Bonnaroo’s Decade of Dust & Dreams: Jacket’s Sonic Beauty, the Sightings of Ben Sollee, & So Much More

June 19, 2011 · Print This Article

Trekking down to Manchester, Tennessee for another music festival touches the body and soul like embarking on a mission trip or a fishing trip or a combat mission – where music fandom stretches your physical limits to achieve a limitless emotional and spiritual experience.

The social barometer consulted by our neighbors in the mid-South sees us as suffering a mild form of insanity, but that doesn’t stop us from returning again and again – despite logic and basic boundaries as to what a human can endure. This year, in a late spring where the weather’s been remarkably wet and mild, our convergence weekend wore us out by being unusually hot and dry.

With an outer composure hiding an excitement that hasn’t subsided even in my sixth year attending and an inner howl of “Bonaroo-hoo” warming my blood,  I headed off with a crew of coworkers and best friends for the tenth anniversary of a world-renowned and somewhat risky weekend of concerts, community, and collaboration.

Doing three days instead of four this year, I knew that Friday alone would be worth the journey. Making my first stop at our “home base” inside the Academy tent in Planet Roo meant stumbling into a mesmerizing and mellow chanting workshop led by the Rahasya crew from Athens, Georgia. In general, Bonnaroo doesn’t need to sell counterculture stereotypes or cultivate its jam band reputation because these notions tagalong regardless of how close they resemble reality. But in the case of these folks bringing the day by humming “Hare Krishna,” this welcome flashback to the early 1970s calibrated our inner spaciousness in a way that we could spread across the weekend. (Besides all the overt instances of jam band and classic rock that populated the schedule, the indy-Americana of Low Anthem came sweating into Saturday afternoon so steeped in retrophilia that a song like “Hey, All You Hippies” functioned as a sort of audio time machine for those who hadn’t already left the temporal realm by other means.)

Seeking my first serious headliner on Friday took me to The Other Tent at the edge of Centeroo for a rousing afternoon revival with the incomparable rockabilly hipster Justin Townes Earle. Like his father did in this same tent a few years ago, JTE reminded us how crazy we were for spending the whole weekend roasting in the heat with our fellow fans. His sizzling set brought our first Ben Sollee sighting of the weekend, as the Kentucky singer-cellist-activist came onstage to add cello to “Mama’s Eyes” and background vocals to “Harlem River Blues.”

As afternoons at Roo this year meant grilling one’s flesh like a burger in a global solar barbecue, we decided to seek refuge in the fabled and air-conditioned Cinema Tent. After cooking some more in line, we were able to score seats for the screening of Louisiana Fairytale, Danny Clinch’s documentary about the collaboration between My Morning Jack and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Immersion in the cool dark room as deep journey into dynamic devotional: a musical and cultural cross-pollination placed me in a religious mood that would last into the night. My Morning Jacket pay homage to the past as it lives in the present, presenting themselves to us as a tribal tributary that links heart and sound, sharing a roots reverence and popular lineage that taps history without cheapening it. At the movie’s conclusion, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band kicked it out live, much to the delight of the packed house of patrons.

Even though we were able to catch some of Ray Lamontagne’s set on Which Stage that included many of my favorite tracks from last year’s excellent God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, his lack of conversation between songs combined with the day’s lingering heat, gave the performance a detached mellow and lazy mood that has historically been a real detriment to artists who’ve performed on Which Stage during daylight hours. Such was the steamy curse that I recall from a particularly alienating Animal Collective show in 2009 and that this time around afflicted the wispy waiflike work of Lamontagne and Amos Lee later in the weekend. Luckily, we’d see some folks defy the dusty odds and do their best to play their best even in the daylight.

Field of Dreams: the Jacket’s Victory Dance

As dusk quickly approached, though, we found ourselves on the crowded walk towards What Stage to grab a spot for the Jacket’s 8pm slot, seeking a particular piece of lawn where we could spread out and dance. Leaving the pit and the several rows after it to the patient folks willing to press, we really got a sense of the vastness of the main Bonnaroo venue by laying our blanket halfway back, with the VIP section just behind us and the waxing moon above. Seeing this band for about the tenth time brought layers and levels of emotion based on how their music meets me on a spiritual plane and in sheer anticipation of how they’d weave in the new songs that I’d been listening to for about ten days since Circuital had been released.

The opening one-two of “Victory Dance” and “Circuital” perfectly tones the crowd to connect with the new tunes – from the spine-chilling trumpet solo that kicked off the set as though “Taps” were playing in the belly of our common memory to Jim’s otherworldly wail at the end of “Victory Dance” to the comforting way the new record’s title track tracks our cellular responsiveness to the Jacket’s versatile jangle and sparkle.

Immediately switching gears to three soaring hits from 2005’s Z, the setlist immediately attracted anyone who wasn’t already reeling towards bliss. “Off The Record” opens slowly before slinking into lyric and hook and a danceable refrain that had the mass of thousands grooving along joyfully; then, suddenly, at midsong we meet the kind of whacked and wicked jam that makes the Jacket the Jacket, that stretches every player in the band to follow its tangly riffs into the manna of meaning as Bo Koster’s keyboards carry us to the misty mountaintops of rock and roll bliss. Followed by the fierce glory of “Gideon” and the playful abandon of “Anytime,” the party was fully underway, with James then greeting the “ocean of humanity” by announcing the occasion as an entirely surreal, mind-blowing, and “magical honor.”

At Roo, the everyfan’s festival, many bands forget their roots as fans, arrive just in time to do their set, and leave with similar haste. That’s not the case with My Morning Jacket who have been like pillars of the whole Bonnaroo project since its earliest years, always hanging out to catch other artists and really taking things to the next level with late-night sets of legend in 2006 and 2008.  For two hours on Friday night, we got to give the Jacket their due by giving them such a premier place in the schedule, and the Jacket just poured the love back out on us.

Even though only a handful of tracks from 2008’s excellent but polarizing Evil Urges have remained in the set, the journey that injects “Smokin’ from Shootin’” into a snippet from “Run Thru” (a 2003 track) and then collapses into the arms of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part Two” undoubtedly torques listeners into a state of rotation and levitation that leaves little doubt that this band has no qualms about bending the tilt of the universe for the time that it’s onstage each night.

Intentionally or inadvertently, My Morning Jacket give a ton of credibility to the narrative that the moment of Circuital signals a retro movement all about returning to the band’s roots by playing more songs from the 2003 pre-breakout album It Still Moves than they do from either Z or Evil Urges. And even though I did miss hearing “It Beats for You,” “Wonderful,” Librarian,” “Dondante,” and “Evil Urges,” to name a few, neither the focus on the new album nor on the older, jammier jams from earlier in the century in any way diminished the devastating beauty of the entire evening for me.

From their funkiest and freakiest with newer tracks like “Highly Suspicious” or “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” to the culminating guitar-god pyrotechnics of “Dancefloors” diving into “One Big Holiday,” My Morning Jacket made my night and my weekend with what may have been one of their career’s most important sets to date. For me, it meant watching and dancing from a vaster vantage point, from a different distance and angle, from a more mature but no less appreciative perspective. As far as I can tell, the latest album embraces all these added textures in what is already a many layered rock and roll masterpiece of a musical vocation.

Festival Gospel and Living Greats

Nobody pretends that Bonnaroo is a gospel festival or that when most people use the term “religious” to define the weekend that they really mean it in any other than the figurative, symbolic, or mythopoetic sense. Nonetheless, in ways that might surprise people who have never caught one of these shows or are skeptical of such old-fashioned spirituality in general, Bonnaroo offers plenty of bonafide soul songs for people who want to get their Jesus on or feel the Holy Spirit moving in ways that don’t require chemically-induced imitations of infinity.

With Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens and then Mavis Staples, both Saturday and Sunday afternoons kicked off with healing services on main stages, giving us what Staples said would be the closest thing to church we’d find inside Bonnaroo. Complete with arm-waving ambiance and “Amen” shouts, the altitude and attitude of the sun-kissed masses shifted as we got a taste of the Son – whether that’s what we were looking for or not.

Later Saturday afternoon saw the sought after Mumford & Sons show overwhelm the capacity of the Which Stage field for a stunning 90-minute set that included several new songs and all-out closing jam of “Amazing Grace” with support from members of Old Crow Medicine Show and Apache Relay. As great of a show as the Mumfords was, we snuck away to catch some of a veritable legacy Loretta Lynn over at That Tent. In a similar fashion on Sunday, we decided to forgo Iron & Wine to watch Cold War Kids but then ditched CWK to hear a few tracks from living legend Gregg Allman.

Such is the reality of seeing shows at Bonnaroo: you don’t ever see all the shows you want, and you often stop short of seeing all of one show just to catch a moment of another one. Sometimes this decision making is based on which artists I have seen before and which artists I expect to have the chance to see again.

One set that stood out among the others as a “must see” and “might never see again” came Sunday afternoon with Daniel Lanois’s new project Black Dub, featuring Lanois on guitar, Trixie Whitley on vocals, Brian Blade on drums, and Daryl Johnson on bass. For years, I’ve followed Lanois as the legendary U2 co-producer, and this was my first opportunity to hear him with his own group. For some reason, This Tent wasn’t terribly packed for the set; we got a great spot in the center of it all, in front of the sound board, and just sank our toes into the sandy floor and soaked in the funky, jazzy, clubby, soulful, and pleasant assault on the senses.

Cheesy Does It & Our Late Night Danceathon

Sleep at Bonnaroo is both rare and precious, and the musical schedule both dares sleep-deprivation and defies what’s even possible. As I grow older into the festival, I’ve had to sacrifice some shows for others, and I’ve had to prioritize rest. Now, many people might think I was crazy to skip both Buffalo Springfield and Eminem (skipping Black Keys was no big deal, having seen them many times before, including a real disappointment at the Ryman last year). But as soon as the sun set Saturday, I took a nap in order to be able to enjoy one of the fabled Bonnaroo late nights (which are in fact very early mornings).

Rising from my rest around midnight meant enjoying shows under the cover of darkness, with thinner crowds and cooler temperatures. And we found it amazingly easy to make our way from tent to tent to stage, taking in bits of Scissor Sisters, Dr. John, String Cheese Incident, and STS9 – and still making it back to the tent long before dawn. I don’t what it is about slipping from the simply sleazy gay disco of the Sisters to the mojo-moving Louisiana hoodoo of Dr. John to the eclectic cheesy jammy-pleasing work of String Cheese or STS9, but I was able to get my dance on in every case and loved the last stroll home with Cheese ripping through their closer, an awesome cover of U2’s “Mysterious Ways.”

The Wild World of Ben Sollee

On Sunday morning, we were browsing some booths when we stumbled across Ben Sollee giving an impromptu unplugged concert outside the Oxfam American tent in Planet Roo. We heard his track “Electrified” and a cover of Cat Stevens’s “Wild World.” Having arrived at ‘Roo in 2009 by bicycle, Sollee required many golf-cart shuttles this time around to show up at just about everything.

Even though we missed his actual headline set, we saw him jam with Justin Townes Earle, My Morning Jacket, and Low Anthem. We caught a bit of his set on the Sonic Stage and this spontaneous Planet Roo set. We also saw him marching in a protest parade around Centeroo with the folks from Mountain Justice Summer, advocating an end to mountaintop removal coal mining. And when we were deeply enjoying the Black Dub show, we looked behind us to see Ben Sollee just digging the set as a fan.

In a musical and cultural world where borrowing is both blessing and necessity, it’s hard to call very many artists original anymore, but Ben Sollee’s invigorating and innovative blend of cello, songwriting, and singing sure comes close. Add to that his warm activist spirit, and we have a real force for good in the world, embodying the best of what we’d like a festival of Bonnaroo’s magnitude to be.

With an anchor in the arts, music, theater, spoken word, gardening, drumming, and dancing classes we taught back at the Academy and with as many shows as I could manage when not working, eating, or sleeping, another Bonnaroo came and went quickly. With attendance such a miracle in logistics and a marathon in persistence, each year I tell myself that it could be my last. We’ll wait for the lineup to be announced in early 2012 and for our Academy plans to coalesce. We’ll wait and see and recover and rest. In the meantime, we have dusty memories (as well as pictures, videos, and downloads) documenting our dreams all over the web. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

My Morning Jacket pictures by Jeff Kravitz; Black Dub picture by Morgan Harris; courtesy of Bonnaroo.com; all other pictures by Andrew William Smith. For more information: Bonnaroo.com


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