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Sunday
Jun142015

Day 3 Drifting By, Too Many Riches To Behold (Bonnaroo Installment 6)

The Morning After Turns Into A Magic Day

            It’s pressing noon, and the Starbucks is sold out of almost everything. The line moves pretty well. The staff never loses their smile. People hover near the outlets, recharging their devices, caffeine-loading after the first full grueling day.

            Two teenage girls with their hair straight and shiny are prattling about “did you see...” and “can you believe...” They have big plans for the festival, bigger plans for their life. They hate this girl, think that boy’s stupid. They compare schedules in the congress of youth manifesting.

            Anyone who thinks Bonnaroo is only for hippie weirdos needs only to see these two squeaky clean young ladies, probably headed to good colleges in the next year or two. In the realm of what Bonnaroo contains, they make as much sense as the patchouli-smelling, henna-tattoed girls or the fancy-shifters wandering bare-chested nipples covered in body paint or glitter.

            It is do-what-you-do/we’ll-dig-your-authentic. It is the best possible prospect no matter who or what you are – or wanna be.

            A friend’s 16-year old daughter is running free, up before anyone and off into the music; home long after everyone else has caved in. Her hair is blue, she’s wearing baggy jean shorts, denim shirt tied around her waist. Every moment is a discovery, every turn or step holds another thrill.

            Looking at the schedule, there is much to see. No full sets today, but the continual slide’n’sample of too much to possibly manage, yet the drive to see it all. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate – and hope for the best.

            Trampled by Turtles on the What Stage sends old-string bandery into the crowd. They miss notes, fall out of time; the critics love them. They set a feel for the massive main stage that defines a day that will see Hozier, Mumford + Sons and My Morning Jacket all plow through various forms revolving around acoustic instruments.

            But stopping isn’t an option. Rhiannon Giddens  is on the Which stage, also old-timey and old school, but far more practiced and studied in her musicology. Joined by bandmates the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she is as sincere as she is charming in her sleeveless ‘40s black dress with the crinolines underneath and bare feet on the burning stage as she caresses Patsy Cline’s “She Got You” with a strong vein of ache tempered with the drown of the small remembrances left.

            It is on Odetta’s “Water Boy” where her power comes forth. After explaining that T-Bone Burnett hearing her sing the song “changed my life” – and led to Tomorrow is My Turn, the solo album released earlier this year that helped her earn an Americana Artist of the Year nomination.

            With a big beat driving, her initial verse is a cappella plus; she sings large and strong and powerful. It is the essence of the storied black folk singer who wrote the song. Then the band slides up and under, slightly Dixieland in their rhythms, and Giddens voice turns to satin, more sultry in the approach.

            “Water Boy” becomes of a festival of what string instruments can do: upright bass, acoustic guitar and banjo plinking through the beat, the cello threads the melody line like a fiddle.  It swings in a way folk music never would, and it takes the material into a new realm.

            Later she invokes Kentucky’s banjo-playing Cousin Emmy, a hardcore mountain texture of the first order. Introducing the half-hog-callin’, half-bluegrass brash acher “Ruby,” Giddens cries and wallows in the pain of romantic travails – and sounds as much holler as any mountain girl ever has.

            Transfixed and needing water, we stay too long – and don’t make it to Bahamas. Hearing about how it may’ve been the best set some of my critic friends saw, I bite the inside of my cheek, knowing these are the wages of ‘Roo. But heat stroke is not an option, and so we drank up, then crossed the pasture, hearing a bit of the Bleachers’ fun.-surfing pop that is as infectious as anything on pop radio. If you need a little aural tickling, download it now.

            Hozier beckons: the soul-stirrer from a more Van Morrison place than a Marvin Gaye grounding. His breakthrough “Church” suggested – as did Amy Winehouse’s nu soul – that a different kind of earthy can ground the intersection of blues and alternative rock.

            In his lanky, dark haired glory, Hozier didn’t disappoint. His voice is like molasses Twizzlers: sweet, but somehow rendered into something musky, thick enough to chew, but giving to the teeth.

            Some instruments beckon you closer, some lift you up. Some take you to – sorry – church or school. But Hozier, for all the earnestness of his pain, of his regret, of his willingness to take the beating is not sanctimonious. This is a man who can sweep Arianna Grande’s “Problem” into something that rocks, and bring a field of people to full-voice singing it out with him.

 

            Again, across the pasture, Sturgill Simpson has them spilling out on every possible space of That Tent, so much so Artist passes have to walk all the way around the entire complex to gain access to the viewing area. It is intriguing to see this kind of lean, progressive country in an outlaw tilt draw such a crowd – hipsters and hippies, some people who look like they might know Vern Gosdin or Keith Whitley’s songs beyond name recognition.

            Much has been written about him as the new Waylon. He ain’t. Not even close. It is such a disservice to what Simpson is doing: forging a counter-culture country that is as tough and as frank as anything Kristofferson ever wrote, delivered sans bloat or frills with a train beat often driving it, and always a voice that is sturdy if not pretty, true if not as memorable as many of the icons.

            What he is, beyond all the musical descriptors, is a man in a pretty basic button up shirt, jeans hanging slightly loose, electric guitar over his shoulder and his eye on the horizon. He’s not swaggering to swagger, nor is he blustering at some piece of crap radio system. He doesn’t care about any of it, it seems, just making his music on his terms.

            Bright colored psychedelic graphics projected behind the stage suggest the disengaging from expectation, too. This is music that could happen in any Texas roadhouse on any given night. Waltzes in places, drivers in others, he weaves a carpet that is hard country sans twang, offers up lean, almost brittle arrangements that have more punch for the austerity and stand stall in the moment.

            If labels were honest, he’d be the middle of the country continuum – and what’s on the radio would sail off the edge of the world as Columbus feared when he set off in the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. But tags don’t always measure up to definition, and so he is the fringe – as was Willie of Phases & Stages – and from the outside, perhaps he’s tunneling his way under to a whole new kind of secessionist country music.

            Floating back towards the main stages Belle & Sebestian maintain the magic that makes them evoke so many things on still nights and in slow moments. They are a balm and an agent for what’s unspoken. But there is too much music to linger.

            Austin, Texas post-modern bluesmas Gary W. Clark holds down the Which? Stage. He is more electric, more rock than the last time I saw him at South By Southwest with just a guitar. He has a way of distilling the things he sings of, but then bringing the music home by how he finds the serpentine that wraps around the emotions, the betrayals, the doubts and the release inside his songs.

            He is a musician as much as a gruff voiced singer. He finds his fingers exploring his truths in ways that make you shake with what he’s trying to share. To expand the songs in those other dimensions perhaps give him a breadth Robert Cray never quite found: the bridge between the two never quite happened for the “Smoking Gun” man.

            But stopping her is not possible either. My Morning Jacket is about to take the What Stage, under that green neon Bonnaroo sign. More water is needed. There is a finite reality against the infinite possibilities of all this music.

            In the bus lot where friends are stationed, the guys from Dawes have gathered around the Rita Houston Express. Someone is pouring sauce from a baggie into a pan that will settle on a grill. No one pays them any mind as the band scatters around the stone and dust lot, listening to the music floating over the wire fence hung with tarp.

            One of Jim James’ gifts is his ability to create a web of feeling beyond any obvious element of My Morning Jacket’s recordings. Exacting musicians, an emotive singer who can wring truth out of an almost two-dimensional tone, there is something shimmering to what the whole yields.

            For 18 songs, the Bonnaroo stalwarts kept the throng – many so far from he stage, even the big screens couldn’t yield music of an impression – in the palm of their hands. “Gideon” and “Run Through” pressed into me, leaving the mark of music where words fail. Of all the bands over the four days, few defy my ability to capture like this Kentucky-bred collective that is much brain and heart, visceral beyond touch and always, always pressing to challenge themselves and the listeners.

 

            There is a pale of silence descending on the far left side of the hill. Over at What? Childish Gambino keeps rapping and bringing their music, but where we are it’s not quite an echo. Time is needed to absorb MMJ, and to let it sink in before Mumford & Sons close down the biggest stage of all.

            Four fresh-faced lads from the U.K., chiming folk-pop as bright as morning on the ocean, they seem to be in the middle of shifting to a more electric, more rock tilt in their music. If once they’d been surging acoustic turns, now they’ve plugged in – but without the blasphemy that met Dylan at Newport.

            From the opening “Lovers’ Eyes,” they came to play. The crowd came to love them. It was the kind of communion where musicians who excavate their souls dream of: listened to and yet somehow, also engaged.

            They tumbled through 14, 15 songs, savoring every downstroke, every unguarded moment of people who didn’t come to play a set by the numbers. “Lovers of Light” gave way to “Thistle & Weeds” into “Ghosts That We Know.” And so it went all the way through to the set culminating sweep of “Dust Bowl Dance” and “The Wolf.”

            When the Londoners topped the Top 200 Album charts with 20012’s Babel, it was obvious they were ushering in a new world order. For Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Winston Marshall and Ted Dwane, it wasn’t so much a master plan – nor a move for world domination. But it struck a blow for a new kind of addressing the game of penetrating the marketplace: eschewing the trends, mindfully evolving the music, singing true to your heart and knowing your place in your own reality.

            A five song encore – including “Roll Away the Stone” and “Little Lion Man” --  was a whole other threshold. With a powerful 1, 2, 3, 4 line-up of songs, they crushed the cake by bringing out Hozier, My Morning Jacket, Dawes and Ed Helms for a culminating rendition of the Beatles’ “A Little Help from My Friends.”

            If it were not Bonnaroo, not past 1 a.m., not perfectly mirroring the spirit the festival promoters try to engender, it might have been cliché. Somehow, all those bands who have held the ground and the stage over these few days, understand in a way the hyper-competitive music business hasn’t figured out: it is the community and the presense of creatives driving creative that everything is more.

            It is not a conveyor belt, a check list or approaching every act as the same box of product where the ascension rises. All of those artists, so singular, so uniquely unto their own hybrid vigor, found paths by blazing a trail... and in smart “grown-ups” working to what the music was, by songs that were unfiltered reflections of who they were, they built fan-bases that can draw six figures to the rolling flat somewhere in Tennessee.

 

            Somewhere D’Angelo is running late. The new king of post-soul no doubt is a siren in a snake’s slithering goodness. Loving everything about D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s New Messiah, I want to hurl myself across the pathway and down the pathway to where I know the best grooves will be unfurled.

            But it is late, and there is another day. My heart aches, my body says “no.” I know that this is where wisdom is my grown-self’s master. Besides, he is running late – as all the great r&b denizens are known to – so I console myself with heaven only knows when that churning undulatives will begin.

            I sigh, hating knowing better. But knowing, too, there will be no shortage of the faithful, screaming to the heavens, shrieking for every bit of his sexy he exudes. No doubt if he comes out clad, he will shed his casing, revealing those 8 pack abs, he will stride across the stage like a panther or a tiger who knows his prey.

            This is the great regret of Bonnaroo. And yet, it is also the glory of filling a plate so high, not one person shall go hungry.

Sunday
Jun142015

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

Earth, Wind & Fire Cracks the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Saturday
Jun132015

Rule the World or the Small Town: Kacey Musgraves, Tears for Fears (Bonnaroo Installment #4) 

Kacey Mugraves: Honeysuckle Sweet; Tears For Fears Still Rule the World

            Neon green and pink cactus dot the stage, a sweeping Western panorama changes colors behind a band in electric light-strewn Manuel suits. It is the surreal cowboy realm of a West that is equal parts cotton candy cute and truth telling with a covered dish and ambrosia salad in the Tupperware container realm.
            Kacey Musgraves became the alternative’s sweetheart with the sexually libertarian “Follow Your Arrow,” but with Pageant Material, due June 23, she stands to broaden her horizons as a hard reality commentator in a small town world. While CMA Music Fest raged 60 miles west, Musgraves took the stage a universe away in a teeny square dancing skirt buoyed by a cloud of tulle. Ebony-hair tumbling like an old school country queen, she flounced around the stage, acoustic guitar strapped to her and cowgirl boots cut to the ankle, leaving her free to strut.

            In a set that included a plucky version of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a Musgraves’ song Miranda Lambert took to #1, covers of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and a set-closing romp through Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” the Mineola, Texan showed music is universal first. But it was with her own material, she demonstrated an atmospheric brand of classic country is where her heart is.

            Whether the luxurious new “High Time,” that evokes Merle Haggard, the Dixie Chicks-snap “Step Off” or the early Mary Chapin Carpenter-suggesting “Merry Go Round,” Musgraves manages to blur commentary with hooks that match pop music. Never trivializing her small town tropes, she offers a realm where acceptance matters – whether it’s “Family Is Family” or “Arrow” – and dreams deferred – “Blowin’ Smoke” – are tempered with the sweetness of life – “It Is What It Is.”

            Don’t think Musgraves is all Moon Pie and RC Cola sweetness, though. Introducing her finger-picked rules for life in a small-minded small-town “Bisquits” with the straight up, “They just pulled this one off the F&*%ing radio... whatever that means. Maybe they don’t like bisquits.”

            What followed set the tone for a girl who knows how to be sweet, but not take any mess. As a post-modern feminist a la Loretta Lynn, Musgraves seems determined to work the outside in. Hopefully, she’s gonna get there.

 

            That notion of manifest destiny, honesty and what it means sifted through the pop song tableau can seem fraught at best, pretentious at worst. Musgraves demonstrates it can be cozy work, skewering stereotypes and talking down teeny minds. But there are also larger notions to mine.

            Across the field, past the stalls selling organic hamburgers, roasted corn and Amish donuts, beyond the magic mushroom that rains down water on overheated Bonnaroovians and the terminator tin man pig Hamaggedon, people are cramming into another tent, waiting for late ‘80s sensation Tears for Fears to take the stage.

            The Romantics blare through “What I Like About You,” that thin lacerating guitar sound suddenly sounding more bristling than it ever did on the radio. Is it nostalgia, or something more that draws them? So many are teenagers, barely 20-somethings, shiny faces turned to the stage.

            And they hit the stage hard. Drums cracking like cannon shots and the bass skipping behind, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” rolls across the crowd in a wave of recognition. There is a collective spasm of cheers, arms aloft as the song about the dominator impulse – stretched across as pop a frame as exists, the truth is given more than a spoonful of honey.

            Curt Smith’s voice has held up: still equal parts butterscotch and brightness, he melts into the words, lifts them up. It is the perfect contrast to Roland Orzabel’s more burnished sheen, a dark wood polished to richness with the strength of the wood implied. And when they sing together – in sync’d harmony or trading lines – there is a dimension added that is grace amidst the stark truths and concepts explored in the songs.

            Somewhere between the Beatles’ psychedelia and the New Romantics plush pop, Tears for Fears offered the confection of the moment. That it has worn so well speaks to the depth of what was beneath the songs, both lyrically and musically.

            “Secret World,” which quotes Wings’ “Uncle Albert,” gave way to the undulating “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” Though a full-tilt rock/alternative band that found pop success, the amount of rhythm & blues under those ubiquitous hits becomes apparent on a bare stage with only the instruments to color the night. Smith is a bass player who works from melody, but is also someone capable of finding the pocket and burrowing in.

            A cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” near set’s end illuminated what kind of influence the pair had on the larger musical conversation. They evoked the original’s intention; in turn, the similarity between it and their songs emerged.

            Embracing songs from their debut The Hurting, it was a full spectrum set. One where the playing bolstered them, rendering songs known by heart – “Mad World,” “Pale Shelter,” “Memories Fade,” “Closest Thing To Heaven” – became stronger now than when they were the moment. It is that ability for songs to be played without nostalgia that vitality is forged.

            Sidestage, ‘80s teensation Corey Feldman put cigarette-after-cigarette to his lips, power-smoking in time to the beat. A harbinger of the insanity of the late ‘80s go-go-MTB fueled world of excess, there was a vampiric quality to what was in his presence, yet somehow, it also suggested how powerful those moments were.

            With a Kilimanjaro beat, the set built into the catharsis of “Shout.” Underscored by the lyric’s primal scream therapy-informed lyric, it is a song about letting go, jettisoning what plagues you and finding a place to create a better way of being.  Beat throbbing, the churn in the audience as the crowd lurched as one towards the stage and then back in time conjured a rave’s hypnotic state without the Molly – and saw thousands erupt into smiles of pure rapture.

            Sure, some of it was remembering who we were when “Shout” was on the radio, but there was also the combustion of moments shared, musicians in the zone, a song so perfectly expressing the thrill of blowing up the bad, the impact of what’s being sung is all there is. Smiling from ear-to-ear, Orzabel and Smith – looking decidedly dashing in basic jeans, a dark button up on the former, a black t on the latter – matched the crowd’s euphoria at what was conjured.

 

            Backstage after the set, Smith sat on a couch, catching up with an old friend he’s not seen in years. Showing pictures of his girls, talking about how they reflect the parents, Guster’s Ryan Miller approaches, still damp from his own set. Introducing himself, he thanks Smith for the music, for what the songs mean – and the pair exchange a moment of true creative recognizing the power and impact of what music can imbue.

            It is a quick moment, unseen by most. But in the night, in the spirit of the festival unfolding all around, it seems so right. Here is a progressive band of merry pranksters and a force of such profound pop reality, both sharing a canvas that moves people, offers insight, instills the will to... and the emotional clarity to understand.

            Though in some ways, they’re polemic, in the end, they offer the same releases and reliefs to anyone who listens. It is an amazing transference of the currency that binds us together.

            Curt Smith smiles as he hears this, nods his head. It is not what he came looking for, but he recognizes the common ground and the role that inspiration plays without having to go any deeper than the exchange.

Saturday
Jun132015

Elle King Stands Down; Dawes' Gilded Afternoon (Bonnaroo Installment #3)

Elle King: Plus Size Girl in a Too Thin World; Dawes: Third Time's A Dream

            Elle King is onstage, oversized guitar slung across her copious trunk, peroxided beyond human tolerance hair pulled back. She’s wearing a red leotard with little straps over the sheerest red stockings imaginable – and beyond the skinny belt circling her waist, the outfit barely contains her.

            It’s not that King eschews today’s supermodel scrawniness – and she does, the tarty blond is a seriously endowed woman – but her personality is even bigger than the body that contains it. Leaning into the mic, she’s fearless as she tears her songs to bits, a bit of old school Brit punk/nu soul undertow to what she sings.

            And there’s more to the young woman pouring sweat like it’s happy hour than the irrepressibly naughty girl anthem “Ex’s and Oh’s,” which body slams from one boy to another with not jot one of remorse. Unrepentant, unapologetic, she storms the stage, stomping, whirling, yowling and always putting it to the crowd with a ferocity that suggests romantic grist turns to powder in her ample grasp.

            A touch ska, a bit rockabilly, a bit of old school country and a whole lot of blues, King’s cocktail is more love on the rocks than anything. And don’t look to the girl fathered by comedian Rob Schneider, but raised by her mother London King to be the victim, either.

            “I Told You I Was Mean” flexes the get-out-of-my-bed brio most men would never dream, providing a table turn that’s as euphoric as it is blunt. That blunt force is equal parts feminist and F you, and it’s thrilling to see her whirl through a set with aggressive punk energy that is all thrust-thrust-BANG.

            Punctuated by trombone, the beats banging like a woodpecker in heat, this is uncompromising stuff. On “Good To Be A Man,” there is that moment of (almost) equanimity. Laughing she tosses off the admonition, “People gave me a hard time about time with that song, like ‘You hate men.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t. I slept with half of y’all.’”

            That brash reasoning, the tomato red stage outfit, the unwillingness to yield to expectation – all held together with more spirit – speaks more to busting down cultural expectations and body image issues than any mountain of words. See her, feel her, be here – or whatever you dream.

            True Love says follow your path – even when scorned, laugh while you do it, but mostly enjoy the ride. Seeing King onstage, she walks it like she talks it.

 

            The trouble with Bonnaroo is the overlapping and the things you can’t see. Choices must be made, electrolytes taken to get close to enough of what you desire.

And then there is the staking one’s claim, knowing the What Stage are those acts the festival is banking on, the numbers drawn will be excruciating.

            Elle King’s set had spilled over into the donut tent and far back past the walk-by path. Pregnant with curiosity and hardcore lusters, she was on a small stage. For an act like Dawes, the bull’s eye for thinking if tortured romantics of the new millennium, it was about showing up early.

            Splayed on the grass, staring at the sky and the screens with a giant neon Bonnaroo over the stage, there was a moment to think about the diversity. It is only here that Kendrick Lamar and Kacey Musgraves make sense together, Earth Wind and Fire can balance with Brown Sabbath.

            On the screen, messages of fellowship flash: “Live by the Bonnaroo Code: Play as a Team,” “Hydrate & Reduce Waste Refill Those Water Botttles.” Intercut are reminders of who’s playing where and when. It is fellowship as much as music.

            Roadies in black move across the stage, checking cables and connections, stepping on pedals, adjusting monitor positions. They know the crowd drawing for a reason; they know, too, this is a big show for Taylor Goldsmith and company.

            “Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.  Maya Angelou” flashes above.

            A moment of literary grounding in the hippie dippie ephemera. Lee Ann Womack takes her iPhone snaps a picture. No one knows the slight woman sitting on the grass sang at the Nobel Prize winner’s “Celebration of Joy Rising” memorial. They don’t have to, they just need to internalize the message.

            Womack shakes her head, laughs. She’s having the time of her life. So much music, everywhere she looks. But more importantly, people loving music the same way she does: completely, wholly, absolutely.

 

            Dawes in some ways is nothing special. A basic 5-piece band, unassuming. Goldsmith wears lean dark pants, an equally close fitting blue shirt with dots and classic amber hued sunglasses. Theu’re not dark enough to keep you from seeing his eyes, not distancing cool, but more tinted to allow him to take the crowd in.

            With the chiming melody washing over the crowd, Goldsmith intones “Things happen... that’s all they ever do” with a resolve that is neither whining nor defeated. If there is sacred ground the quintet plows, it is the rows of how we tangle, untangle, stagger, slump and sometimes succeed.

            Often seen as the progeny of the Jackson Browne Southern Cailfornia songwriter school, there is the similarity of topography navigated, details gleaned and the tug in Goldsmith’s voice. In particularly building places, the band evokes the Section – the storied LA session band that included guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar – and storied same-era guitarist Waddy Wachtel.

            But the jangle is muted, the California canyon thing is faded like denim left out at the beach. They are not altar boys in a church of what was, but young people looking to empower their peers trying to stand instead of tear down the inertia of detraction because their entitlement check didn’t cash.

            Yes, Goldsmith sings lines like about a girl who’s got “a special kind of sadness/ A tragic set of charms/ That only only come from times spent in Los Angeles/ Makes me wanna take you in my arms...” But beyond the ache, there are melodies that swerve from Fleetwood Mac’s most radio-friendly to the Allman’s sweetness.

            On “Don’t Send Me Away,” the vocalist takes a guitar solo that suggests Springsteen at the height of Darkness on the Edge of Town, as burning and electric as the churn inside him. Still most of the solos go to his brother on a gold top Les Paul, held by a strap that reads BETTS – and often channeling the Southern rocker’s most molasses tones.
            “This is our third time at Bonnaroo, but our first on this stage,” Goldsmith said almost shyly. Then like a kid with a new puppy, he beamed, “And let me tell you, it’s a whole different experience.”

            The crowd cheered. They’ve been watching the band – who recorded All Your Favorite Bands at Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s historic Woodland Studios in East Nashville – evolve and develop.
            Earlier in the set, they played “Somewhere Along the Way,” like Joan Didion chronicling the places she’s been, the way she’s living and how she sees it, Dawes in their prime have crafted a travelogue for a sensitive pragmatist finding their way.  The melodic hooks are thick without being treacle, and as the song builds, a groove emerges deep enough to show you the bones of how they work.

            One day, many years from now, the young who believed will look back – and they will have audible postcards that won’t just be the sound of their wild, yearning youth. No, Dawes will have given them the pictures and the feelings, all wrapped up with a piano player who can rise and fall, a bass player who knows that melody is as important as the beat and a clean crisp drummer who finds the heart is its own metronome.

 

Saturday
Jun132015

Going In (Bonnaroo, Installment 2)

Going In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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