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Published: 2003/06/28
by Rob Turner

Showverwhelmed and Boonaroogled

When I first walked across the area in front of the "Which Stage" on the Thursday before Bonnaroo, I was legitimately concerned about this year's 'Roo. This did not look like a place that would comfortably house 80,000 plus people the next day. There was mud everywhere, and the forecast spoke of nothing but rain. The one positive I clutched onto was the crew, feverishly working to be sure the festival grounds were prepared for the onslaught of humanity that would descend upon this Manchester, Tennessee musical oasis.

I started to poke fun at myself for only bringing sneakers (like the theater-going candyass that I had become in my old age, I won't make this mistake at the Mid-Atlantic Fest), and for one brief moment I even began to wonder why I had made the voyage. However, by the time I had taken in some of the music of the Hackensaw Boys, The Machine and the incredible Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra during the pre-festival "bonus" night, my second-guessing had been completely consumed by my rabid love of musical cross-pollination. This was the beginning of a weekend akin to Fantasy Island for open-minded music lovers. The Hackensaw Boys were tearing it up on the "That Tent" (so named because it was opposite "This Tent," of course) stage with their aggressive Newgrass take on old-timey and original tunes. I was able to catch a large chunk of the Pink Floyd cover band, The Machine's set, including note-perfect (and I mean NOTE-PERFECT) versions of "Have a Cigar," and "Fearless."

It was when I made my way to "This Tent," for the first half-hour or so of the Antibalas set that it began to sink it what lay ahead of me. There was one point where my hips were grooving to the seductive rhythm, and my head was flopping around to a fantastic trombone solo. I had found my way to losing myself in the muse, and technically the festival had not yet even begun. After a nice night's sleep, and a wonderful breakfast cooked by the dynamic Pat Atkinson, I made my way back to start my Friday with yet another set from Antibalas. Again I was drawn in by this huge band's ability not only to fill the fairgrounds with their large, full sound, but also by the sections of music they offered when they broke down into smaller sub-groups. I had to tear myself away from this stage though, as I wanted to check in on My Morning Jacket before diving into the Rebirth Brass experience. One My Morning Jacket tune had a decidedly Neil Young-ish lead vocal, which was supported by some ripping lead guitar. This was top shelf Kentucky rock for sure.

Rebirth rocked me hard. Their energy was fueling the crowd, working them into a collective sweat. The vocalists engaged the audience in repeated call and response sections. They also weren't shy about working soul and reggae classics into their own Dixieland originals. Stevie Wonder's "Part Time Lover" fit in beautifully with their, "Don't you Wish…" They also worked Bob Marley's "One Love," comfortably into the middle of a powerful version of, "Let's Do It Again."

My lunch break caused me to miss what was reported to be a strong set from Yonder Mountain String Band, including a take on The Stones' "No Expectations," and the crowd-pleasing set closer "Two Hits and the Joint Turned Brown." The band pulled it off with a last minute substitution on banjo, Norm Pickering (there was a death in the family of regular banjoist, Dave Johnson). I also missed Tortoise, and when I saw Jesse Jarnow's glowing face returning from their "That Tent" set I immediately knew I had completely fucked up by missing them (I'll have to catch them the next time they get to Atlanta).

I did make it to Joshua Redman though. While Josh became known early in his career due to the fact that he was the son of jazz legend Dewey Redman, he has since developed into one of the most incredible saxophone players alive. I have been a fan for some time. Once I drove overnight from South Carolina to Massachusetts because a friend had made a last minute score on a front table at a Redman gig with Pat Metheny sitting in as a sideman. More recently I saw him light up a Soulive room and leave it down in New Orleans. His set at Bonnaroo (like the aforementioned Cambridge set) was dynamic, and whether Redman was moving through a sea of textures and sounds on his sax or stalking the stage with the confidence of a cagey veteran while his two sidemen took over, he was commanding in his presence. He even jumped up to a waiting Hammond to duel with his keyboardist Sam Yahel, a few times toward the end of the set. Drummer Jeff Ballard, who has worked with a bunch of renowned musicians including Chick Corea and Ray Charles, rounded out the remarkable trio.

This is when my day started getting ridiculous. There was one ten plus minute period when Sonic Youth, Ben Harper, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, Keller Williams, and ekoostik hookah all were performing at the same time. It is for these moments that some of my Massachusetts friends invented the term, "showverwhelmed," which on these hallowed grounds could be referred to as "Bonnaroogled."

I wandered over to catch the beginning of Sonic Youth's set, and ended up right in front of Thurston Moore, who effortlessly goaded more of a variety of sound out of his set-up than some axeman do in their entire careers. They opened with a pairing of one of their very oldest songs, and one from their new release, "Dirty." Even though I was right in front of Moore, there were long stretches where I couldn't take my eyes off bassist Kim Gordon. I wasn't sure if it was her timeless beauty or the way she was so intensely focused on her inimitable approach. As amazing as Sonic Youth was, I did at some point get Bonnaroogled into having the "roam bug." I made my way over to Bela Fleck and The Flecktones, for a quick stop. Even though I get to see this band frequently, I wanted to take in some of their set, and I did. I caught a nice chunk, which was punctuated by a stellar reading of, "Stomping Grounds."

My next sojourn took me over to catch some of Ben Harper, who during an early afternoon press conference had unveiled his entry for a new genre moniker, "soulternative." I arrived in time to experience a very well received "Burn One Down." Last year's version of this song appeared on the Bonnaroo DVD, and I am hoping this year's sparkling version of "With My Own Two Hands" makes next year's release. I even made it over to Keller Williams' stage as he inserted "Sultans of Swing," into the middle of a technocized "Freeker By The Speaker" (I greatly preferred his performance with Modereko at Raleigh's Lincoln Theater just a week earlier).

Neil Young stole the show (and possibly the festival) with his barn-burning Friday night set which opened with a wonderfully exploratory version of "Love To Burn," a li'l nug for his hardcore fans. Young tipped his scruffy railroad engineer hat to the jam-flavored festival by diving into a sea of textures during this epic reading, at one point moving from sweetly held notes to a flurry of first bubbly, then distortion-laced guitarwork. He stepped away from the format of his current tour (he has been performing the entire album "Greendale," and then 3-5 older pieces for encores) by tossing us a generous portion of favorites. As of press time, he had not yet performed "Love To Burn," or "Cinnamon Girl" anywhere but in Manchester on his current tour. He added a country flavor to "Powderfinger," hushed the crowd with a gripping, "Cortez The Killer," and dazzled with a ferocious "Fuckin' Up." Neil closed the first day on this main stage with a powerhouse "Rockin' In The Free World," a hooch-fueled "Roll Another Number," and an spectacularly jammed-out, "Down By The River."

The freaks were out late night, and before I retired to the Bonnaroo Beacon War Room, I visited the "tent" stages for a li'l overnight freakiness. Since I moved to Atlanta some four years ago, I've had the good fortune to take in many Sound Tribe Sector Nine performances (they live in California now, but Georgia is still their real home). At Bonnaroo, they greatly exceeded their own lofty standards during the portion of their set that I took in. While the band is one of the most cerebral ones on the scene, drummer Zach Velmer keeps it all soulful by nimbly delivering his, at times acrobatic, backbone to this transcendent band.

The Funky Meters were across the way cooking up their classic Cajun funk. They offered up songs that have become New Orleans standards with time, like "Iko Iko," "Fiyo On The Bayou," and "People Say." They saluted the festival revelry that was in the wind by taking a stab at Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 + 35," and they brought good ol' Warren Haynes out for some seemingly spontaneous jamming that moved through a few Hendrix references before culminating with an uproarious, "Hey Pocky Way."

Saturday opened with a set from The Wailers that was both celebratory and poignant to the world politics of today. The set included many Marley favorites, including a fantastic take on "Sun Is Shining," and a thought-provoking romp through, "War." Their lead singer was outstanding, conjuring up the Marley spirit in mystical fashion, not merely singing like the late musical icon. The presence of Aston "Familyman" Barrett (one of Bob's most well known sidemen) lent the band an even deeper level of credibility.

I hiked to the complete other side of the music grounds to catch Jerry Joseph and the Jackmorons at "The Other Tent." The Jackmo's provided one of the most playful memories of the day when they seemed to go into the Tears For Fears song, "Shout," out of nowhere (ala Joan Baez at 1985's Liveaid). They also provided THE most moving moment of the weekend when Jerry Joseph sang Mike Houser's "Airplane," with unadulterated passion. This was simultaneously mournful and touching.

Nickel Creek was visibly moved by the powerful crowd response they received from the audience. They deserved it. The portion of their set that I caught featured plaintive songs, feisty Chris Thile mandolin-driven ass-bouncing numbers, and one absolutely invigorating tune sung by the lovely Sara Watkins. The band was anchored by the presence of legendary bluegrass bassman, Mark Schatz (who is rumored to be joining the band as a permanent member). I quickly moved over to the "What Stage" to bathe in the timeless glory that is Emmylou Harris' music before bolting to the "That Tent" stage to see one of my personal festival highlights, The Polyphonic Spree.

Referring to this set as uplifting does not quite do it justice. This is a giant band, all the members were dressed in white robes, and delivering their parts with a passion that raged off of the stage and couldn't have possibly been missed even by the coldest of crowd members. They were fueled by the magnetic presence of frontman/visionary Tim DeLaughter. DeLaughter's exuberance was infectious, and his energy rippled through the crowd from the second he took the stage, only to increase as the set unfolded. The choir's vocals reverberated with hopeful, positive, spiritual songs that achieved their goal without coming off the slightest bit preachy. There were people of all ages in the band, including even a couple of adorable children in the choir. This was one of the most unexpectedly mind-blowing musical experiences I have had in years.

I decided to keep the richly spiritual flow going by embarking over to the "Which Stage" to enjoy Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Randolph, known for the gospel-tinged fire of his pedal steel, surprised me by picking up an electric guitar as the band tore through Sly And The Family Stone's, "Stand." The Family Band brought Susan Tedeschi up for a jaunt through the Staples Singers', "I'll Take You There" (look for this one to find its way onto the next BonnaDVD). Randolph also debuted his band's slant on "America The Beautiful," and "Take Me Through, Dear Lord," the latter featuring is bassist, Danyel Morgan on lead vocals.

Back on the "Which Stage," the Allman Brothers Band chose to perform their entire set without guests. They reportedly held the audience's attention from the moving "Aint' Wastin' Time No More," that opened the set to their much-talked about cover of "Layla" which was the encore of their two hour-plus set. In between, they offered a heavy sampling from their latest CD, "Hittin' The Note," including a soulful reading of "Desdemona," and a wild ride through their latest vocal-free masterpiece, "Instrumental Illness." They also pleased many with strong versions of a trio of their most familiar songs, "Dreams," "One Way Out," and "Whippin' Post." "The chemistry between Warren and Derek has grown incredibly," said Erin Denetala, a festival attendee from Kennesaw, Georgia, "They were on it! And Gregg looked and sounded great too!"

While The Allmans were "hittin' the note," Garage a Trois was grabbin' folks by the throat with their aggressive and largely ensemble "grundle music." " I am told they were extremely energetic, and some of the jams were simply amazing," said Atlanta artist Christopher Robie, "(Drummer) Stanton Moore and (percussionist) Mike Dillon had unbelievable interplay, and you just don't hear people play the way (saxophonist) Skerik was – blending a classical style with a jazz style in that way. I was way in the back, and couldn't really see, and when I found out the bass and lead guitar were coming from the same guy (Charlie Hunter), I was shocked."

What hurts about a festival of this size is that you have to eschew seeing some of your favorite bands in favor of artists that you have fewer opportunities to see. Unfortunately, I was not in attendance for the Allmans (I hope to see them at least a couple of times in sheds later this summer), or Garage a Trois (I have seen them a few times recently, and they are one of the few current bands I would consider following for a few weeks). My focus was on the rare appearance of what has quickly become one of my favorite duos, Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke. They offered a set full of highlights, each song seeming tighter than the last tight song. The two mind-meld wondrously, leaving the audience to bask in the rapture of their intertwining lines. The Kottke staple "Rings," and the Phish standard "Ya-Mar" (originally recorded by The Mustangs, which Gordon mentioned, and this in turn led to some funny story telling from the duo) each were delivered with extravagance. Other highlights of the set included the title track and "From Pizza Towers To Defeat" from last year's Gordttke release, Clone, and a stirringly extended take on The Byrds, "Eight Miles High."

Widespread Panic proved they were worthy of their status as the only band to co-headline both Bonnaroos. Many fans that don't get to see the band as much as they would like to (I would be one of these), were pleased that they offered a generous helping of material from their new album, Ball (7 songs). The most notable of these was a full workout of, "Nebulous," which preluded the Stanton Moore-enhanced drum portion of their set. The band also offered a short, but sweet acoustic set during which they gave a little bluegrassy tweaking to, "Imitation Leather Shoes." They brought Warren out for a few songs, and let him rip it up, particularly on the "Surprise Valley" which moved into a ragged, but spiritually right "Ride Me High," with Robert Randolph joining in the presentation. This lineup remained in tact for the barn-burning "Chilly Water" which closed the main body of their set. If you don't believe that Panic is a band made up of down-to-earth guys, get a tape of this show and listen to how they aren't shy about laying back and letting Warren and Robert duel for a long stretch. A plain example of true Athens hospitality at its finest.

"Having the opportunity to see a full Flaming Lips set after a three and a half hour Widespread Panic set is an example not only of the diversity of Bonnaroo," said the Chicago-based wiley jamband traveler Dave Saslavsky, "but also of the savvy scheduling that goes on behind the scenes." The Flaming Lips stormed the "That Tent" stage with a psychedelic set which found them reveling in the spirit of the festival and the people it had attracted. They brought confetti. They brought snow. They had bizarre video enhancements (even some Wizard of Oz action for their Pink Floyd covers). They had giant balls to bounce through the crowd, which was clearly gobbling up the Lipdom with earnest, and front man Wayne Coyne knew it. This was the only band that rivaled Polyphonic Spree for this year's most Bonnaroo-created buzz.

Medeski, Martin and Wood were delighting their crowd as well. Their set included "Shacklyn Knights," Marley's "Lively Up Yourself," and a partial reunion of The Word with Luther Dickinson sitting in. Particle earned themselves a good bit of buzz as well as they grooved for a four hour-plus set. Al Schnier sat in for "The Golden Gator," which Particle would reprise (sans Schnier) at around 8am, shortly before completing the set.

It takes wild horses to drive me away from a Warren Haynes acoustic set…...or at least the drool-inducing pairing of The New Deal and The Slip. These are two of the most gripping artists in the soulternative category. On Sunday, The New Deal was typically impressive with their almost completely improvised method of performance. You will hear certain familiar themes pop up from time to time with repeated New Deal shows, but if there ever was a band completely unafraid of taking a giant leap into the great musical unknown, it is The New Deal. It didn't take me long to be drawn into what I think I can safely call a semi-catatonic state from the sheer artistry of this group. The bearded man behind the keys, Jamie Shields, particularly moved me (here's to hoping that his other band, Sucka Punch, can join in the Bonnaroo fun next year). Sure, it hurt when I found out that I missed Warren's solo take on Radiohead's "Lucky,' or Otis Redding's "I've Got A Dream To Remember," or The Grateful Dead's "To Lay Me Down," and "Stella Blue." I would have loved to have heard his debut of "Forevermore," or "Soulshine" with South African legend Vuji Mahlasela sitting in. Again, when you are at a festival of this magnitude – you're gonna miss some stuff.

I did manage to pull myself away from TND to make it over to see what I am not afraid to call one of the most talented bands in any genre of music, The Slip. The band moved from a hypnotic ambient introduction into a stunning version of their original, "Get Me With Fuji," featuring some splendidly melodic interplay between guitarist Brad Barr and bassist Marc Friedman. Barr's brother Andrew exhibited once again why he is quietly one of the most skillful drummers around, constantly engaging in interplay, and handling the rhythmically complex numbers with striking ease. The Slip included a batch of new material, including "The Soft Machine," which was performed with lyrics for only the third time. There was a decidedly Moroccan flavor to much of their new material, particularly; "Song Of Mysterious Origin," during which Brad Barr played some gorgeous acoustic guitar.

Before taking my dinner break, I had a stretch of three hard-driving bands. The Drive-By Truckers may be the next big Southern Rock Band, with their whiskey-fueled material, delivered in shamelessly balls-to-the wall fashion. The North Mississippi Allstars were skillfully bridging the old and the new with a set of high-powered bluesy gumbo. Galactic underscored the New Orleans vibe that was bubbling under the surface all weekend. They had paraded through the campground on Friday night, bringing Mardi Gras to the 'Roo. Then Sunday they brought the funk to the "What Stage" for a thumping set. Michael Franti sat in on, "Root Down." Warren Haynes joined for a cover of the Hendrix classic "Little Miss Lover," and a hip-hopped, "Zepp Thing," with DJ Z-Trip also lending his skills.

RAQ has enjoyed some heat from their Sunday afternoon set at the "Other Tent." People are starting to talk about this band. "I was surprised at the intense energy surrounding their set," Laura Wainer of Atlanta proclaimed, "They kept my attention for the whole set, 'Carbohydrates,' and 'Brother of Another Mother' were definitely SICK!

There were those who found the mere presence of James Brown at this festival to be sick. When he came out with a charged version of, "Make It Funky," he proved he was no nostalgia act. His voice was very strong on a moving "Try Me," and he got the entire crowd moving on his famous hits "I Feel Good," and "Sex Machine."

A li'l nug of the Fest was the Superjam that occurred late Sunday afternoon in "This Tent" with Dr. John, Mike Gordon, Luther Dickinson and Stanton Moore. These musicians seemed to be having as much fun playing with each other as the crowd was listening to them. It was great to see a smile come over Mike Gordon's face during Dr. John's, "Right Place, Wrong Time." It was also interesting to watch The Good Doctor negotiate his way through some of the longer jams of the set. Duwayne Burnside (of North Mississippi Allstars, and son of RL Burnside) would join later in the set, and G. Love jumped out to sing and play harmonica at the set's conclusion.

The much-talked about Father's Day group phone call led by moe.'s Al Schnier was certainly a memorable moment. But don't be surprised if you talk to your local moe.ron and he or she cites the way they twisted back and forth between "Buster," and "Plane Crash" as the highlight of their set. The band also welcomed to their stage John Popper (where the hell was he all weekend?) for "Bring It Back Home," and Warren Haynes for "Opium."

As I nibbled on my dinner, and listened to the now-legendary Mix Master Mike laying down the grooves (the kids later informed me that many of them were "phat."), I couldn't help but notice that I was a bit nervous for the set that would conclude the festival. I'm an old, crotchety Dead Head, and while it is their band and they can call it what they want, they definitely had raised the expectations of their fans by renaming themselves, "The Dead." What's in a name, anyway? Well, there's a lot in this one, and even though the quality of the music they cook up will determine the effort I put into going to see them, reverting back to "The Dead," does upset my stomach just a tad.

While they may not be completely living up to the name just yet, this was a very good first outing. I was extremely impressed with what I experienced. This unit has some serious potential. Guitarist Jimmy Herring was fantastic on "Fire On The Mountain," and Joan Osborne offered a respectful, but confident vocal on "Sugaree," and "China Doll." The band opened the second set with the songs from the tail end of the last Grateful Dead show ever (Soldier's Field in July of 1995) performed in reverse order. [{The '95 final dead show ended drums>space>Unbroken Chain>Sugar Magnolia~Black Muddy River, Box Of Rain]}

The highlight of the Bonnaroo "Dead" show, and what sent me home smiling, was a COMPLETE version of "The Eleven." I mean the whole William Tell lyrical portion which had not (to my knowledge) been performed by ANY of the band's side projects since the end of the parent band (and not performed by The Grateful Dead since somewhere around 1970).

Simply put, this was an outstanding festival with an array of musicians so overwhelming that some of what has to be missed is almost physically painful. However, when I got home, I felt completely musically satiated.

"I had the time of my life there," said Rob Bennett of Tucker, Georgia, "I was with good friends, I met a very special young woman, and I saw all kinds of music. It was like a two week vacation all packed into one weekend."

Hey Rob, I'll meet ya' there next year!!

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