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.