As I meandered over to the Which Stage to wait for Sharon Jones, I heard strains of brass-driven jazz. Soul Rebels Brass Band weren’t in the booklet schedule, but they more than satisfied my desire for groovy funk. They combine a hip-hop approach to performance with jazz, funk and reggae. Obviously really talented instrumentalists and veteran jamsters, they formed some tight, impromptu sounding grooves that really energized the crowd.
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet (feat. Bela Fleck) were one of the acts I had never heard before but was dying to see, and they didn’t disappoint. Much like the Bluegrass Allstars are expert in bluegrass, Washburn and co. specialize in folk. Surprisingly, they are adept at American, specifically Appalachian, folk as well as Chinese folk. This set received better billing, playing the This Tent, rather than the isolated Other Tent.
Washburn’s voice is positively angelic, and it was a special treat when she surprisingly sang in Chinese for her Asian folk numbers. She has surrounded herself with highly capable support to weave her delicate folk tapestries, not the least of whom was Bela Fleck again working his stringed-magic. They delivered probably the most worldly set of the entire festival, soaked in the most nuanced beauty I had the joy to hear.
Mastodon’s set was running a bit behind. Rumor has it there was some vigorous in-fighting centered around the drummer. In any case, that didn’t seem to disrupt their unity as a band because they laid down some fantastic metal. A great treat to the Bonnaroo crowd and a heavy, much-needed respite from jam-fare. Their fantasy-themed expansive metal found a warm reception.
They proved to be an extremely tight outfit, more than making up for my disappointment in Metallica’s fairly sloppy Friday-night set. Beautifully executed, jarring changes between passages in songs made their set one of the most dynamic, right behind Fiery Furnaces for keeping you on your toes. They made a great juxtaposition of fury and fantasty-fueled escpaism, two things I don’t normally associate.
Gogol Bordello were mid-set as I wandered in, and though giving a strong effort, much of their live energy and Hutz’s charisma was diffused across such a large venue and audience. The quality of their show is directly proportional to the energy they can drum up from the crowd. And unless you were in the first few rows at this set, you didn’t have that critical feeling of a turbulent sea of humanity so you might as well have been listening to the CD at home.
B.B. King, much like Willie Nelson, is a legend of his genre. The king of blues. At the seasoned age of 82, he blew Willie Nelson out of the water with a captivating performance. He represents the classic showman, the bard or minstrel, spinning endearing yarns and sagely unfurling anecdotes with universally appealing themes promoting love and respect.
And then out of nowhere, the seated King pulls up his guitar close and lets loose a blues riff with so much soul, passion and spirit that your jaw falls slack. King shows that there is an alternative to the envelope, personal values-stretching performance art that predominates in music circles today. And in the hands of a skilled and charismatic practioner, it can be just as effective. Youth performers take note: this is what you need to aspire to.
Pearl Jam have some great modern rock songs; there is little disputing the impact of “Evenflo,” “Jeremy” or “Daughter” their perfectly manicured grunge-y garage riffs pounding and sticking in the listener’s mind. But like Metallica, these fellows have had their time, and seem content treading and riffing the same water over and over again.
I call foul and say enough is enough. When the crowd only REALLY roars for your radio hits, all of which are older than 5 years, it’s time to re-evaluate exactly what you are doing. When any competent garage band with a face-melting guitarist could nail your songs while playing atop an Eddie Vedder vocal loop…you have to question what you are adding to the music community and if you are OK with being a peddler of nostalgia. Really, it’s the separation from the legions of good artists like Pearl Jam and the legends (Metallica, for me, is in a fuzzy bit of limbo), the music that privately recalls a time and place versus the music you pass on to your children, the music that soundtracks your life versus the music that shapes your life.
As I dwelled upon Sigur Rós’ (Wiki) set the past few days, I am now comfortable in saying that it was one of the most remarkable and moving moments I have ever witnessed in my 15-odd years of performing and viewing fine arts, and stands apart as one of the most strikingly beautiful moments in my life. I struggle to find words to describe the evening. Resplendent comes to mind, as do the normal stable of adjectives/adverbs…brilliant, spectacular, awe-inspiring, epic.
Unfortunately for me, Sigur Rós’ performance gave all these words new meaning, and a new metric system, raising the bar for everything I will see in the future. Their songs are perfect at setting the tone for an engrossing experience, regal musical vessels carrying the weight and images of the wintry tundras of their Icelandic home. Every aspect of the performance, from the staging (the placement and orientation of band members and instruments) to the costuming (deep blacks and brilliant whites sparsely punctuated by flecks of color and black trimmings) to the lighting (washes of primary colors, each light acting as if a luminous celestial body) to the musical entrances. All astonishingly polished yet without any hint of the formulaic or routine.
Their music was otherworldly yet warm and Earthly. Something seemingly culled from a distant, fading fairy tale or myth of a civilization long gone. The sweeping strings and piano, the bright, punctuation from horns and the soaring vocals, dynamic, diving then soaring, as if in heavenly choir. Just absolutely stunning.
Memorable moments abounded. The pomp-and-circumstance-like entrance of a small marching band clad in radiant white is straight out of a dream. A shower of confetti bursting over the crowd atop a swell of sound. Giddy kids’ fantasies brought to life. The audience was clearly affected, wide-eyed and silent for nearly the entire set (during the music) and roaring approvingly between songs, squealing and contented. But the most beautiful thing was how the Icelanders handled the rapturous applause. One encore and two curtain calls. Class all the way. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a beautiful spectacle, something so pure and so moving. The highlight of my Bonnaroo.
And I must admit, I was looking forward to seeing Kanye West’s set. But he pushed it way too far. First delaying his set from 8:45PM to 2:45AM, citing that he needed darkness for his “glow in the dark” set. Then delays to 3:15AM, 3:30AM to unspecified time. 4:40AM is when Kanye’s intro track played. The theme? He is some sort of lost space traveler, with a seductively-voiced spaceship. Mid-set rumors? Sex with his space-ship. I am almost at a loss for words. Irritating. Inconveniencing. Disrespectful. Inexcusable. The complete anti-thesis of the spirit of the festival and all the events leading up to his set. He should never be able to live this down.
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