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.