Baptized By Spit, Sweat, & the Delta Spirit

June 30, 2010

We’re crowded onto a tiny Pontiac, Michigan dancefloor with 100 of our newest friends, and spontaneous MC and Delta Spirit lead singer Matt Vasquez is taking pages from too many weddings and the movie Animal House to lead us all in a spectacular ritual of schlock, schtick, and shamanism. Hell-bent on making this a night we’ll all remember, he’s left the stage to transform the moment of mild-mannered moshing into a people’s mass, where rock and roll poet becomes a temporary priest.

“A little bit louder now! A little bit louder now! A little bit louder now!” Matt shouts “Shout,” and even though I’m a stone-cold-sober middle-aged fan, I feel 15 again as we sway and sweat as one.

We’ve been at this business for over an hour, and Matt remains gently determined to reach out to every single fan in the room. I’ve seen this painfully and purposefully sincere charisma at work in megachurches or at U2 and Springsteen shows, where it’s mediated by God or technology or both. But with Matt tonight, this personal connecting that takes place before, during, and after the show seems to serve many purposes that may or may not hold an explicitly spiritual basis.

Delta Spirit are a band breaking out, and right now, it seems that every fan matters, not just to have his or her life changed as s/he might be moved in the guts by the magnetic gravity of these great songs, but because if music will become a lasting career for these guys in their 20s, each fan determines whether the tour will reap enough tangible reward to pay the bills.

“We had 40 presales to this show,” he reported proudly, suggesting that they’d had little exposure in Michigan and were just thrilled to have the enthusiastic welcome that they did. After the show, Matt stood in the hall between the Pike Room (where the show took place) and the merch table and the rest room, drenched in sweat and more than willing to talk to each fan who wanted to hang out. One guy in a wheelchair reminded me of Springsteen shows, as he came armed with various placards professing his love for Delta Spirit and requesting the songs he needed to hear.

Since the end of the Bush regime, rockers’ radical raps about the war have receded in the popular imagination, even as war rages on. It seems like opening the new album History From Below with “911” might have been a risky move for Delta Spirit, but seeing the band perform it — without pretension but with zeal — sealed for me an understanding the genuine nature of Matt’s activist passions, revealed elsewhere by his dedicating a song to the author Howard Zinn (whose name also decorates a beat-up white guitar).

Turning to the keyboards, Matt preceded the always transcendent “Trashcan” with a brief story about being on acid in a bathtub at age 14, then encouraging us all to join him in singing a long snippet of Pink Floyd’s “I Wish You Were Here.” Killing any notion that the Rounder Records artist Delta Spirit are just a folk outfit, the band drenched us all in walls of sound as “Trashcan,” always a euphoric rocker, reached epic clouds of screaming crescendoes.

I came to Pontiac expecting my favorite Spirit song “People, Turn Around” to close the show, but it had been reframed as a fragment, a softer and shorter but altogether inspired invocation to open the show, much like a call to worship or a call to action. The show closed, instead, on history and heightened sweaty energy, first with a rousing folkloric rendition of “John Henry,” followed by the band’s first ever song “Motivation.” “Motivation” closes with the word “shake” which slipped seamlessly into the aforementioned “Shout.”

Watching the kids up close, dancing and perspiring right along with the Spirit, I’m not sure they even noticed that Matt’s enthusiastic singing sometimes sprayed us with just a little bit of spit. I don’t think the kids minded at all — or at least much less than my students do when I occasionally do the same thing ranting through my more motivated moments of teaching.

Delta Spirit deliver live music with such a passion that attending the show feels much like a baptism, an immersion that what we create at a show is even more important than what’s on the records, reminding folks again that we are so much bigger together than we ever could be alone. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

Photos from the Pontiac show by Andrew Smith. Delta Spirit are on tour until the end of July, including a 90s’dress-up-theemed show for Matt Vasquez’s birthday on July 10 in Birmingham, Alabama. Please visit

Edge Encores at Glastonbury

June 30, 2010

If ever U2 composed an epic, festival-worthy track fit for fields and sunsets and crowded moonlit nights, it’s “Where The Streets Have No Name.” So, it’s no wonder that when MUSE brought U2’s The Edge onstage for their encore at last week’s Glastonbury festival in the UK, they picked “Streets” as the U2 song to cover.

Originally, U2 were booked to headline Glastonbury for the first time, but Bono’s back injury put the plans on hold. Already, rumors about when U2 might return to fulfill their fate to headline Glastonbury have begun to circulate. For some fans, 2011 seems an unlikely choice, especially because U2 also need to reschedule a bunch of dates in the United States.

Speaking of U2 at festivals, next year, the Bonnaroo festival celebrates its 10th anniversary, so I do hope my friends over at AC Entertainment and Superfly Productions might consider bringing U2 to Tennessee. (As always, the Interference forums are a place for active speculation and prediction about such rumors.)

Here, we repost a Rolling Stone report on the U2/Muse collaboration (alongside other Glastonbury tidbits) along with a video of the performance. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

With scheduled headliners U2 out due to Bono’s back injury and the entire nation of England mourning their nation’s exit from the World Cup, Glastonbury — Britain’s biggest rock & roll blowout — still managed to thrill an audience of 150,000 fans in Somerset, England. Gorillaz recreated their latest disc Plastic Beach by bringing out Bobby Womack, De La Soul, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed to reprise their guest spots. Snoop Dogg joined Damon Albarn’s band for the final song of the night, adding two fresh verses to “Clint Eastwood.”

Check out photos of Gorillaz, the Flaming Lips and all of Glastonbury 2010′s headliners and special guests.

Muse made sure U2 fans got at least a taste of what would have been — bringing out the Edge during their Saturday night headlining set for a cover of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It wasn’t the only nod to the band over the weekend: Keane also paid tribute to Bono and Co. with a cover of “With or Without You” during their acoustic set.

But the biggest surprise was an entire unannounced solo set from Thom Yorke, who took the stage with a simple, “Hi, My name is Thomas Yorke” to perform tracks from The Eraser. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood joined him for a killer five-song mini-set of Radiohead classics, including “Karma Police” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” AtEase reports.

Glastonbury’s final day coincided with England’s World Cup soccer match against Germany, and an estimated crowd of 50,000 gathered at a pair of festival fields to watch England’s 4-1 loss on huge screens. Ray Davies was among the artists who had the unenviable job of performing during the soccer match, but his set lifted the bummed crowd: he paid tribute to the Kinks’ founding bassist Pete Quaife, who passed away last week, dedicating “See My Friends” and two of Quaife’s favorite Village Green Preservation Society songs to the late bassist. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him,” Davies told the crowd.

Stevie Wonder capped the weekend with a set packed with hits and covers (the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”). In celebration of the festival’s 40th anniversary, he wrapped things up appropriately, with a jubilant take on his version of “Happy Birthday.” –Daniel Kreps

reposted from

Harmony Festival Packs Big-Event Ambition Into Small-Event Atmosphere

June 26, 2010

Amongst a spate of boutique festivals jostling for the attention of a restless and eclectic populace, California’s Harmony Festival is unique; it does not fit neatly into a category of what the “typical” music event ought to be.

[Read more]

The power of music to sustain the spirit

June 22, 2010

Few songs take their title from that of a historical event, the occasional mining disaster aside. Even fewer can draw a line directly to that event and yet resonate in the wider world. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 is a child of its time, yet its themes enabled it to survive, indeed grow stronger, in the years afterwards.

It was recorded in the depths of the Troubles – 1982 – and released as the opening track on the 1983 album War. Two years before its recording, Irish republicans had begun the latest wave of hunger strikes, this time in protest at their loss of status as political prisoners. Bobby Sands was the best known of the 10 who took their own lives through starvation. A couple of months after War’s release, Gerry Adams was elected member for West Belfast for Westminster. In 1984, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher narrowly survived the Brighton bombing by the IRA.

Bloody Sunday occurred on January 30, 1972, in Londonderry. British troops shot dead more than a dozen civilians and wounded many more during a civil rights protest. In the aftermath, the Widgery report cleared the army.

This week, a report by Lord Mark Saville, commissioned by then prime minister Tony Blair in 1998, brought down its findings: the shootings were unjustified; the dead and wounded were not to blame for their fate.

U2′s Bono was 11 at the time of the killings. Then he was just Paul Hewson. The Edge, then David Evans, was 10. They lived in the south of the island. Tony Blair was 18.

When their paths crossed later in life, all three were leaders: Blair of one of the most powerful countries in the world, and the others as part of one of the most powerful republics on earth – the empire of the song.

To quote Australian singer-songwriter Graham Lowndes: ”Survival’s a song.” It sustains the spirit. African-American chain gangs knew this.

One of Blair’s favourite songs, reportedly, is U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Bono also became a knight of the realm under Blair’s watch.

It’s ludicrous to think the song would have had a causal link in the chain that led him to appoint Saville to investigate Bloody Sunday. Indeed, there’s no hint of it in his speech to the Commons on January 29, 1998. Nor should there have been. The inquiry was the result of tireless work by many parties to have the scales of justice reweighed. New evidence was presented to the British government that couldn’t be ignored.

The wheel of history was being pushed by an invisible hand. Its force can’t be quantified, but governments have risen and fallen by its touch. Mass movements have felt it, embraced it.

When the Saville findings became known in Derry this week, people gathered in the town centre broke out into “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the oppressed.

Four years before Bloody Sunday, civil rights protesters sang it on a march from Coalisland to Dungannon in Northern Ireland. The organisers had modelled their campaign on the US movement (300,000 sang it, led by Joan Baez, at a march on Washington in 1963). Thus the song flew across the Atlantic. It would also have blown through the corridors of power, too. Truncheons and bullets cannot stop it until every voice is silenced.

Artists know this.

When U2 wrote Sunday Bloody Sunday, they would have known they were getting into dangerous waters. Indeed, mentioning paramilitary groups such as the IRA and the UDA didn’t last long in the performance.

Bono also prefaced it at times with ”This is not a rebel song”. But by making it more universal, while retaining its core theme, the band gave it a greater depth and strength.

Bono has made activism an artform. The band’s concerts are in part high-volume, large-screen information nights. It’s mass awareness. It’s watering the garden. From little things big things grow.

It’s true few people would sing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on marches, but just in the listening, cogs are turning. Midnight Oil, and before them Redgum, used song not only as entertainment but as mass awareness campaigns. There are many bands and solo performers in America and Britain, for instance, who use their medium as the message.

Critics rail against the irrelevance of the effort. After all, an artist rarely has a voice in the boardroom or cabinet. But they miss the point. Survival’s a song.

– Warwick McFadyen, June 19, 2010

Reprinted from the Sydney Morning Herald

Scorched & Satisfied: Bonnaroo’s Cosmic Collaborations & Community of Cover Songs

June 22, 2010

The pocket-sized 64-page guide to the 2010 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival promised the “unique emotional space” that the festival might create for the performers and the fans. Part endurance marathon and part miraculous expression, the four-day annual festival carves out a temporary fairgrounds for the flow of emotions, a testimony to the fullness of feelings created and conveyed by popular music.

At Bonnaroo, emotions get tested, too, by more than just music: by surviving the severe heat (this year on average ten degrees warmer than 2009); by sweating profusely after walking to-and-from (or dancing at) show-to-show-to-show; by tolerating the pungent porta-potties with thousands of your closest, unwashed friends. After five consecutive experiences at Bonnaroo,    I’m joyful to confirm that any inconveniences caused by the cruder and crustier aspects of the Tennessee carnival cannot touch the universal moments of musical meaning and uncommon bonds of fan community.

Bonnaroo’s magic could be the result of pure math, the accumulated collision of consistently stellar quality and sheer quantity in the lineup. Among fans, few participants follow the same pace or see bands from the same place.With most of us plotting vastly different show schedules, the variety of experiences that people bring home borders on the visionary — the fact that thousands of us “Roo” means that thousands of deliciously different Bonnaroos have bloomed.

Fans themselves, the promoters seem immune to endorsing a single style and instead opt for endorsing everything good in a cosmic cross-pollenation. Bonnaroo collapses categories and generations by genre-bending the whole endeavor into a chaotic yet flavorful catch-all cacophonous hootenanny.

Of these and many, many more marvelous aspects, collaborations and cover songs certify my tentative thesis about the truly communal nature of Bonnaroo. At a festival, real debates and discussions — about creative property rights and piracy and vinyl versus CD versus MP3 — all take a holiday. While some fans may be fickle downloaders the rest of the year, we’re all united as fierce diehards here. Our love of music glues us. And with performers who share this love, Bonnaroo’s gravity is a gift economy of generosity and guest appearances where proper tribute gets paid to ancestors and contemporaries alike in the form of the classic gesture of the cover song.

Giving Songs A Chance

My second show of the festival, I sat on the grass just feet from up-and-coming singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz. The same age as many of the younger fans, Jarosz couldn’t help mentioning her enthusiasm for the fans’ enthusiasm, giddy as she was with gratitude for the honor of performing on the very first day. Her own songs’ maturity exceeds her years in the business and tracks like “Song Up In Her Head” work nicely with covers of Patti Griffin or Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.”

Early afternoon Friday, the better-half-of-the-now-defunct everybodyfields, Jill Andrews serenaded an overflow crowd in the shaded comfort of Cafe Where. Backed by a full band laying down backyard-country-meets–boogie-rock grooves, Andrews’ sweet, soothing but unsettling voice fueled joy by finding our softer and sadder places, singing tracks from a recent EP and an upcoming album. Ending on a borrowed and inspired note and reading lyrics taped to the mic stand, Andrews closed with John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” Also recorded separately for the touring John Lennon educational bus, this Roo-appropriate anthem turned into a sentimental summer-camp-singalong before she finished.

Musically not unlike Andrews or Jarosz and a true discovery for Bonnaroo, Shiloh Circle emerged from the back hollers of Tennessee hippiedom to share a simmering set of her sex-ed originals on the Solar Stage early Friday, making passersby blush and dropping jaws in the Academy’s nearby gardening class. Circle’s epic cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” couldn’t have been a better choice to introduce herself the crunchy granola grandchildren of America’s mother festival.

Kicking out jams on Thursday night, South Carolina’s needtobreathe may have been an odd pick for Bonnaroo, but the band owned The Other Tent with their bluesy blisters of radio-friendly rock, including an ear-popping version of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks.” Crossovers from the contemporary Christian scene, these bandmates share bonds of brotherhood, a preacher papa from a town called Possum Kingdom, and indisputable good looks — qualities not dissimilar from Friday’s hugely popular headliners Kings of Leon.

The last time I tried to see the Kings of Leon at the Roo in 2007, I ended up in the medical tent instead, nursing a devastating bruise. A KOL fan since I first saw them open for U2 back in 2005, I really longed to see this top-billed, homecoming set for Tennessee’s wildly successful “local” band. With a perfect seat in the back row of the guest bleachers overlooking the grounds, I danced and sang along to all my favorites from the last three records including an especially moving “Fans” and soaked in the several excellent new songs that infiltrated the set. Not to miss adding to the weekend’s cavalcade of cover songs, the Kings’already historic performance pushed the epic festival limits with a well-lit rendition of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”

Though some cynics admitted to skipping Kings of Leon on Friday, most everyone was back at What Stage the next night for some groovy lessons in musical history with the incredible Stevie Wonder. The Michigan native who helped define the Motown sound made the most of his Bonnaroo platform to direct the crowd like a choir and preach a message of peace, love, and unity. But Wonder’s wonderfully inclusive social commentary never overshadowed the overflowing set of classics that he spiced generously with cover songs from Parliament Funkadelic’s “We Want the Funk” to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” to just a sliver of John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.”

Now I must confess I’ve never really listened to Weezer except for when a student of mine did a project on the band or when my daughter’s band covered them at the Southern Girls Rock And Roll Camp. And I was on my way to camp for food and fresh clothes when from the nearby Which Stage, I heard Weezer do justice to MGMT’s “Kids,” a fitting Bonnaroo theme song if there ever was one. A set antithetical to Weezer in just about every way, love-or-hate-her Tori Amos’s performance on Friday in This Tent only drew a tiny crowd, but I was moved to hear some brief slices of a show from this dedicated artist, especially her riveting cover of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes.”

Wagon Wheelie: Cross-pollinating Culmination

The communal cross-pollinating culmination of everything that makes Bonnaroo so mind-boggling, so mercifully beatific, and so crucially cathartic occurred when Mumford & Sons took over That Tent late Saturday afternoon. “There’s a lot of you,” quipped Marcus Mumford after the band opened with “Sigh No More.” To be able to stand so close and catch the whole set, we decided to forgo both Avett Brothers and Dead Weather. Indeed, this proved a worthy sacrifice as crowds spilled out into the hot, dusty fields.

Throughout the show, Mumford marveled at the dedicated and messy mass of folks gathered to hear him sing. In responding to a crowd where a female fan wore a hand-painted shirt that said “Mumford, I want to have your Sons,” the earnest lead singer seemed more like the fan himself. “We can’t quite explain how excited we are to be here,” he implored. No amount of our heart-screaming, lung-warping, foot-stomping, and chest-beating affirmation could stop the wellspring of humble gratitude pouring from the stage in both word and song.

After offering congratulations to US soccer fans on the draw with England and steaming through most of their debut album alongside new songs like “Lover of the Light,” the band paused again, sharing: “We made some new friends today. There’s a particular band you may know called Old Crow Medicine Show — who happen to be one of our favorite bands in the whole wide world.”

Failing to miss a beat or barely catch their breath, England’s indy-folk phenoms were claiming —  on their very first visit — Tennessee as their adopted home and paying a living tribute to the music of our region. “Without sucking up to them too much, I think we’re going to do a song. Please welcome Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, too. We have to explain to you now that these people with us are some of the main reasons we started writing songs and playing music.” After much tuning and fan howling, the Sons announced, “I think you know what song it’s going to be.”

A Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack and bootleg fragment from the near-infinite Bob Dylan back catalog, “Rock Me Mama” was revised and expanded by Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show until its widely popular manifestation as “Wagon Wheel.” Suddenly, west London met middle Tennessee on a southbound train to the marvelously mixed-up and magical miscegenation that is the American musical tradition.

As Mumford covered Old Crow covering Dylan with Old Crow, Gillian, and Rawlings as guests to ratify the rendering, as the seams of the stage seemed to burst into the pure Bonnaroo ether where the endless sky meets the expanse of the human soul, I experienced one of my annual epiphanies, the kind of emotionally packed moment that keeps me coming back to this festival year-after-year.

A Cover of A Cover Covers You

The cover song performed live does not require a royalty as it might on a record, and it is not piracy like the unpermitted copying of a CD. Existing in a liminal space of ambiguous legality, cover songs and collaborations testify to the resiliently shared and communal nature of our musical heritage.

As stripped down to dirt and road-doggery as the Mumford’s stage was swimming in shared bounty, Kris Kristofferson’s “cover” of Janis Joplin covering his own “Me & Bobby McGee” reminds me that those willing to share with wisdom and respect will get respect in return.  Kristofferson gives — and has been given back to. At this truly multigenerational meeting of the musical minds, this performer in his 70s took the stage with the passion of the kids all around the Roo in their 20s. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

All photos by Andrew William Smith, except the photo of Mumford & Sons by Laura Dart, reposted from

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