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Bonnaroo 2006 – Festival Review (Part 2)


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Bonnaroo 2006 – Festival Review (Part 2)

Manchester, TN June 16-18

by Alan Dodson

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Preservation Hall in New Orleans French Quarter

photo by katedahl

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States and forever changed New Orleans. The disaster was widespread, with almost two thousand people dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, entire neighbourhoods submerged, and the resulting political mishandling did not do much to raise the public’s spirits. New Orleans is a musical treasure of the world. Jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, early variants of hip-hop, Cajun, Zydeco and delta blues were all born in the Crescent City, and this culture still lives on in the countless music clubs, musicians, festivals, and traditions of the city.

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To say that Hurricane Katrina devastated the music scene in New Orleans would be a bit of an overstatement, especially when you consider that the spirit of music can never die; The musicians did take a large hit however. Superfly Productions, one of the companies that brings Bonnaroo to the masses every year, is based in New Orleans and has been putting on shows there since 1994. Understandably then, it was not a surprise that the following musical heavyweights from New Orleans were booked to play the festival this year, which takes its name from a 1974 album by Dr. John. Allen Toussaint lost everything in the floods. The Neville Brothers relocated to Austin. Preservation Hall, the 45-year old jazz hotspot, was forced to close after Katrina but escaped major damage. Dr. John himself was on tour at the time of the storm, but his whole family and most of everyone he knew in the city were temporarily missing for days.

At Bonnaroo in the Centeroo, there are a few booths trying to raise funds to support both the regular people and the musicians of New Orleans. Mike Gordon states his love of New Orleans in a heartfelt tribute in the press tent, talking about how going to various music clubs in the city, seeing all kinds of new music and Toussaint forever changed his life. Sitting next to a gracious Toussaint, Gordon urges everyone present to visit the city, to the agreement of John Popper and Damian Marley.

There is deep mutual respect between the musicians in the press tent all weekend. Gordon speaks highly of Toussaint, who in turn speaks to Damian Marley about “Jr. Gong’s†father Bob, who left the legacy of the Marley family which Damian considers his fathers’ greatest gift. Toussaint also speaks eloquently and at length about the genius of his new partner Elvis Costello in the creation of their Katrina-inspired The River in Reverse. (As a sidenote, I later ask Toussaint about his and Costello’s involvement in the Paul Simon tribute show at the Montréal International Jazz Festival. He responds by talking again about the genius of both Simon and Costello who has picked out “One of the great American songs of all time,†but cannot divulge the choice to me. It turns out Costello and the Imposters perform “Peace Like a Riverâ€, and Toussaint joins them for “American Tuneâ€).

Saturday morning is another scorcher. While waiting in line for a shower I see another example of the instant community of friendly strangers of Bonnaroo. A man has been stealing things from tents and cars in a campground close to Shakedown Street. When he is caught in the act, he jumps in his car, drives dangerously through the campground over people’s campsites and even tents that were fortunately empty while trying to make an escape to the street. Eventually the group chasing him catches up, pulls him out of the vehicle and pins him down until the mounted police arrive and take charge. The gathering crowd surrounds the thief and boo him while applauding his captors, police included.

After the excitement of car chases and arrests, I have my cold shower and make it to Centeroo for the day. While the Neville Brothers make a wonderful noise from What Stage, British vocal group The Magic Numbers make their Bonnaroo debut to a large audience at Which Stage. The Magic Numbers describe their music as “Soul-pop with three-part harmonies.†Through watching their performance, it is clear they take their songwriting craft and live show very seriously. The set is well-paced, tight, and well-executed. Judging from comments heard around me, many in the audience have never heard of the band before.

The band admitted to the press before their set that it is intimidating being on the same bill as many of their favourite artists, but after a few songs most people at the back of the crowd are either humming along or tapping their feet, whatever they have the energy to do. No doubt there are hardcore fans in the front, singing along at the top of their lungs; their music lends itself to that quite well.

elvis_costello.jpg

photo by Samuel Stroube

Elvis Costello is one of my musical heroes. His work since 1977 has been wildly diverse, recording driven new-wave, punky-pop, piano jazz, orchestral, and pretty much everything else you can tag with a label. Given his musical output over the years, it was no surprise when it became known that he was teaming up with Toussaint to record an album based on Hurricane Katrina and the issues associated with the disaster. Many of Toussaint’s older songs were re-recorded with Costello, and I was interested to hear their live interpretations. Indeed the only times I’d heard the music before was on old Lee Dorsey albums. The Bonnaroo live show was destined to be better.

The set opens with Costello and his band the Imposters and the Crescent City Horns playing the classic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?†and the more recent “Monkey to Man.†Costello then introduces Toussaint and shares the story of their 1982 meeting while recording Yoko Ono’s “Walking On Thin Ice.†(Thankfully that “gem†isn’t played this afternoon!) The band then veers into the third track from the new album, and Toussaint takes over. He seems so cool on the piano, dressed in all black and giving the occasional backup vocal until the fun call and response song “A Certain Girl,†made famous by Eric Clapton. Costello looks like he was having the time of his life playing with Toussaint, and his energy comes through in both his voice and underrated guitar playing.

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Allen Toussaint - Bonnaroo Day 2 (6/17/06)

photo by Matt Jordan

Unfortunately the flow of the set comes to a screeching halt with Costello’s performance of “Clown Strike†off 1994’s Brutal Youth. It is a bad song choice for such a large crowd; up until this point the audience has been dancing along to Toussaint’s shuffle, and this left turn into Costello obscurity kills the mood very quickly. As quickly as the vibe is stopped though, it starts again with a new Costello-Toussaint tune called “Broken Promise Land,†prefaced by a Costello rant about the mishandling of the Katrina crisis. The video cameras zoom into a George Bush figurine on Costello’s amplifier with the word “KNOB†written across the base. The musicians take the energy from the crowd’s loud roar and sustain the rest of the set with great music and both funny and poignant stories about the Gulf Coast. My personal highlights are Toussaint’s “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)â€, Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,†and the incredible encore medley of “Alison†and “Tracks of My Tears.†Costello and company run off the stage after two more songs and I have little time to contemplate the great show I’ve just witnessed, as I have to make it over to That Tent for Gomez.

Gomez is playing at Bonnaroo for the second time, and like G. Love is relegated from the Which Stage to a tent. Strange. That Tent is overflowing with people anxious to hear material from their new album How We Operate, interestingly enough released on Dave Matthews’ label. Since I arrive an hour into their set, I only hear one new song, which is fine with me, along with three or four songs from various other albums, all much better than the newest. Their entire set is packed with high energy and is one of the more enthusiastic shows of the weekend.

After packing up camp and trying unsuccessfully to make a dent in the beer stockpile, This Tent beckons us to Mike Doughty’s Band for the first of Sunday’s shows. I am determined to see full sets of bands today, and I am very happy to start with Doughty. I have been a huge Soul Coughing fan ever since the day in 1994 when I first heard “Screenwriter’s Blues.†At one point in my days at university I managed to collect every Soul Coughing song and remix ever recorded. However, this will be just my second Mike Doughty show, both of them being at Bonnaroo.

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Mike Doughty's Band

photo by Jason Merritt

At the beginning of the set the crowd is enormous, I like to think it is because of his genius but as more stages in the venue become active, the crowd thins out. There are definitely some hardcore fans in the audience; a friend points out a girl in front of us wearing shorts with “Tremendous Brunette†(a Doughty staple) written across the bum. His show starts of with a full band of upright bass, drums, keyboards, and guitar, but at times he sends the band off to sing some solo songs.

When you get right down to it, most of Doughty’s songs feature the same guitar rhythm, but it’s his downtown poetry and gravely tone that make him such a treat to see. Some standout tracks are the opener “Busting Up a Starbucks,†“F-Train,†the Soul Coughing song â€True Dreams of Wichita,†and the closer “St. Louise is Listening.†There is also a very strange medley / singalong of “Paradise City†segued into “The Gambler.†I didn’t think I’d ever hear those two songs mixed together. His banter is hilarious as usual, and you never would have known he finished a show in Cleveland just fourteen hours earlier.

After the show, Doughty shares some nice thoughts about Bonnaroo on his blog: “Bonnaroo really is as special as they say it is. The music business in general has lost its intense interest in the jam-band scene, but those hippies, man, they still have something beautiful going on.â€

Next up is The Streets, a British hip-hop / grime / garage mix that is the brainchild of Mike Skinner. Again a large crowd is anticipating this act, as it is an interesting mix of the more “indie†bands and hip-hop acts at the festival. The show features a full band and even a backup singer to do more of the melodic vocal work, as Skinner prefers a more conversational spoken-word rhyme scheme. There is plenty of ‘Jump when I say jump!’ calls from the stage, plenty of call and response, and Skinner goes as far as giving out a huge bottle of brandy to the front row. Not all of the show is light-hearted and fun though.

Earlier in the day he answered a journalist’s question about the day being Father’s Day, and sadly he noted that his father had recently passed, and today had special meaning for him.

Halfway through the set he introduces a new song that he wrote for his dad, tells the crowd about his father’s passing, and the crowd responds with a sympathetic yet very loud and enthusiastic cheer. Skinner thanks the crowd for their kind wishes and dedicates the show to his late father. This is not the kind of show I would enjoy in a club, or away from a festival, as it seems heavily scripted, even down to the obscene comments the backup singer makes about a girl in the front row. (The same ‘script’ was used at many if not every show on the current tour according to reviews.) However, sometimes a show hits you at just the right time and you are able to overlook all the cheesiness and have a good time. I manage to do this and have a good time, but unless his next material is mind-blowing I won’t go see The Streets again.

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Steve Earl

photo by Jason Merritt

Before leaving Bonnaroo, I take a stroll to re-visit myself circa 1994-2000 at That Tent where Stephen Malkmus (ex- of Pavement) and Sonic Youth are playing. Hearing Malkmus sing songs off his newest album is an almost painful reminder of just how good Pavement was and how the mighty songwriters can fall into self-indulgent traps of cleverness. His set features songs from his newest album Face The Truth, which I don’t think is nearly as strong as any of Pavement’s catalogue or his self-titled solo debut. The songs are competently played, and his delivery is still good, but unfortunately even the most professional band and solid delivery can’t rescue mediocre songs. I take off to hear Steve Earle play some real storytelling music, as it’s hard to think of leaving Bonnaroo on a sad note, disappointed as I was with Malkmus.

Steve Earle is everything I like in a musician: a talented yet foul-mouthed wordsmith, musically versatile, intelligent, socially conscious, mildly controversial and unafraid to speak his mind. At Bonnaroo he decides to perform solo without the Dukes, which is disappointing to me starting off, but quickly becomes a great move. It is much easier to hear what he is singing about without the excess noise that rock / country / bluegrass bands tend to make. He plays a handful of songs off The Revolution Starts Now, including “Condi, Condi,†“F the CC,†and “Rich Man’s War†which is prefaced by a lengthy lesson on U.S. foreign policy, dedicated to the Republican Party. His mandolin makes an appearance, although it seems he isn’t quite ready to use it; he asks the crowd for nail clippers so he can play the instrument properly. His set progresses slowly, but he is a thoroughly entertaining musician. No flash but all substance.

Many different communities gathered this weekend in the middle of Tennessee. There were the indie kids, the hip hoppers, hippies and hipsters, old, young, infant, middle-aged people, aging legends, up-and-comers, Jewish reggae artists, British grime, Jamaican dancehall, New York slacker jazz and misplaced but persevering New Orleans musicians. The dreaded schedule conflicts did indeed result in happy headaches, or perhaps that was from the sun? It’s hard to ingest a festival like Bonnaroo in one weekend, there is just so much to see, do and hear that even a week would not be enough. That is probably the point; even though this massive community gathers at the same spot at the same time, each person takes home their own memories of Bonnaroo, and the collective memory is undeniably positive.

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Amazing read. I've been looking forward to pt. 2 for weeks. I certainly wasn't disapointed. AD has unique tastes and interesting takes on the whole "jamband" scene and I've been wondering how he chose to spend his time at Bonnaroo. Well done!

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