David Wimbish: Life, Death, Fundraising, & Festivals

July 23, 2013

At the 2012 Wild Goose, for an afternoon set at a tent tucked away on the backwoods of the festival site, a young North Carolina band blew minds and won fans. More than just a band, more like a multicolored movement of sonic jubilee, David Wimbish and the Collection carry the celebratory consciousness, lyrical significance, and live energy that have made bands like Mumford & Sons or Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros the darlings of the current folk-pop moment.

In August 2013, the Collection will open this year’s festival on the main stage with a Thursday night-set sure to thrill us. Then, they will support Phil Madeira’s Friday night set. In the meantime, the Collection are furiously raising funds on Kickstarter for their next album, a surprisingly hopeful take on death called Ares Moriendi. I recently caught up with David Wimbish and convinced him to take a break from writing, recording, fundraising, and preparing for Wild Goose to answer a few questions.

Q. What is special about playing a festival? What makes WGF special among special?

A. Festivals are places people are willing to get dirty, stinky, messy, and crazy together to a degree they normally wouldn’t otherwise—just for the sake of connection, whether it be a connection through music, spirituality, art, or just fun. Everyone is out of their element at the same time, which makes everyone in the same element—the element of each other. So playing festivals lets people focus solely on connecting with each other; we get to talk and hang and laugh and have fun with people in a way, without the normal distractions a city or jobs or phones have. Wild Goose Festival especially is a ton of fun because there are people searching and listening, a very diverse culture and very diverse belief systems. Last year’s Wild Goose was one of the best musical and relational experiences we’ve ever had as a band, and it’s really a gift to get to be here again this year.

Q. Why do we need to get there early for the opening set of WGF 2013?

A. We’ve got some fun surprises for this year. No spoilers yet, but the fest is about community, about connecting, about new and old ideas coming together, about seeking and experiencing, and we want to kick of the festival doing just that. Our band always has at least a few people rotating in and out; I think every show there’s at least one new person playing with us, and it gives us a new energy to see the dynamics change in this. This year will be some new faces, some new instruments, and new energy.

Q. What will be the mix in the set from your first album, your second album, your forthcoming album?


A. We’re at that awkward stage where we know it’ll still be a bit till the new album is out, yet, we want to share the songs. I’m sure there’ll be a couple of new ones, whichever ones we’re feeling the most, but we’ll be playing a lot of our favorites from previous releases. We’ve been pumped to be playing “Lazarus” a lot lately, so I’m sure you’ll at least hear that. We like to play things loosely until close to a show, so that we can feel the vibe from the folks there and do a set that feels right for the environment and band family. The way sets usually come together is a bit like a puzzle. I go to the closet, we look and pull them out together beforehand and say “I want to do this one, I like this picture”. We spread out all the pieces on the table, and we get little sections of it together, we start to see what it’ll look like, and then, after awhile of moving things around, we put it completely together for others to see as a picture. So we have elements together, songs and special things we definitely we definitely have planned for wild goose, now it’s a matter of finding the in between pieces and making it look like a picture. That being said, sometimes the pieces you think go in a certain spot were wrong, and you switch them out for others. So, don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but we’ll play some new, and some old, and have some good celebration shoes. Bring your dancin’ shoes!

Q. Everyone has a Kickstarter anymore—why should we support yours?

A. Kickstarter, unfortunately, has seen quite a bit of abuse in the last year, from super rich actors using it to raise money for a film, to someone’s younger brother trying to raise 10000 for new socks. When I FIRST heard of Kickstarter, I was excited, because it basically runs the way our band runs. Instead of charging set rates for albums and concerts, we like to let folks experience the music and then decide if they want to give or not, and how much they want or can give. Kickstarter, in some ways, does this in a little backwards way: it allows people to say “Hey, I support this, and I’ll be a part of it happening. I’ll be a part of this startup, or album, or project, whatever.”

Specifically with ours, we have our good friend Luke creating a documentary of the album process. Luke is an incredible filmmaker, and seeing that documentary happen just to see Luke’s work I think would be worth it. On top of that, with the money, we want to get big string and brass ensembles, a big group of extra musicians with crazy instruments, record in incredible sounding locations across the south, and get the thing professionally mastered and publicized, all to hopefully get to people the best musical and visual experience possible. Without reaching our Kickstarter goal, most of those things won’t be able to happen with the new album. We also have tons of gifts for donations that are a lot of fun, including a lot of original artwork and things for ya!

Q. Explain the concepts behind the new album. What’s with the facepaint? Are you in part by the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition? Is that the vibe you are going for? Why?

A. I’ve been writing some of these songs for a few years, and started seeing themes of death in them; death to myself, death of beliefs or habits, and actual physical death. My good friend killed himself a few months ago: it was so random and crazy, and several people in the band knew him. I realized, when it happened, I’ve never worked through or questioned death that much. It’s felt far away, and this time it slammed me in the face.

So what happens afterwards? I hope it’s resurrection, in the physical and spiritual sense. At least in life, when I die to myself or things that have previously been myself, I resurrect into something new. But the crazy thing is, it’s a mystery. Every religion thinks it knows; everyone has experiences they think makes them sure, but none of us know what happens. We live with it hanging over our heads, this great mystery. Mystery is so beautiful though! But really, I needed a place to work through my friends suicide, and my grandpa dying of a brain tumor, and these songs starting coming.

And I realized, though all cultures have a time of mourning, the American culture seems to be one of the biggest ones that stops at mourning. So I was finding out more about the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead. There’s something beautiful about celebrating the deceased’s life instead of just mourning. They paint these Skulls, and it’s awesome, it takes something that we normally think of as morbid and sad, and it makes it beautiful again.

I need that to happen with my grandpa. I need that to happen with my friend. I need that to happen for myself! So, that’s what’s with the Sugar Skull facepaint, and what you’ll see with the art and themes that will be coming up in the new album, trying to take dead things and figure out what it means for them to be alive again. Hopefully, we can connect through death, and bring each other to life!

The paint is inspired by the Day of the Dead tradition. It is similar to the paint that is on the sugar skulls for the tradition and really represents both a recognition of death and a celebration of life and redemption at the same time. We want to communicate both those things simultaneously instead of separately as our culture normally does.

Interview by Andrew William Smith, Editor
Check out: http://thecollection.bandcamp.com/


Headlight On A Northbound Train: McCartney, AmericanaramA, Deadheads, and Me

July 10, 2013

My music fandom began sitting on the carpeted floor of a middle-class house in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. My parents owned a record player and a handful of albums, among them The Beatles’ Revolver and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Much like the scene in Almost Famous when the protagonist’s sister turned her younger brother onto her tunes, the needle touched vinyl, and pretty much everything changed. By junior high, the music of The Beatles and Dylan saturated my psyche and shaped my identity.

At the time, the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin also seared my ears and soothed my soul. Rock ‘n’ roll inspired all-night adolescent airband artistry and class presentations on the poetics of the Don McLean song “American Pie.” Tragedies like the respective deaths of John Bonham and John Lennon jolted our reality. We discovered that Bonham died when we went to school one day and had to ask, “Why are all the burnouts crying?” But of course when Lennon died, everybody cried. Like the McLean song prophesied, we had many, many days when the music died.

In my high school years, punk, new wave, and of course the jubilant jangles of REM and the angelic anthems of U2 put some distance between me and 60s-70s classic rock, but I grew up in close enough proximity to the actual hippies and stoners that I would always suffer an epic kinship to these transformative periods of American popular music that still impact us today.


With all the burning-out and fading-away and ultimate fatality, it’s no short miracle than any of the greats that all but danced down the apocalypse still survive this far into the 21st century, to this post-2012 period of popular musical renaissance and revival. With all this in mind, I feel such gargantuan eardrum-obliterating gratitude in relishing the immediate memories of the fantastic fact that in June 2013, in a span that stretched 16 days between two amazing weekends in Tennessee, I would see Paul McCartney at Bonnaroo and Bob Dylan on the Nashville riverfront. I’m likewise blown-away by some of the other bands we’ve been able to hear, the peers for my ears, who along with the headliners create bookends of beauty and blessing, of soggy singalong eyes and goosebump-inducing bliss.

Frankly, I cannot hype enough hyperbole to express the hopeful holiness, mix enough metaphors to convey the meaning, or raise high too many mocktails to celebrate the recently passed occasions. Frankly, I would feel too selfish to savor this if I didn’t have the chance to suggest you catch Dylan or McCartney who are both still on tour, if the other peers-for-the-ears were not still hitting up festival-after-festival for the rest of the summer. As endless rains fall on my 4th of July holiday weekend, I scribble this testimony in hopes that someone might get a nibble of the goodness I’ve already experienced and perhaps seek out some of these shows the rest of the summer. As I ponder some of the more painful and plainly ludicrous prices that others have paid for the privileges I enjoy, I admit that I am most patriotic when it comes to our popular common culture, from sport to movies, but I am a patriot when it comes to music most particularly.

Since The Beatles official touring ended in 1966 and since Lennon died in 1980, I don’t think I’ve ever really wrapped my mind around the sheer significance of a Paul McCartney tour. Sure, we hear snippets of his later work and lots from the Wings period, but at root, we’re not hearing McCartney cover The Beatles; McCartney is a Beatle. Here in my mid-40s, more than a decade into the new century, I am watching a man in his 70s, looking and sounding sharp and charismatic do nothing shy of reclaiming and reviving with sonic groove and grace the greatness of The Beatles.

We hear love songs that kindle every feeling of passion I have for my partner dancing beside me and our world living and dying around us. We hear a song of letting-go like “Let It Be,” and for those few minutes we actually obey and let go; we let, it, be! Psychedelic moments surge forth from the tunnel of memory into the sober mess of the present, and we get crazy happy hearing “Helter Skelter” or “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Throughout McCartney’s set at Bonnaroo, I had several delightful moments where disorientation met déjà vu, and I felt myself wonder, “Is this even happening?” Similar sensibilities of timely and timeless wonder would return in a little over two weeks at the Nashville riverfront.

Most people benefit from an extracurricular passion or hobby or two—or in my case several. As much as I have hoped to enhance and enjoy the avocation of music fandom, at times, I almost abandoned it or even worse sabotaged it. At one point, I almost lost track of the best tracks from sheer necessity and lack of time or lack of money. But then it gets worse, at the very time my fandom had rekindled with verve and passion. Like too many before me and too many after me, I tried to spice up the musical listening and dancing experience with drugs and alcohol. This resulted in bad trips, drunken mistakes, and general stupidity—all in pursuit of a quicker fix and higher high. The Americanarama festival that’s now on tour brings together artists for whom, all at different times, I have an acute recollection of almost wrecking the cosmic connection that their music brings for me.

Spanning the years from 1988 to 2008, from the days of youthful entheogenic  experimentation to the seemingly endless nights of excessive intoxication, I occasionally overestimated my abilities and my tolerance and seriously compromised my boundaries and my values. Let’s just say I’d undermined otherwise potentially perfect nights with The Grateful Dead, My Morning Jacket, and Bob Dylan, ruined not so much for anyone else, but trashed for myself. Yet on the last day of June, I had an opportunity for musical redemption, getting high on the songs and on life, on enjoying the modesty and the clarity of not being “that guy” at the show.

Former Dead and current Furthur guitarist Bob Weir performing solo begins the itinerary, and we got to the show early enough to catch his set. In fact, we could hear Weir’s soundcheck as we lined-up outside the venue and were satisfied to get a spot up-close by the stage—even if the ground, instead of a carpet of grass, was merely a fresh layer of mulch, the kind that smells just a little too fragrant, too much like, well, mulch. Other reports have it that the sound quality suffered towards the middle and back of the field, but we were glad to be so close and not need earplugs to enjoy the show.


After opening with a Ratdog track that I enjoyed but didn’t recognize on electric guitar, Weir followed on the acoustic with the Dead standards “Loose Lucy” and “Friend of the Devil.” The pearls of rock wisdom that lit up his lips and fell from Weir’s lyrics were simple yet prophetic and paradoxical in the opening song: “If we don’t believe together, we might just cease to be”; and the final refrain “Dreams are lies, it’s the dreaming that’s real.” Of course this rings authentic to me, for whom the drunken dream was a lie, but dreaming a sober psychedelic experience suddenly became real!

My rekindled Dead interest has increased over the last few years as I have rediscovered their music without the aid of any of my former chemical crutches. Music that I once presumed required a listener to be intoxicated has opened itself up to me in new and magical ways completely clean. Last summer, I missed a Furthur show that I’d planned for—in order to attend a funeral; I still have hopes to catch one before too long. I cannot help but admitting that learning Bob Weir would be part of this AmericanaramA event felt like some beatific cosmic payback for doing the right thing last year.

After covering the Bob Dylan track “Most of the Time,” mentioning that we wouldn’t hear it later, Weir closed his too short set with a track he co-wrote called “Cassidy.” The lines invoke endless youth: “Ah, child of countless trees. Ah, child of boundless seas.” The stories behind the song are both a charge of hope for a young child born to the Dead tribe back-in-the-day and a tribute to the late Neal Cassady, the reckless and impetuous idol of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the Beat Generation. The old me was like Neal Cassady, one who sought a false boundlessness of hedonistic debauchery, but the new me might be more like a reborn child who sees countless blessings in a sea of hopeful faith and fidelity, an inner freedom to which the many wildly-winding and rocky-rocking roads finally led me.


I must say that the time between sets at shows can grind down my serenity and patience. Whether out at the food lines and bathroom lines or standing or sitting simply waiting, the minutes that usually fly by just drag on. This time we brought a deck of cards to pass the time as we sat on our now mulch-soiled blanket. But we could barely finish one hand of rummy before My Morning Jacket stormed the stage to open with a campfire anthem that more often closes a show, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” The ensuing 75 minutes flew by, with many of our absolute favorite Jacket songs and some surprise back-catalog nuggets. The whole band was tight, animated, on. Something about seeing them in daylight from so close to the stage, especially before the people around us were totally trashed and pushing past us, made this a perfect set for me.

In the midst of all this gloriousness, Bob Weir joined the group on stage to perform two Dead numbers. The first song they chose was “Brown Eyed Women,” the lyrics for which I could not get out of my head for days following the show, and these filled me with wicked irony. Here I am cold sober singing in my head the sloppy refrain, “Brown eyed women and red grenadine/the bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean.”

It’s a great comfort to me that another Dead song called “Wharf Rat” is about a down-and-out drunk and that this tag has become the moniker for the Wharf Rats, the seminal clean-and-sober fan community that’s created a far-flung fellowship and meeting support structure for Deadheads who voluntarily abstain from alcohol or drugs.

All this said, the Grateful Jacket ranks as one of my greatest concert experiences ever, just those two songs, almost like it was destined to happen since before our MMJ boys were even born. During some of the jammier moments, the way the rest of the Jacket members focused their attentions and intuitions on Weir was just mindblowing. The almost acapella harmonies at the end of “I Know You Rider” with Bob, Carl, and Jim singing to the center of my gut, that was so phenomenal that I just want to cry thinking I actually got to see it! Ever since I first heard it some 25 years ago, the line towards the end of the song—“I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train”—has conveyed such hope for me; others have been that light for me, and we can be that light for others.


At this point, AmericanaramA could be called AmericanaJamma if you ask me. Smiling, I went from “wow” to just more—wow wow wow! The collaborative synchronicity and spontaneity continued during the Wilco set when Weir returned for two more songs, first the Dead’s “Bird Song” followed by a face-melting and sheer shredding rendition of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles. For all their musical and lyrical inspections, to all the setlist-shapeshifting with each night a different confection, My Morning Jacket and Wilco are wonderful heirs to what the likes of Dylan and the Dead have done for American music.

This life has been a journey between polarities, from the desperation found in “Friend of the Devil” to the grace of Jeff Tweedy opening with “Blood of the Lamb,” Woody Guthrie lyrics set to Wilco music. My past experiences of Wilco live had been daytime sets at Bonnaroo where they were a bit woozy for me, even sleepy, but not that night, that last Sunday in June.


Neither Wilco nor My Morning Jacket needs to take the opening spot on a tour, but AmericanaramA conceives itself more as a concept roadshow, of which Dylan has participated in many, like the fabled Rolling Thunder Revue. The crowd at Nashville spanned the generations. Rather than a crew dominated only by old Deadheads and Dylanologists, the field was filled with lots of younger folks, including those who seemed to know most every Wilco or Jacket song.

By the time Dylan took the stage, we were already full to overflowing from the first four hours of the night. To see Dylan in his proper context is to approach him as everything we’ve heard and read and nothing at the same time. Dylan destroyed expectations when he went electric, when he went for Jesus, when he refused to be a spokesman for whatever generation and instead let his song-poems speak for themselves.


Dressed in a big white hat and impressive white jacket, growling and spitting his verses, Dylan was just another white MC dressed-in white and laying his vision of the world down on the greasy backing track of the white man’s blues.

Newer tracks like “Early Roman Kings” could either invigorate or indict the image of power that Dylan undermines even as he takes advantage of it. Looking around the audience, we are all benefactors of that vision, where we’re both critic and cynic and innocent psalmist all at the same darn time. Seeing his swagger sinks deep, because by recalling the badass he once was he also reminds us that this elegant grizzly elder is more badass than many of his contemporaries could ever be.

The opening track of the main set is “Things Have Changed,” as if to rub-in and reiterate that this isn’t our freewheelin’ folk singer that I first discovered on vinyl. He closed that set with “All Along The Watchtower,” and we danced near the back of the field, having moved just two songs ago from our spot up close, savoring the view and lights. The lyrics of “Watchtower” walk to the center of me, for this speaks a story from which I am now at a fragile but triumphant distance. There was a time when I could “get no relief” not even from drinking wine, when everything seemed false, when I felt trapped by fate, when the hour most definitely was getting late!

Speaking of late hours, it was now just past 11, and we left before the encore, to follow our own headlights on an eastbound itinerary for a morning that would get here too soon. In the car, I played a version of “Blowin’ In The Wind” from the Rolling Thunder Revue, with Joan Baez joining Dylan on vocals. My sweet wife said, “I wish he had played this song,” suggesting the emotional power would have brought the whole place to tears. “He never plays this song live,” I retorted, with an explanation of his refusal to be “that Dylan” just for us fans. Little did I know then that his gospel friends from his born-again period, the McCrary Sisters, had just joined him onstage for the rare rendition of “Blowin’ In The Wind.”


I can’t undo leaving early or deny that Dylan will probably always remain just beyond our grasp of who we think Dylan is. Americanarama is still on tour as of this writing, and I imagine that something freewheeling and rolling and thunderous in the spirit of American music awaits every fan with tickets to catch this show, sober or not, with a surprise encore like Nashville or with the “Ballad of a Thin Man” that most crowds get.

Something is happening. And we don’t know what it is. But we’re going to check it out anyway. And keep checking it out as long as our ears and hearts cooperate. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

Pictures by Andrew William Smith

For AmericanaramA tour dates, go here: http://www.bobdylan.com/us/upcoming-dates

For Paul McCartney tour dates, go here: http://www.paulmccartney.com/live/27468-out-there

Listen to Bob Weir with My Morning Jacket from the Atlanta show: http://snack.to/ahp070es




Musical Messengers of Love Make Memphis Marvelous

May 11, 2012

Photos © by Bob Bayne/Memphis in May, taken from http://www.facebook.com/bealestreetmusicfestival

Beale Street Music Festival’s reputation preceded itself with the nickname “Memphis in Mud.” Given the rainy tradition, most fans embraced the sunny and unseasonably steamy weather of the 2012 installment. Given the utter marvelous ubiquity of music festivals these days, what makes Memphis special? The lovely lineup is what brought this Bonnaroo regular across the state for the weekend; and how this festival fulfills the Memphis musical legacy already inhabiting the banks of the Mississippi River kept us enchanted for three delightful days.

Needtobreathe followed by Florence and the Machine opened the weekend. The angelic soaring sonic blessing brought by Florence Welch took me towards that festival in the mind and heart. Full moon rising, mild Mississippi breezes caressing the dancers on the lawn—this is a perfect night, recovering from an unseemly hot day.

My Morning Jacket, though, are the band that motivate me more than most to take long rock n roll road trips. After opening with “Circuital,” the setlist dipped into B-sides and back catalog. Whatever the song choices, Yim Yames could sing to me on any Friday night. The soaring greatness of Carl’s guitar part and the sheer emotions of Yim’s vocals on “Gideon” never fail to destroy me.

The outta this world “Outta My System” is one of my clean & sober theme songs (just celebrated three years!), so it’s always great to hear that in a set. On “Wordless Chorus” and “Touch Me,” Yim’s freaky falsetto yummy yelps give me chills no matter how warm it is. An always brain-and-body-bending “Off the Record” riffs into our reggae-soaked “Phone Went West,” soulfully slinked to perfection. Quite simply, My Morning Jacket have become (or perhaps they always were) a quintessential classic rock band in the deeper sense that teenage boys dream about. Yim Yames is a warm-hearted light-worker, sending furry beams of fuzzy love across galaxies of realities in need of repair and revival. I am honored to have traveled to the sonic sanctuary that he and his mates have created on so many occasions.

As much as Friday fulfilled, Saturday sanctified, first with the rusty interstate rambles of Son Volt, with Jay Farrar fierce as poet-troubadour roots-rock frontman, a John Fogerty-meets-Jack Kerouac lyrics-and-guitar prophet. But it was later Saturday when we left the rock themes for a one-of-a-kind soul revival. The Reverend Green brought a band, his daughters as backup singers, dozens of roses to decorate the crowd with love. Green graced us with a medley of “Amazing Grace/Nearer My God” that slipped so perfectly into “Let’s Stay Together.” Late in the show, he became a human jukebox, power-packing snippets of several super-hits into just a few minutes. Broadcasting brightly on the frequency of love, Green’s soul sensuality and sanctified reality combine seamlessly and sacredly – as it should be. More than any festival I’ve been to since leaving downtown Detroit, the racial diversity in the crowd celebrated a sticker I saw on Beale Street: “Not Black, Not White, Just Blues.” The amazing Anthony Hamilton held the soul vibe high into the wee hours.

Sunday’s sets sealed the weekend in more sweat and sweetness. Under the blazing heat, Chris Robinson (of Black Crowes fame) kicked back for a hot and heavy hour of the hippie blues. Then there’s something that makes a festival a festival. Michael Franti and Spearhead wrapped all of Memphis in a mighty group hug of good vibes. Sticking more to recent tracks mostly from The Sound of Sunshine, Franti feels mellower with his message tilted from justice-movement politics towards straight shots of hope-and-unity. When you’re dancing at a festival, such genuine human warmth serves the politics of the good regardless. Some fans have bemoaned the softening of Franti’s sharper edges, but I welcome this latest evolution and look forward towards his next incarnation as well.

We wrapped up the musical quilt of our weekend with quieter duets of The Civil Wars. What Joy Williams and John Paul White have created evokes emotional reckonings and rustic moods, adding yet more to the alt-folk-roots revival that just keeps blossoming with new beauty. They serenaded our after dinner iced-tea hour and sent us walking towards the car with appropriate contentment to carry back to the middle of our fine musical state of Tennessee. —Andrew William Smith, Editor


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

June 19, 2011

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

Temporary City of Fun: First Rooflection of 2011

June 9, 2011

The steamy summer heat hits central Tennessee early each year. As the temperature rises to a regional hot-flash, people pack their bags. Some head even further south; others shuttle East; the smart ones trek north. But the best vacation for the rock n roll fan requires a little jaunt across a couple county lines.

The media buzz for the tenth annual Bonnaroo’s been building for months, but this year, the fanboy’s Christmas in June just kind of snuck up on me.

Even though this will be my sixth consecutive year volunteering creativity and time in exchange for my wristband, it requires a certain confidence in a higher power to conjure the carefree courage to suffer the punishing sunlight and celebrate the musical delight. Working at the Academy in Planet Roo anchors my Bonnaroo experience by providing a focus and a sense of service, with our diverse offering of gardening and arts classes. But during the hours when I’m not staffing the tent or supporting our staff, if I am not sleeping or eating, I am off exploring the festival grounds and catching as many concerts as I can manage.

The temporary city as cultural carnival—constructed in tents and motorhomes and countless other improvisations of functional art as life—defies logic and requires logistics of a heroic level. Back in 06 and 07, I needed the medical tent more than I want to admit, and in sheer amazement and need, I witnessed a team and facilities of stunning compassion, resources, and efficiency. All the Woodstock slurs and hippy stereotypes and permitted debaucheries asides, running this festival is a serious business, and the ‘roo producers possess a deep ethical and humanitarian ethos to provide such an excellent backend of support.

Planning and packing are a project in themselves, but the annual joyful anticipation comes from really studying the schedule and imagining what shows I might get to see. Making a playlist that progresses through the schedule helps plot my weekend and hones my longing, knowing of course that I will inevitably miss a show I wanted to see or stumble across something new that takes my breath away.

This year, I waited until a few days before to really ponder the offerings and the order in which they’re scheduled to unfold.  Along with looking at the extended weather forecast, learning the schedule is a fan’s perfect pre-Roo pastime. Entire online discussion communities exist just to talk about this festival. My first few years, I lived on these boards for weeks, trying to grasp what awaited me.

Just to remind myself that I am a new and better person than the one who started coming to this festival in 2006, an added aspect of my more recent Bonnaroo experience comes from the clean and sober community that hosts a table and meets as a fellowship for sharing in meetings twice each day, always gathering near the yellow balloons near the Sonic Café where we might see stickers such as “One Show At A Time.”

Landing onsite on June 8th for the last pre-day before the 2011 festival kicks off today,  I was amazed and grateful for how well-organized the intake and setup proceedings have become, stretching our human potential to construct a harmonious four-day music and arts society from the chaos that remains part of the larger reality inside and outside our warm, dusty, temporary zone of fandom and fun. –Andrew William Smith, Editor


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