seattle disdain, but the “It’s all good” vibe washed over me and absolutely destroyed my capacity for sarcasm in the first thirty seconds after I walked out into the dirt.
Seriously, I was repeating to myself that it was all good and saying hello to people and calling people “bro” right away, which really makes me wonder just how deeply my cynical convictions that the world is fucked really run.
I trucked around for a bit, basically feeling like a dancing bear, until I gravitated toward some music coming from a distant tent that at first blush sounded so much like Jeff Buckley I thought the singer, whoever he was, should be ashamed of himself. It was Andrew Bird, playing to a huge midday crowd, and as soon as he started his second song my doubts about him were erased. He was playing accompanied only by a drummer, using all the modern, stomp box, sampler technology to loop himself playing a violin part and then play over the top. Jon Brion does this at Largo every Friday night, and after awhile it feels like something he’s doing for the tourists, like there’s a cruise ship docked out back and after the show everybody gets a sombrero. Most of the people I’ve seen perform by looping themselves on stage I end up thinking, “I do that too, IN THE PRACTICE SPACE!”
But Andrew Bird actually rules at it. He plays violin, xylophone, guitar and piano, making all these loops on the fly that I could barely understand, and the end result sounds like Arabic jazz-pop with Jeff Buckley singing over it which is actually super-great. I stayed until the end of his set, and ultimately gave it five out of five stars for excellence. The hippy kids and I were all transported to a higher plane.
I wandered back to the media/artist hospitality area, which was an oasis of New York publicists who have much harder anti-hippy armor than I have, apparently, then I ducked over to catch Ben Folds. For this show I climbed up, as a member of the media, onto the stage to watch from the wings. Ben Folds is smaller than I thought, which means that William Shatner is smaller too, since I only ever see them standing together. His music and band are fun and, dare I say it, IRONIC with every breath they take, and Ben Folds looks like he never sees the sun under normal circumstances. During his set the Death Cab for Cutie roadies were setting up the guitars and drums for DCFC’s set later on, and when the little cluster of photographers beside the stage realized that they were looking at Chris Walla’s guitars right in front of their noses there was a mini flurry of excitement and they all snapped a few frames. Unfortunately, during the one point in Ben Folds’ set when he “took it down” and played a song solo on the piano, there was someone over on the Death Cab drums offstage messing with the high-hat.
Now, no one in the audience could hear, or even cared, that someone was tapping a high-hat offstage, but Ben Folds noticed and turned briefly around, mid-verse, as if to say, “Please don’t do that.” But the tapping continued. I know from firsthand experience that when someone is making noise backstage, when some other band is fucking with their tambourines or tuning a snare drum or something, it’s the most distracting and destructive thing for the musician onstage, especially when it happens DURING YOUR QUIETEST SONG! I was praying that Ben Folds would throw a huge rock star fit about it so that I could be a journalist and get some good material, but he was the soul of professionalism.
The kids out in the sun were worshipful of Ben Folds, and he totally won me over when, during his song ARMY, he got the audience singing the horn parts in a round, the left side of the enormous crowd singing the first horn break and the right side of the crowd singing the overlapping part. Right there he not only achieved a very special musical moment, he also saved on paying for a bunch of horn players. Total genius! My only complaint is that he was wearing one of those Manuel Noriega military caps, and I just expected more from him in that regard.
After Ben I raced over to the Main Stage and somehow squeaked into the side of stage area to see Steel Pulse. Steel Pulse were bringing some Rasta man vibrations and, although it took me a minute to lose my inhibitions in terms of admitting to myself that I was going to start dancing to a song called “Global Warming”, after a while I was feeling Irie. Jah! Rastafari! I doubt that any New York indie bands are revealing the truth about global warming in their music! I watched them for an hour and, except for the dancing there’s not much else to report. It’s not like they were revolutionizing the genre, and I happen to have it on pretty good authority that Haile Selassie was not a living God.
From Steel Pulse I hightailed it over to see Bright Eyes. This was by far the “indiest” show I’d seen yet, in the sense that everyone on stage looked like someone my sister babysat fifteen years ago. It’s not that they were young looking, because they almost all had beards, but that they just looked and played like some neighborhood kids that have a band. It’s charming, of course, but these big, daytime, festival stages demand that the band occasionally point out to the crowd and say, “ALL RIGHT!”. The crowd wants to roar, but Conor just humbly and quietly thanked everybody. After awhile I realized that Conor’s songs remind me of Van Morrison’s, which is nice, but overall I felt like it was a show which would have seemed much more awesome in a church basement full of kids in Lincoln, Nebraska. I mean, that’s a skill in itself, because those church basements can be a tough place to bomb.
Next I headed to see Ricky Skaggs. I’d been a fan ever since the eighties when I first got turned on to flat-pickin’ bluegrass and I always admired that he turned his back on the crappy mainstream country establishment and just played the shit out of his mandolin for whoever would come. When they took the stage, three guitarists, a banjo, violin, double bass, and Ricky playing mandolin, they looked surprised at the size and youth of the crowd but started pickin’ and grinnin’ just like at any country fair. Unlike most country fairs the audience went freaking nuts, not just at the end of the songs, but at the end of each solo, until the weird, plastered-on grin that most bluegrass musicians wear started to become real grins, and then big fat smiles. The band was smoking and they were being treated like rock stars, and the best part was you could read on their faces that they had no expectation of this happening and were truly psyched. It was exhilarating just to watch, and they played their hearts out. I watched for about ten songs but, as much as I love Bluegrass, it just ends up sounding like somebody’s chasing the Duke boys after awhile. Besides, Ricky threw in an “I’m just a simple, Christian man” kind of country-pandering number, and that sent me packing.
On over to watch Cat Power and the Memphis Rhythm Band. I have to confess a long-standing “not-buying-it” attitude toward Chan Marshall and her whole Cat Power, crazy, shrieking girl shtick. This is a direct result of my having dated a girl for a long time who really thought Cat Power was the bees-knees, and she would play Cat Power on her car stereo at a really low volume whenever I was in the car, so that it sounded to me like a field recording of the rape of a thousand grandmas. Bleah. Over the years, of course, many people have explained to me in great detail how WRONG my opinion of Cat Power is, but those people tend to be questionable music-whiners in the first place. Add to this the fact that every time Cat Power came to Seattle there was some story from the show about how she refused to perform, or crawled under a table, or turned her back to the crowd, or some equally irritating shit that this particular girl I was dating would quietly contend was proof of her genius.
Anyway, I went to see her with some skepticism, but the fact that she was playing with this Memphis Rhythm Band was intriguing to me, as I love that style of rhythm and blues. These Memphis cats are all about fifty, all seasoned players, and watching them set up I really got the impression they were all likable people and had sweated over their instruments. They started the show fifteen minutes late playing this great Memphis R&B boogie and went through a whole number with no sign of Chan. They started a second song and, halfway through, you could see the band members all kind of craning their necks looking for their singer, and I thought, “Great. I’ve been suckered in. Chan Marshall is backstage having kittens and we’re going to sit out here with building anticipation only to have her never leave her trailer.” Just as I finished formulating that thought, here she came, dressed in her pajamas, carrying a pink travel mug in one hand and a can of pop in the other. She stopped at the side of the stage, putting down her pop can to light a cigarette, and as the band onstage finished their second song she looked over at me, standing alone at the side of the stage, and smiled at me like I was the greatest thing she’d ever seen. Then she walked up the ramp on to the stage and, with the crowd roaring, looked down at me again and smiled the same surprised smile.
What the fuck? She completely won me over. It was that easy? That’s ridiculous. You cannot just win me over by smiling at me like a happy child. But it was too late, the band picked up the next tune, she started to sing, and tears sprung from my eyes at the sound of her voice and the music. It was the title song of her new record, The Greatest, and it was perfect and bold and beautiful. The Memphis Rhythm Band is one of those outfits where they are so good, so perfectly smooth, that it’s almost impossible to tell which instrument is playing what. Is that a guitar or piano? I was standing right next to the guitar amp and I still couldn’t pick out the part, so effortlessly were they blending into each other, never fighting, every note a compliment to every other! I had blown it, fallen in love with Chan Marshall, and now all her perfectly irritating mannerisms were going to seem cute and charming to me. She sings out of the side of her mouth like Eddie Money and I couldn’t even hate that.
After about ten songs of utter bliss, where I was convinced she was looking at me every chance she got, (she was probably flinching at all the elves running around her peripheral vision), I had to beat it over to see Death Cab for Cutie. I’ve seen DCFC about five hundred times, but I was really curious how they sounded on a super big stage and how they were making the transition to big rock stars. I walked across the festival grounds and heard their song the Sound of Settling slowly distinguishing itself from the din of the other stages. The crowd was enormous, the sun was low in the sky, and the sound was fantastic. I considered watching their whole show from out on the grass with the punters, but decided after a few songs to make my way back stage and see about some ice-cold Gatorades. Once I had climbed up on the stage I was siezed by the infectiousness of the music and began doing my Death Cab dance, which is a sort of spastic imitation of the guys in the band that I picked up from watching their old merch guy do impressions of them. Just like saying the word “dude”, this dance impression went from being funny to being something that I just do unconsciously.
The boys in the band were unaware that I had come to Bonnaroo because, after all, I was here on a secret mission for CMJ, so when Chris Walla looked off-stage and saw me bopping along he was visibly surprised. He then laughingly dedicated their next song, A Movie Script Ending, to me, which was very generous. MUCH to my surprise, a couple of songs later during the portion of We Looked Like Giants where Ben drops his guitar and sits behind a small drum kit to have a “drum-off” with their drummer Jason, rather than drop his guitar he motioned to me, standing on the side of the stage, and threw it to me. I stepped out from the wings and was suddenly standing in front of forty thousand people, with the band in full flight and a live guitar in my hands. It’s a very psychedelic portion of their set, and they know me to play a fairly blown-out style of guitar solo, so I did the natural thing in this case, which was to step on all of Ben’s effects pedals at once and begin a screaming, delay-drenched, feedbacking guitar suicide attack.
You may be asking yourself, “What? Who the hell is this guy?”, which is absolutely what the crowd was thinking. I was kind of thinking it myself. Still the audience cheered madly, and cheered again when my “solo” reached its epic heights. I broke a string, bloodied my hand, and at the end just handed the guitar off to the guitar tech, waved to the crowd, and reverted back to being a journalist. Maybe they thought I was Trey Anastasio.
Since this was a huge rock show the band was ushered off at the end of their set to some waiting limo and I never saw them again, so I grabbed a Gatorade and moved toward the main stage to try and get good seats to see Tom Petty. On the way there I bumped into Mia, working for the artist relations office, who noticed I was bleeding all over from my battle wound and took me to a trailer and bandaged me up. She made it clear to me that there were “germs” everywhere and she wasn’t letting me walk around with a cut hand. By the time I made it over to the main stage it was clear that my press credentials weren’t going to get me anywhere near Tom Petty’s backstage, which was a bummer. What if he wanted me to play a guitar solo? Oh well.
I climbed into some bleachers with the “VIPs”, but once the concert started it was just like watching it on TV in a big field, so I jumped down and waded into the crowd. Again I was astonished at the tremendous HIPPY vibe in the audience. Tie-dye shirts, dreadlocks, sandals, tangled beards, headbands… who knew that this culture was still such a powerful force. The indie-rock world that I normally inhabit is so consumed with feigned boredom that it’s easy to forget how appealing it is to most people just to smoke a little doobie and jam out to some blues noodling.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a huge influence on me and giants of American music, but their set started out a little timid, like they hadn’t been on stage in a while. Mike Cambell, patron saint of the melodic solo, was kind of anemic at first, dropping notes and just generally not “stepping up”, and I was worried that they were taking the inoffensive route and just going to play the hits with soft guitars. It wasn’t until they played some covers, Mannish Boy, (which Tom credited to the Yardbirds), and Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well that they started to light it up a little, adding some more muscular guitar sounds. Then Tom called freaking Stevie Nicks out from the wings to sing their big hit together and then she stuck around to bang the tambourine and dance around. Stevie Nicks looks great and is truly a musical hero, but it’s nice to see that even she doesn’t know what to do on stage when she’s not singing. There is simply no dignified way to play the tambourine, even if it’s covered with feathers, which hers was.
The band started loosening up, which was a big improvement, but Mike Cambell still played kind of sloppily until I wondered maybe if that was his “style”. Unfortunately they continued to loosen up, right past the point where it was loose and into the place where Tom was improvising some kind of “I love you sooo much” business while the Heartbreakers vamped the blues. This is the opposite end of what I was saying about Bright Eyes; sometimes you can give the crowd too much of what they want. Then, unforgivably, with all the tremendous hits they have at their disposal, with Stevie Nicks waiting, perhaps, to sing one from her catalog, they launched into a fifteen minute version of Gloria. Does the world really need to hear one more bar band play Gloria? Even Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could not do anything more with that song, it has been interpreted to death. But, of course, the hippies dug it and when Mike Cambell started soloing like Jerry Garcia the place went bananas.
Overall, I was glad that Tom Petty restored some of my snarky, coastal cynicism. I had spent the day journeying to the outer edge of happy-happy, joy-joy, to the point that I was crying at a Cat Power show, but in the end had come back to Earth, back to where I was comfortable, making arch comments about other guitar players. I finished the night watching My Morning Jacket play deafening chicken-fried rock, where every song STARTS at the climax and goes up from there, but I was mostly unmoved. That seems like fun music to play, but I think listening to too much of it would make me want to get in a musket fight with someone.
I finished the night with a handful of GORP for dinner, and curled up in the back of a mini-van to catch some “z”s before the big day tomorrow. The last news of the day was that some kid running across the interstate had been hit and killed by Ricky Skaggs’ tour bus. I felt sorry for Ricky that his day had to end in tragedy. The mood around the press tent raised the question whether a kid walking across the interstate might not have been on drugs. We’ll see. Either way Bonnaroo deserves credit for how FEW troubling incidents occur.