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Entries in Bonnaroo (13)

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.

Saturday
Jun132015

Midnight in Manchester/Back to the Farm

Midnight In Manchester/Welcome to the Farm

            The day had gone on too long. Tooooo toooooo long. Up early for a massive blood draw, deadlines, deadlines, phone calls, errands, racing around, events. Events. No, EVENTS. Things to be taken entirely too seriously, like Don Henley allowing select tracks from his album to be played. And more writing, more talking on the phone, more throwing things in bags and then throwing them in the car.

            It isn’t quite humid as the last trip from stoop to car begins, alaram bleep bleep bleep-ing in my wake. It isn’t hot, but the heat is present. It penetrates my skin as I slide into the car, adjust the rearview mirror, wonder if I need the air conditioning. After a long day, the artificial cool creates a suspended state of not real.

            A drop of sweat rolls between my breasts. I smile. I’m glad to be alive, feeling the warm collected moistness passing over my flesh. I am leaving, changing the energy, doing something perpendicular to my life.

            Even the tires grab the night pavement with a little more stick to it, rolling smooth, but taking the road. The wheels turn and turn, the blinker blinks, the night lays velvet before me. 

            I am on Harding Road, passing by modest rectangle boxes and sweeping trees, street lights raining gold cones down onto the dark blue sedan boring into the night. Only a few sets of headlights approach, moving with the same purpose I am. Night drivers have places to be – or else they’re out-running something that plagues their mind.

            Me? I’m going to Bonnaroo. Manchester, Tennssee. The gathering of tribes... tribes of music lovers, of kindred spirits, young people merging in their youth, old people celebrating all the life they’ve lived, hippies, comedy junkies, Yuppies trying to remember when they still had idealism (or not), ravers, film-types, partiers, food truckers, ecology-minded types... All headed to the Farm, all looking for three solid days of wandering from stage-to-stage of rap, rock, soul, alt-anything, bluegrass, hybrids, silent discos, Christmas Lounges, Unicorn Ring Toss, giant mushroom fountains to frolic under – and so much more.

            Bonnaroo. Strangest place I’ve every been. With the mud and the dirt and the dust. The heat and the cool of night. The blazing sun, the fluffy clouds, the burning turquoise of the sky on a clear day. I go alone, I am never a stranger.
            Everyone is happy to talk, to share their thoughts on bands they love, things they think are important. Whatever you want – except a five star hotel – it’s there. Open your mind, your eyes, your heart. Look around.

            I-24 takes you east, past where the Nashville boom trickles to nothing – and the night is black save more rectangles, splashed with light. These boxes are two-dimensional, versus the 3-D ranch houses I left behind. They promote off-brand motels, cheap gas, lower-tier syndicated food.

            The night is silent, save Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free. Austere, acoustic, but strong. Dignity flows from his character sketches of less thans and not quites, all proud sorts in threadbare places. He knows just how I feel.

            The night before I’d been watching the country music glitterati and D Listers like Hulk Hogan’s daughter and some “Dancers with the Stars” stand around being fabulous for the sake of an awards show that forgot music should be the point. It’s more about gags and ruffles of culture wow. My head was numb and the white noise of gossip being made more important than it was because the talkers needed to believe it mattered turned to white noise six inches from my face.

            Now I am slicing through the night, watching my directions, looking for exit 114. To make the Left, then another Left at the O’Charley’s, seeking the Coffee County Convention Center, tucked behind a Holiday Inn Express.

            In spite of specificity, I miss the turn. A quarter mile later, down a road blacker than a coal mine, I find a place to turn around. A sun-burned 70s van, like something from “Scooby Doo” sits in the yard, otherwise, no sign of motion exists anywhere.

            Retracing, laughing, moon roof open, stars watching my every move, I turn where it seems unlikely. I am right, and veering away from the Starbucks, the road swings a little wide, and there – like an oasis in the desert – it is.

            Check-in is 24/7. Convince the parking attendants you belong, they let you park – and you can go inside. I don’t need much scamming. Someone who looks like me, here at this hour, I must be where I belong.

            Slide into a parking spot in the first row. Hands on the wheel, I exhale. Tell Isbell I’ll be right back. Turn the car off, check to make sure I’m truly all here. All right in one spot, in Manchester, Tennessee, in the light heat and heavily quiet night.

            A two-story brick building, bathed in fluorescent light, it has that blue/green unworldly glow as you approach. Almost like the underside of a fish’s belly inside rusty red angles that hold every minor league trade show and event that matters ‘round here.

            But walking in, past the three sleepy-eyed volunteers finishing their shift, hoping to catch some EDM before the music shuts down for the night, the light turns back to yellow in the big rooms. Signs say “Artist Check In,” “Roll Like A Rock Star,” “Media,” “Guests” and “Guests with an Artist.”

            I find the line for Media, and there is no line. Emily, kohl-rimmed eyes and dark bangs swinging across her brow like a willow bows in a breeze, looks up and smiles. “ID.”

            Handing over my license, I say, “You guys are still here. Amazing...”

            “We’re the all night crew,” she cheers.

            “Good thing. It let me get away late...”

            “Away from...”
            “Nashville.”

            “Yeah, me, too.”

            We start talking about escape from Music Fest, from the incoming hoard, from the big corporate reality that co-opted the sweetness of Fan Fair at the Fairgrounds, with the concerts on the Speedway where stock cars race at deafening sound levels otherwise.
            “I normally work the awards,” she tells me. “Co-ordinate the co-ordinators, but CMT had a blood bath, so they can’t pay anyone any more.”

            I smile. I feel no need to get into. She looks far happier to be here. I understand. She’s 20-something, knows more than she should and has perhaps learned too much about corporate reality to buy into the conventional wisdom of what must be done. She just knows she’d worked hard for them, but it didn’t matter.

            We laugh about how there’s always something going on at the ‘Roo. She checks the schedule, gives me four options. She says, “Or you can just go to bed.” I must look as tired as I feel.

            “Yeah, maybe,” I say, not wanting to seem old.

            But she’s right. And I know it. There are three full days ahead. Days of magic, days of music, days of fun and memories to be made.

            Lee Ann Womack’s brought her family, lured by this other world she’s never seen. She’s been darting in and out of festivals for the day over the last few years, immersing in the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass the last two. She is as curious as they come.

 

            Crossing back over 24, I see the Waffle House and Krystal, knowing my hotel is somewhere behind. I miss the mildew-smelling hotel of two years ago with the giant Buddha head fountain, but that was not where I was assigned. No, instead, it’s some truckers bit of faux-cozy, with rockers on the porch and a picket fence around the flowers.

            It is another box of boxes for the tired and the traveling. The lady at the desk has my keys and a smile, tells me where breakfast is – and the fastest route to my room. For Manchester, this is a big few days for their economy; if the work is long and intense, they’re glad for the money coming in and they welcome you.

            Grabbing a cart, I go out and unload the car. Roll it across the tar-patched lot and through the sliding doors, down a hall and around a corner. The room is basic blond wood Colonial, a Ritz Carlton compared to last time.

            Humming to myself, the world has turned again. I am somewhere else not my own, ready to see, to touch, to taste, to hear it all – and nothing feels more hopeful or quite so alive. And so Bonnaroo begins again.