John Mahar's Blog

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bonnaroo more details


As I did in 2009, I ended up with a backstage pass thanks to my sister Laura’s connections and work at the festival. I did purchase a ticket this year, and went with my friend David Kutil, who happens to be from Manchester. This meant that I got to experience the southern hospitality of some local folks. David’s friends put us up Wednesday night in their house, and Thursday morning the three cutest kids I ever did get woken up by at 6am were asking if they could see my car. We went outside and Dimitri, 5, Jack, 3, and Gus, 2, all got under my truck and started asking me about the engine and gears. After breakfast Jack put on my size 14 shoes and walked around in them for a while, he declared they were too big.

It was great to be camping with this crew—we kept meeting more friends from town at camp, at the beer stands, and of course at the shows. It was nice to feel connected to people who had seen the festival grow from its precursor as Outgun Itchycoo, a dud of a festival with the likes of Rick Springfield and Sammy Hagar—apparently so few people attended that Heart, billed as one of the headliners, didn’t even play. Our camp was quite diverse—we had 2 Canadians, an Israeli, a Dane, and a Chinese girl. Adam, another Manchester native, won the award for most prepared—he brought extra everything, and with his years of Bonnarooing, knew all the little things we might need. He had lights, lanterns, generators, 5 coolers, extra tents, first aid kits, sleeping pads, camp chairs, a table, a canopy, a grill, cases of beer, coffee, snacks, a water-mister attachment for his camelback, sunscreen, earplugs, aloe, a shower-bag, etc. At one point one of the guys asked Adam for something and he said he didn’t have it. “That’s the first time you’ve ever said that to me!” he joked. We all benefited from his preparedness all weekend.

After a speedy entry through the main gate we set up camp and sat around for a few hours eating and drinking. At around 6 we made our way to Centeroo, which is where the shows happen. The first show we saw was Best Coast, which was billed as kind of surf-rocky. This was probably the only show I saw that I wasn’t that in to because of the performance given. By the end, the singer had gotten more into it, but started so slowly that she couldn’t pull me back in. I guess this is my only non-recommendation. Afterwards I decided to go meet up with my sister for a drink over in the VIP area, but stopped by one of the smaller stages to see Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. He has a good stage presence and plays fun southern blues. “Do you want to make a memory!?” he asked as I came up. We proceeded to make a memory—it was a participatory song, kind of like an adult-southern-blues hokey pokey. “I’m a bad you know it stomp your feet” [stomp stomp stomp stomp] and repeat. We made a memory alright.

After a drink with Laura, I headed back across the venue to the Other Tent for Sleigh Bells (see links in previous post). After fighting like hell to get through the throngs of people pressing up to get closer to the wall of speakers, I found David and the others. It was too tight for all us old guys, and as I mentioned before the bass hurt my poor old ears. We seemed to be the only people not totally thrilled with every second of the performance, so, like many shows at Bonnaroo, the energy makes up for any lack of anything else that could be missing.

We caught a little of Beats Antique, and I was enjoying it, but we went over and caught the end of Deerhunter. They reminded me of Yo La Tengo with their wall of atmospheric sound, but I wasn’t in the mood for it. Knowing we had many days ahead, we called it an early night at 1 AM.

Friday morning I was woken by the heat of the sun burning into the bed of my truck, so, like the next days as well, I fought to sleep more and failed. So, what to do? Cook. Adam was saying the heat killed his appetite. “Nothing kills my appetite except for extreme sickness,” I said. I chopped some onions, fried them up, and added eggs. Then I had some yogurt and granola. Then I had some chips with avacado and salsa. Then I snacked on somebody’s carrots they had brought. The guy from Israel, Ruven, got a real kick out of this. “You never stop eating! And you’re so skinny!” It seemed that whenever we overlapped in camp I was stuffing my face with food.

We kind of had trouble getting out of camp, but we finally made it over to This Tent for the last few songs of Jessica Lea Mayfield. While not very innovative, she has good catchy songs and a very nice voice. It’s like indie-country, I guess. It reminds me of Lucinda Williams a bit. It was a good laid back way to start the morning. And by morning I mean early afternoon.

Next I went on to Ben Sollee, who I was worried might be a bit too preachy, considering what I know of his involvement with anti-mountaintop removal coal mining activism. He did mention it, but he only got bad when he sang a preachy song against people being preachy called “I’ll wear your bible belt.” Overall it was great—his style is kind of like Edgar Meyer’s bass playing, and his fiddle player kicked ass. My favorite song of his was called “electrified.” Good topic, good song. The surprise was that, while mentioning the beauty of central Appalachia and the need to end MTR, he said, “there’s nothing wrong with coal, just the way it’s being mined.” Firstly, I wondered why in the hell he felt he needed to be cagey at Bonnaroo, of all places, and, secondly, how can anyone say there’s nothing wrong with coal? I can think of at least one thing—it causes black lung. I’m sure you can think of a few others. I can think of a few good things too—when we burn it, it makes electricity. But I guess “Coal has good and bad qualities” isn’t much of a rallying cry.

I caught up with Laura sidestage for Justin Townes Earl, who, while mellower than I expected, was just about perfect. He plays great old style country and some rockabilly and I recommend any couple that likes to two-step go see him. He’s very personable and really lives up to his image.

After that we saw Atmosphere, who, unlike most rappers these days, still raps. He also has a great band that backs him up and is quite a storyteller and crowd rally-er. I really enjoyed it. He started out talking about hangovers in a hot tent (something most of us in the audience could relate to) to lead into Sunshine.

I caught up again with Laura and went side stage to see Wanda Jackson, who, like Loretta Lynn a few years back, has a new album produced by Jack White of the White Stripes. She was cute and a lot of fun. “I could talk until Tuesday about Jack White,” she said as she was thanking him for reviving her interest in recording (and her career, it seems). She apparently was big in the 60s and 70s and is billed as the first woman to sing rock and roll.

Then Laura and I saw Florence + the Machine. I had never so much as heard a song of hers beforehand, and was very impressed. (more on her in previous post). I caught myself with my mouth open—awed by her voice, mainly, but also her stage-power.

So then I went to the What stage (the main stage) for My Morning Jacket and Arcade Fire. (more in previous post) The What Stage is amazing. Period. You have to see a show there before you die. This would be a small crowd there.

After Arcade Fire I went to hang out with Laura and Steve Green. I heard some fun festival backstage stories about Big Boi’s crazy uncle Jarnell and out-of-control attendees getting escorted out. On my way back to camp I heard a bit of Lil Wayne and stopped by Bassnectar to find that he lives up to his name. Very friendly guy, it seemed, but his bass damn near blew out my eardrums. I guess that’s dubstep—very bass heavy music.

I met up with David to try to catch Pretty Lights (he also lives up to his name), but he didn’t grab us, and Ratatat
was starting, so we tried to hear that. Ratatat didn’t get started exactly on time, and we were tired, so we left and heard it on our way back to camp. All three of these seemed quite fun, just not enough to keep my tired attention at 2:30 AM.


The next morning we heard from Ruven about the guy he saw running around naked. “He must have been on acid or something. He was a good looking guy too, and he kept running up to hot girls and kind of playing with his junk.” He was escorted out. I doubt they left him at the gates naked, but I didn’t hear any follow-up on that one. At 12:45 we sat down for a nice easy beginning of the day with the Mongolians Hanngai (See previous post) and were quickly roused to our feet. We started the morning with Jack Daniels and a few beers, so that helped our energy a bit, I guess.

After Hanngai we come to the sad part of the story—the one really bad thing. At every stage at Bonnaroo, one of the things you notice is the absolutely incredible perfect sound quality. But this year, pretty much all day Saturday, the sound at the Which stage was too low. We went to see Old Crow, and weren’t even back very far and could barely hear it. It was a huge bummer, but luckily the band didn’t know, and continued to give a great performance, as usual.

John, from Canada, had suggested I check out Gary Clark Jr., a blues guitarist. The story is he was invited by Eric Clapton to play in his blues festival, so he was used to playing bars with 20 to 30 people and all of the sudden he was in front of 15 or 20 thousand people. He started out nervous and wouldn’t move to the front of the stage until encouraged to do so by his band members. And then he ripped. And he ripped at Bonnaroo as well. He reminded me of Al Green with his simple tank top and a vintagey looking hat. His style is relatively unique, given that he is a blues guitarist.

After getting my blues fix I went over to see Devotchka. Some of you may be familiar with them from Little Miss Sunshine, but they’ve been around for a while. I was surprised to see they weren’t on stage yet when I got there—usually shows are very much on schedule and at most are a few minutes late. What happened was that Eugene Kutz had asked them if he could do a few acoustic songs in between Jovanatti and Devotchka. “We are friends, so they said ok,” Kutz said. They were quite good—I don’t find Gogol Bordello very appealing, but the three songs they did were nice. Then after a very quick set change Devotchka came on and they were great. Sonorous, dramatic, great melodies. It’s Spanish-influenced, and he even sang a few songs in Spanish. I didn’t recognize anything they played, but it was all good anyway. They had a trapeze artist come out towards the end of their set, very cool.

I was hungry so headed back to the VIP section. I could barely get through the crowd that had amassed for Mumford and Sons. They were at the Which stage, and the sound problem hadn’t been fixed, so I just moved along even though I like what I’ve heard of them and enjoyed the little I could hear of them there. I got a bit to eat at artist hospitality and was happy to see they were streaming the HD footage of Loretta Lynn’s set, which was awesome. I got to see her sing coal miner’s daughter and some gospel songs. She looked strong on stage despite her age. Even though I wasn’t watching it live, it was special for me to know she was there.

After eating it was time to head out to see the Black Keys on the main stage. They were good, but didn’t really live up to the venue—the crowd seemed a little distracted. They’re just too small a band for that stage.

We went to the Which stage to catch Buffalo Springfield. I was very excited to see Niel Young, and majorly disappointed cuz the sound problem STILL wasn’t fixed. Between every song people were chanting “turn it up, turn it up!” but no dice. We went back to camp bummed out.

We rested up for what we expected to be the best night. There were a lot of great shows going on and the only one no one in our crowd cared about was String Cheese Incident. After a little while we headed back to see Eminem. Seeing him from the very back of the field on the What stage was kind of like hearing him on the radio. I was thinking maybe it would be good since he’s so famous, and it was, but he’s so serious. Apparently his only special request upon his arrival was a couple of 25lb dumbbells. It was cool to see him, and I guess that studio-like precision speaks to his skills. He teased a bit by going offstage and came back out and did One Shot for the encore.

Then it was over to That tent for Dr. John. You know Dr. John even if you think you don’t. This was a lot of fun, funky New Orleans style with great singing. But after a couple songs our curiousity to see Omar Souleyman overpowered our desire to stay put. (See previous post) People were going wild at that show. I guess it’s a bit racist, or some kind of ignorant, but the crowd I guess saw his music as tribal and they were dancing like pagans.

At 2:00 I headed over to This tent for Girl Talk and caught the end of Scissor Sisters. I waited and the throngs of young people grew. The crowd was amped and sang parts of songs while waiting—you say he’s just a friend being the only one I recognized. I watched a guy trade a joint and some cash for a little bag of coke. A couple 15 year old girls squeezed in front of me, then some huge fat 17 year old boy squeezed in and started smoking. “How did these idiots get back-stage passes,” I thought. I think I was in about the 95th percentile of age there. And if you’ve heard his music you know why. Girl Talk is the ultimate ADHD music—his music is purely non-stop mashup: blending music from the 70s 80s 90s and today, with the samples short enough that if you don’t recognize them, by about the time that thought has crossed your mind another sample pops up that you know. And it’s a lot of fun, high energy stuff. This spring I would often put on Girl Talk in order to help me get through a stack of papers to grade. So I was near a wall of speakers, and when the bass started, I quickly improvised some earplugs from a napkin left in my pocket from dinner. I was determined to stick around and have some fun dancing despite the glaring fact I was one of the oldest people there and the guy 5 times my size lurking in front of me. The show started with Girl Talk (which is one guy) coming out and jumping up and down a lot while some assistants sprayed the audience with toilet paper. They had rolls of TP attached to the end of leaf-blowers. He went behind his computer and started playing music. For all I know, he could have it all arranged ahead of time and not even be there, but it seems he enjoys the shows as much as anybody there. He always brings a bunch of the audience up on stage to dance. This was where I’d finally had enough bass—it was so loud that it drowned out all the melodic samples, which tended to be the ones I knew. So after about half an hour, I moved out, way out from the stage and sure enough I could hear a little Fleetwood Mac sample behind the pounding bass and whatever rap sample he was using.

I caught a little Gogol Bordello trying to meet back up with my amigos, but couldn’t find them and found his lyrics kind of dumb. But he sure brings it—he was soaked in sweat and really giving a hell of a performance.

I was on my way out, and decided to stop by the silent disco. This is one cool feature of Bonnaroo—you can go in, put headphones on, and dance to a DJ. It’s as fun to watch as to participate. As a spectator of course you don’t hear anything but see people dancing and shouting in unison. The funny thing for me was that as soon as I put on my headphones I heard a Dr. John song remix. Kind of a dud at 3:45AM for me. The next song was just as much of a snooze, so I went back to camp.

As mentioned in the previous post, I only saw G. Love on Sunday. At the end of his show he threw out a couple harmonicas into the crowd and my heart flipped. I went over in the direction of where they were thrown to see if I could get a glimpse of one, but no luck. They were on the other side of the pit from me. So I went to VIP, said adios to Laura and went back to camp to pack up.

I had a great time, but decided that when I go back again, it’ll be with an RV. Being woken at 7 by the blazing sun every morning is an even bigger discomfort for me than the 90+ degree days. I don’t mind having to drink a lot of water, but I kind of mind heat-induced wake-ups after only having slept for 4 hours.

The greatest long-term affect of Bonnaroo for me is how relaxed I am afterwards. It’s kind of a good thing I’m not coming back to work—I found myself to be very productive Monday when I marked one thing off of a list of things to do a mile long. Good job, I told myself. The next day I did 3 things—that’s triple the productivity! At this rate I’ll be done with that list by October.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bonnaroo 2011

I’m fresh off my return from Bonnaroo—so fresh I still smell a little ripe despite a shower and I still can’t hear very well. Either it’s from the ridiculous bass of the late-night shows or maybe the dust stopping up my ear canals. It rained all of about 10 minutes in the 4 days, so the air was thick with waves of sound and dust particles. The day-time high temperatures were above 90 degrees, and usually by 8AM it was too hot to continue sleeping. If it sounds uncomfortable so far, just keep in mind I’m getting the negative stuff out of the way first—except for one thing, the festival was even better than I expected. And my expectations were very high, considering how much fun I had in 2009.

The images are still dancing in my head: the glow of the lightshow on an ecstatic crowd, everybody dressed for the beach, coolers with cases of beer, big shade trees with people cramming together to get out of the sun, and thousands of tents.

I didn’t go in this year with a huge list of things I wanted to see—I didn’t really do any research on bands I didn't know, but luckily the bands I saw mostly blew me away in one way or another. To keep this organized in such a way that you don’t have to plough through a bunch of my potentially less-than-thrilling commentary, I’ll bold the bands I saw and link to a video of theirs so you can skip my words and just check out the music.

A more detailed story is in the next post, but here are the music highlights:

Thusrday is usually a warm-up, but Sleigh Bells killed it and ended up being the favorite show of some people. Musically it’s Iron-Man style 70s guitars, dance beats, and a chic singer. I couldn’t get in to it cuz I’m too old for all that bass (a theme that emerged as I stood by speakers repeatedly). But when I listen to the studio recordings I do like the synthesis of the new beats with those old grinding guitar riffs.

Friday was a total knockout, with great shows for me all day, but my favorite two shows of the festival were My Morning Jacket and Arcade Fire. They played back to back on the main stage and both killed it. My Morning Jacket played with a horn troupe to fill out their already big sound, and Arcade Fire has enough members they didn’t need any additions. My Morning Jacket reminded me physically of Metallica with their head-banging and hair, but also their starpower. This is one of the songs they played that I thought was great—imagine it with a horn section and bass loud enough to remind you how old you are. Arcade Fire’s video work was the most interesting I’ve ever seen at a show, multiplying the coolness factor. This song was my favorite performance of Bonnaroo. They brought it so hard it brought tears to my eyes.

Earlier in the day I heard Florence and the Machine for the first time and was knocked over by her voice and power. She looks a little like David Bowie and belts like maybe she could have an opera career. The only female performer I’ve ever seen live with a more powerful stage presence is Lauren Hill. The difference is that Florence has a sweet side too.

We all thought Saturday day was going to be a little slower, but thanks to Eugene Kutz’ curation of the Other Stage, we started off with maybe the most unique performance of the weekend with Hanngai. This band is from Mongolia and their music is sometimes reminiscent of Irish drinking songs. We thought we were going to sit down for the show to save our legs for later but it was too fun to stay still.

Another wild performance was given by Omar Souleyman, a Syrian whose onstage presence seems more like a politician than an artist. As he sings at times he holds up one finger as if he’s explaining how he’ll solve the debt crisis. For all I know that’s what he could have been singing about. When finished with songs he puts his hands out to the side and waves like he just finished an acceptance speech.

I left Sunday, but had to see G. Love and Special Sauce before I left. I’ve always liked him and he gave a great fun performance. The best might have been his rendition of Booty Call, in which he free-styled about hooking up at Bonnaroo. His new material is great, a lot better than the songs on Lemonde, in my opinion. He’s doing a Paul Simon cover too, which was a lot of fun.

The next post will have the detailed version with more band links and recs. Here are the few photos I took. I'm missing a cord, so more will follow soon.