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New To You at Bonnaroo: A Guide to Bands You Might Otherwise Overlook (Part One)

Bonnaroo is quickly approaching, and if you're like us you first exclaimed "Sweet! Trey and Panic are back!" followed by "What the hell is a Rilo Kiley?" Well, we're here to answer that question ("an indie roots band with an attractive female singer") and other trepidations you may have about dipping your toes into the Manchester mud that is Bonnaroo. Hopefully, you'll come away from this with some cojones to go and check out something new…

Modest Mouse

Huh? Come again? Oh, that loud, collective "No sh*t, Sherlock" you no doubt heard last year? That was none other than the infamously snide indie rock community answering to the almost 1 1/2 million people who bought Modest Mouse’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News and proclaimed, "These guys are pretty good." You see, Modest Mouse has been around for more than a decade now (which would put them in the running for a "Best New Artist" Grammy in 2006), gestating in the Pacific Northwest and firmly entrenching themselves in the post-Grunge rock arena occupied by Pavement and other bands worshipped by horn-rimmed glasses wearing music ner-...uh…fans. And now those same fans – who are about as welcome to bands going platinum as Jessica Simpson is to a Calculus textbook lost another deity in 2004, just like U2 and REM before them.

But as they say, one person’s loss is another person’s gain. Or, in this case, one scene’s loss is another scene’s gain. So here come the Northwestern rockers poking around our little scene. And why not? These guys have catchy tunes, have played trillions of shows, and watched idly by as other stalwarts of the indie world like Ween and the Flaming Lips establish a foothold among us hippies.

The music is vintage indie. Quirky lyrics? Check. Questionable, yet somehow endearing vocals? Check. Dreamy sound effects? Check. Maybe it’s the random use of banjos, sleigh bells, and even the oft-neglected electro-bongo, but there is something about their songs where you can quickly identify it as "Modest Mouse," in the same way that you need to hear about two notes of a Grateful Dead solo before you realize not only that it is "Truckin’", but that it is from Veneta in ’72. With these guys, I find myself drawn to the very clean guitar lines that you find a lot in this kind of music, but what sets Modest Mouse apart is that there is some sort of funkiness in their music. And live, songs like "I Came As A Rat" could even open itself open to dare I say? a "jam"! Which leads me to the next point…

I have to say that word on the street is that on stage the band can sometimes devolve into mass distortion wonks and fits of warped screaming, but if that’s your thing, then by all means run, don’t walk to the Modest Mouse set. If for no other reason than to open your arms wide and welcome them to our world.

Check em out if you’re into: My Morning Jacket, DMB
Stay away if you’re looking for music like: Disco Biscuits, Yonder Mountain String Band

Matisyahu

Matisyahu professes to be the first Hassidic reggae singer. Yup you read that right. But read it again just to let it soak in. Trust me I was just as dumbfounded by that statement as well at first, but this guy is the real deal. Yes he’s got the long beard and dresses in a black suit, but the man can toast, sing, rap everything – pretty damn well. The dude even stage dives! But when you think about it, singing reggae really isn’t that much of a stretch for someone raised with any strict faith. Reggae has always been associated with Rastafarianism. And while Matisyahu isn’t singing about smoking marijuana, his songs embrace a lot of what Bob Marley was trying to convey in his music: Faith, a higher entity (instead of Jah, he’s singing about Hashem the Hebrew word for G-d), peace and spirituality. And did we mention the dude stage dives? This isn’t straight forward Reggae either, so don’t go expecting "I Shot The Goyim." Matisyahu combines Dub, Hip-Hop and traditional Jewish music to come up with something that could even be described as the Hasidic version of Sublime. Even if you’re going to check him out of pure curiosity, I can guarantee you’re going to walk away impressed and I bet singing his praises. No really, did I mention the dude stage dives?

Check him out if you’re into: Toots & The Maytals, Bob Marley, Sublime Stay away if you’re looking for music like: Mars Volta, Drive-By Truckers

Ray LaMontagne

And the award for the sensitive singer/songwriter that’s going to blow you away this year goes to (drum roll please).....Ray LaMontagne. Yes I know he did play on opening night slot at last year’s festival, but how many of you guys A) actually checked him out and B) remember anything about him other then wondering perhaps how to pronounce his last name (to clear that up for you it La-Mon-tane). His smokey/whiskey drenched voice makes him sound a bit like Tupelo Honey-era Van Morrison, with songs that have more of a Laurel Canyon-esque vibe to them. He’s not just your typical coffee house folkie though – this guy somehow has managed to channel the ghosts of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke into his blend of Americana.

Ray’s debut album also led the league in most appearances on critics’ Top Ten lists in 2004, sending many of us to the local record store listening stations to find out why. This dude will have all the girls swooning, without the smarmy feeling that given the opportunity – he’d steal your girl, too. (Paging Jack Johnson….). The guys will dig his laid back, Aw shucks demeanor and introspective songwriting essentially the American equivalent to Damien Rice, but not quite as mopey. Here’s a hint for all the fellas out there: Take your lady to see Ray’s slot. Trust us. Later on, when your tent is "a-rockin’", we promise not to come "a-knockin’".

Check him out if you’re into: Damien Rice, Assembly of Dust, The Band
Stay away if you’re looking for music like: Jurassic 5, Mouse of Mars

Secret Machines

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you never saw Syd Barrett set foot on a stage. Sure, there’s lots of you out there who saw Pink Floyd…in 1988. Or possibly even on the first _The Wal_l tour. But it doesn’t take a piper at the gates of dawn to know that Ummagumma is vastly different from Wish You Were Here. Or that 1967-era Floyd live shows were much different beasts from the concerts Floyd put on after Syd checked himself into the funny farm. Yet it was the Barrett-led Floyd shows that initially earned (and has maintained) their most hard core audience. Tapes from that era are not for the weak or casual Floyd fan. And if you have seen live footage from those shows, then the big question of "Was Syd really insane?" is no longer a quandary. (Answer: Yes.) Loud musical freak-outs, distorted free jazz played with electric guitars, along with beautiful bluesy numbers that often deteriorated into what I can only classify as "barking into the microphone" were what you got when you bought a ticket to see Pink Floyd in 1967. Add to that the magnificent light shows of color and strobes and you get what had to be the most amazing musical experience available at the time. They seemed to be the kind of experiences that left those who attended saying to themselves, "You don’t see something like every day…and I probably won’t ever again." While we all think we’ve been there before, this was really on a different level.

Why am I giving you this little speech from Jamband History 101? Because seeing Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas ("Texlyn"? "Brooxas"?) based trio Secret Machines may be the closest thing we have in 2005 to seeing Pink Floyd circa 1967. Now, I have never been a big Floydhead. (Count me out any time a band advertises performing Dark Side Of The Moon in its entirety), but I can see how Secret Machines gets compared to Floyd. The band plays expansive, epic songs punctuated by fantastic drumming and fuzzy guitars along with a light show that is easily the best on the indie rock scene. (It appears as though they have sunk every cent from their collective 2004 paychecks into a new lighting rig).

While I’d say that their mamas weaned them on heavy doses of both Floyd AND Led Zeppelin, you should also be warned that these guys probably have spent a good amount of time flipping through their older sisters’ collection of Cure records, too. But before you go screamin’ and carryin’ on about "how could Superfly book the next Killers??" (and "It’s not as good as it used to be" and "If I wanted to go to Coachella, I would have gone to California" and blah blah blah), get off your high horse and check out Secret Machines. Sure, they’re yet another group of indie rockers who have bashed what they have called the "hippy" scene, but don’t hold that against them. (You don’t hold it against Dean Ween, do you?). Just like Wilco last year, go see why these guys are number one on my list of indie bands that are going to walk away from Bonnaroo with tons of new fans.

Check em out if you’re into: Pink Floyd
Stay away if you’re looking for music like: Damien Rice

Joss Stone

We’re all starting to figure out the drill with Bonnaroo. Most of the bands have a penchant for jamming, strong songwriting, exceptional live shows, etc. When we got those initial emails in early 2002 announcing some uber-festival with Widepsread, Trey, String Cheese, and many others, we thought it was hoax. But sure enough, when June rolled around, there they all were: Trey rockin’ it during Phish’s hiatus, Panic putting on the best show they could as Houser’s last days loomed, String Cheese, uh, hulahooping, and, of course, the Queen of the Jam, Miss Hard Sweaty Funk herself…Norah Jones. Rrrrriggghhht. Yes, every year Superfly has thrown one artist out at us that makes you scratch your head and say "Huh???" And this year’s winner of that coveted spot is Joss Stone, the barely legal blonde soul sensation from England. Sure, she’s got the looks that makes her seem more at home around thousands of pre-teens screaming "I LOVE YOU CARSON!" rather than thousands of wookies screaming "WHO’S GOT MY PHARMIES?"" But to pass her music off as just another pop star from the pages of Us Weekly would be a mistake.

First off, she’s worked with Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson and the rest of The Roots. Secondly, this chick knows how to pick covers and make them her own. Joss can switch from covering The White Stripes to the Isley Brothers faster than you can say "NSYNC." And it works, too. (Unlike Britney’s killing spree-inducing cover of "Satisfaction" that made me want to punch Mick AND Keith in the face). As much as you may not want to like Joss Stone, she doesn’t help you out in that department. All of her interviews talk about Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and also Little Beaver, Betty Wright, and mounds of other soul artists that she knows about and you don’t. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren jumped up on stage and sat in with her. She’s got that kind of soul. (Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Warren sit in with the people selling lemonade in Centeroo).

Yes, she’s been on the covers of fashion magazines. Yes, she’s been on TRL. And sure, her songwriting is still a little suspect. But hey, the girl is just 18. At 18, all Trey had written was "Golgi Apparatus." I say, go check her out. She’ll probably have some cool, late-day that will fit her music perfectly. (And hey, why not go and marvel at wookies drooling over her? That ought to be fun, too). She’s been recording and performing around the world now for a few years, so there’s no reason to think that she can’t bring it hard on stage.

Check em out if you’re into: Norah Jones, The Roots
Stay away if you’re looking for music like: Umphrey’s McGee, Yonder Mountain String Band

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