Jersey Strikes Back
Site editors note: Randy Nostradamus Ray submitted this piece prior to Bonnaroo (before Ba…Roo…ce joined Phish on Sunday night) but it sat in an inbox during the pre-fest scramble…
Intrigued eyes drift over the incredible 2009 lineup, and one is momentarily transfixed by the first two names: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and Phish. Neither seem remotely related in any way other than the fact that both feature dynamic icons who front bands known for their legendary live performances. But what else is there? Both prefer the same guitar? Both dont like hats? Both are from the East Coast? NEW YORK?
The continuing success of the Bonnaroo festival, now in its eighth year, is due to many factors, not least of which is its uncanny ability to showcase a wide variety of music. From jam to jazz to old school country to electronica to hip hop, the international cuisine on the Manchester artistic menu offers the attendee an eclectic feast. Bonnaroo is an often world music buffet, but it is also a very American music festival with heady tastes.
Indeed, since its origins as a festival focused on improvisation, and then expanding outwards to include all of the many genres which parallel, intersect, or dwell within another sonic universe, the music has evolved as has the festival goer. One thing remains the same: if it is not always the songs or the type of musician or even if youve ever heard two Europeans scratching records, its justwell, plain fun to be at Bonaroooooo.
However, during the years since 2002 that thousands of music lovers have flocked to see and hear the hundreds of bands on the Manchester, Tennessee farm, no one American community has been known to dominate the annual event. The hippie birth has spawned a wide variety of sights and sounds that never really circle any specific region. Until now.
Whereas Phish guitarist and lead vocalist Trey Anastasio was born in Fort Worth, Texas, both he and Bruce Springsteen were very much raised in the state of New Jersey. The Garden State gets a lot of grief due to the long and wide shadow of the neighboring Big Apple, and it can descend to epically low depths, i.e. Dont Jersey [insert your locale of choice], and linger within an overall attitude that Jersey just aint America, man.
Ahhhbut Jersey is, and whether its unwanted stepchild status will continue to endure, one never knows, but what is apparent is that the states reputation as a region that produces a wonderful dichotomya strong working class of fourth generation immigrants and a culturally elite community; an odd grab bag of blue-collared union workers and commuting white collars who travel into Manhattanis as American as anything else on the Eastern seaboards. Yes, but what is this essential Jersey-ness?
Look no further than Springsteen and Anastasio. One doesnt see America, the East Coast, a pair of post-immigrant success stories, or even a typical leader of the band. What one sees in 2009 is that both musicians appear to really enjoy their jobs. And that simple fact was certainly not always the case as both have gone through tumultuous years of fronting other bands away from their original groupsSpringsteens 10 + years away from the E Street Band, and Anastasios five years in the post-Phish wilderness.
By sheer coincidence, the two best concerts Ive ever attended featured these two musicians with their respective bands. They have both seemed to regain their groove once they went back to their Jersey roots (Springsteen reformed the E Street Band in 1999; Anastasio helped bring back Phish earlier in the current year in Hampton, Virginia). Time will tell whether to go back to ones roots worked, but, it seems like a solid choice.
The memorable 1985 gig featuring the Boss, as hes always called, was a performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at an Oakland, California stadium that was attended by his parents and went on for nearly five hours of true bliss. Nothing much has changed. This band earns every cent they make, and dedicates itself to playing each song as if it is the first time youve heard this group, and they never want you to forget where and when you heard Bruce and the E Street Band. The 1985 concert is legendary for not only its individual performances, but the way that the group appeared to lift the entire Coliseum, and held it in their collective grasp for such a long time that night. One wonders where they got the initiative, drive, and energy.
These cats were workin it, and, again, I think of Jerseyits weird highway/freeway system, the little gas stations that appear out of nowhere, the brick recording studios, its beautiful cul de sacs, the random working class communities, and the people, always the sublime people, humbly going about their business doing what they do to make this such a great country. Yes, New York gets the well-deserved glory, but Jersey is the home of an essential American truth: if you work hard enough, and youre really good at it, you just might get rewarded with the true pearl of the American Dream: you, too, can be the Boss.
Oh, and Phish? Most memorable gig Ive seen them play? Does it matter? For every Phish fan, there is often a different response. I think Ive seen a show or two that could be considered transcendent, life changing, revolutionary, and spectacular in every way, but it is humorous to compare notes with any veteran fan of the bandnot all shows are legendary, and some that should be considered lofty are deemed overrated. Such is the life of a fan of bands that are known for their incendiary and mind-expanding live shows as the classic gigs held near and dear are often given too much thought and dissection.
But what can be agreed upon is that the critical moments of Trey Anastasios artistic development occurred when he went to New Jerseys Princeton Day School, essentially, a very creative well for a junior high student, and met his muses, including his longtime songwriting partner, Tom Marshall, that would help create his Gamehendge thesisan imaginary land filled with legendary places and characters, and used as the foundation for Anastasios Goddard College thesis, and the framework for his band known as Phish, which was actually formed and raised in Vermont after Anastasios Jersey upbringing.
And so we look again at the lineup of 2009 Bonnaroo musical choices, and we are overwhelmed with the wide variety of musicians and bands from numerous locales. We make up our little lists, circling here, crossing out there, and checking this and that, and
we know that whatever we miss, may be replaced by something equally fantastic, or maybe not. But one thing is true, that no matter what, the 2009 thread that weaves its way through the sublime tapestry was raised and crafted in one beleaguered American state. May the Garden State come out from behind the shadows and shout: Jersey Strikes Back!
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com