Report/Photos: Bonnaroo 2012 (Sat./Sun.)

 

 

June 7-10, baking in
the sun in a field in the middle of Tennessee
once more – life is sweet! Go here for the report on Thursday & Friday.

 

Text By Lee Zimmerman / Photos by Alisa Cherry

 

It’s Saturday – Bonnaroo, Day Three. We quickly realize that
when you’re at Bonnaroo, being part of the press contingent has its perks. To
start our day, we get to enjoy a special impromptu unplugged performance by the
Punch Brothers in the press tent. Standing in a circle, the bluegrass bunch
play a rousing set, with leader Chris Thile yelling “Rotate” prior to each new
tune. The players promptly obey, giving their onlookers a 365 degree view.
“Thanks for bearing with us despite our extreme technical difficulties,” Thile
tells those in attendance. “Actually, we have a lack of anything technical at
all. Unlike Radiohead, we’re more like Stringhead.”

 

With that bit of homespun humor to inspire us, we head over
the comedy tent to catch a bit showbiz shtick. A juggler named Marcus Monroe
starts the show off and gets us giggling. A fast talking Mike O’Connell seems
more manic and even more decidedly deranged, The two women who make up the
musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates are, by contrast, cute and charming,
although a sly little ditty about the art of giving a hand job to a guy
suggests they are far from the innocent babes they appear.

 

 

 

Sadly though, their set is all too short, but it’s a
pleasure to see Colin Hay again, having seen him last on the Cayamo Cruise. Hay
does his standard set, with little concession to the comedic format, but he does
toss in the obligatory Men at Work standards – “Down Under,” “Who Can It Be
Now” and “Overkill” specifically – as well as some of his solo selections, with
“Goodnight Romeo” adding a poignant note to an otherwise lighthearted set. “The
thing that’s really fucking funny about all this is the fact that I’m still
doing this after 30 years,” he reflects somewhat sardonically.

 

 

 

Speaking of comedians, we happen to run across Judah
Friedlander, the guy who plays Frank, the guy with all the crazy hats on the
sitcom “Thirty Rock.” He was a major attraction in the press area, all brightly
outfitted with his trademark big bushy hair and beard. The proclamation on his
hat this particular day was in Braille he explained when I asked why the
message wasn’t especially clear. Sadly, we had missed his gig at the comedy
tent, but he mentioned that he would be marrying a couple on Sunday. Queried
about the fact that he wasn’t really a preacher or a justice of the peace, he
responded assertively. “I’m a superior,” he insisted. “That outranks them all.”
Weell okay… if you say so Frank/Judah…

 

This being Bonnaroo, it seems only right that we continue to
immerse ourselves in more music and to explore some acts we’re not all that
familiar with. With an adventurous attitude to guide us, we opt for an
afternoon set from Portland
Oregon’s Blind Pilot, a band I’ve
heard of but heard little from. Their sounds is exceedingly melodic, all the
better to accompany the giddy vibes that encircle the surroundings. Despite
their reticent to rock ferociously like some of the other acts, the crowd
receives them well, even though its likely most in the audience aren’t all that
familiar with them. Like most of the bands we’ve encountered, they really seem
to be enjoying themselves, and also like most of the other bands, they’re
effusive in their praise of the entire experience. “I’m not sure what it is,”
their singer insists. “But we’re having so much more fun at this festival than
at any other festival.

 

 

 

Still, no outfit inspires enthusiasm like Flogging Molly, a
rowdy Celtic punk ensemble fronted by Dave King, a native Irishman whose rugged
accent and irascible attitude ensures their insurgency stays intact. They’re a
genuinely unruly bunch, goading the crowd, the guitarist doing double splits,
the bassist climbing the monitors and encouraging their crowd. I’ve managed to
secure a place in the photo pit but the safety crew encourages me to move to
the outer flanks. Sure enough, within moments of their opening assault, people
are crowd surfing over the tops of the audience, maneuvered to the barricades
with the safety guards help them alight and send them scurrying back into the
crowd. Then again, the Mollys provide the essence of working class rebellion
and when they turn Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A ‘Changin'” into a double
time punk-infused rocker, the song takes on an anger and intensity only hinted
at in the original. Ultimately, the Mollys turn in one of the most manic and
intense shows of the weekend, courtesy of original tunes like “Saints and
Sinners,” “If Ever We Leave This World Alive,” “The Power’s Out” and the title
track of their latest long player, The Speed of Darkness, each of which rails
against bankers, politicians and other perceived oppressors of the blue collar
clan. Still, despite their staunch sentiments, all involved seem to be having a
great time. Except perhaps for the safety crew, who may be working as hard as
they ever will this weekend keeping folks at bay.

 

 

After that overwhelming intensity, it seems an apt time to
relax so it’s off to the comedy tent for the second time today to see Steven
Wright toss out a non-ending string of idle observations that sound silly but
seem to make sense in Wright’s unlikely universe. He paces the stage
constantly, save a brief attempt to play guitar, tossing out joke after joke
without pausing to see if the audience’s caught on. “Only one company makes
Monopoly,” he drolly observes, noting the irony of it all. “I hate it when my
foot falls asleep during the day. That means it will be up all night.” “I can
levitate birds, but no one seems to care.” And so on and so on. You get the
point.

 

Alisa is off to catch the score of the Heat-Celtics game in
the cinema tent – an obsession that even a festival can’t have her ignore – so
I wonder over the comfy Miller tent to see a young singer-songwriter named
Robert Ellis. Ellis looks like a young, long-haired James Taylor and sounds
like one too. Accompanied by his guitar and a guy playing dobro, he sings
mostly forlorn ballads with a genuine country inflection. Sadly, his intimate
musings are no match for the rumble coming from the Which Stage and ultimately
Ellis ends his show a couple of minutes early, his tender trappings no match
for arena-sized escapades.

 

 

 

By this time, evening is upon us, and the two performances
we’ve chosen to occupy ourselves with promise to provide a powerful double
header. For starters, there’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the sprawling
expanse of the What Stage area, the space reserved for Bonnaroo’s certified
headliners. I’d already missed the Avett Brothers, intimidated as I was by the
size of the crowd and the impossible expanse that separated me from the stage.
This time I vow I would attempt to get as close as I could, even if it meant
being in the midst of the masses and jostled about with the band’s adoring
admirers.

 

Sure enough, it proves a difficult trek to find my way to a
vantage point that would actually allow me to distinguish the musicians on
stage, and that included an occasional stumble and an interminable struggle to
make my way through the thousand of bodies that seemingly stands in my way. The
VIP area is already overloaded and not even my media pass will provide me
access, so I bravely stand in the crowd, soaking it all in as the Chili Peppers
go through their paces. They get my nod as the funkiest band of the fest, at
least among those I personally witness, and their kinetic energy is truly
electrifying. Anyone who’s seen them knows of what I speak. Yet, after awhile,
I begin to feel claustrophobic, and aware that it will take another half hour
to work my way out of the crowd, I begin to precariously liberate myself from
the environs. It isn’t easy; at one point I get caught behind a girl whose
frenetic dancing entraps me in a rough bit of bump and grind. Not that it’s
unpleasant, but she seems oblivious to the fact that I’m on the receiving end
of her backwards thrust. I decide it’s time to venture on and I find myself
greatly relieved when I’m able to find a way to walk beyond the bounds of the
crowd.

 

It seems more prudent at that point to make my way back to
the Miller tent where I can bide my time prior to midnight, when Alice Cooper’s
set is due to start. Fortunately though, even in these mellow environs we’re
able to amp up our energy level courtesy of We Are Augustines, a three
(occasionally four) man outfit who make the most of their resources before an
adoring crowd. Theirs is an anthemic sound, all rousing, riveting guitars with
the occasional keyboard interlude. “We’re playing Jay Leno Thursday,” they proudly
proclaim to the enthusiastic reaction of the tightly-packed audience. Indeed,
they turn out to be one of our more exciting discoveries and one from whom we
hope to hear more.

 

 

Sufficiently stoked, we head to the distant That Tent where
we squeeze into the side viewing area to see Alice Cooper. We’ve made a
conscious decision to opt for the superfluous over the cerebral, that being
Jack Bruce’s new band Spectrum
Road who’s performing one tent over. It’s a tough
choice – Spectrum Road’s
jazzier inclinations would mean a set full of extraordinary improvisation, not
to mention a showcase for the man who was a lynchpin for the band Cream, but Alice’s promise of
entertainment is too much to resist. Alisa’s a bit shy about being in the pit
to take photos as Alice
announced in an earlier interview that the first three rows would likely get
splattered with blood. As it turns out, there’s no blood-letting at all,
although Alice’s
usual bag of tricks keeps the audience entertained regardless. Oversized
puppets, billowing smoke effects, various changes of garb and, of course, Alice’s ageless
accoutrements – an especially animated boa constrictor and his turn at the
guillotine – keep the visuals front and center.

 

 

 

Indeed, little seems to have changed in Alice’s forty year lifespan, but the shtick
still works. At 65, Alice’s take on “18” seems a bit of a stretch, but he and
his metal-laced backing band draw all the drama from it and his other signature
anthems – “Billion Dollar Babies,” “No More Mister Nice Guy,” School’s Out” and
“Only Women Bleed,” the show’s only mellower respite. The Cooper set is
inevitably filled with spectacle and though Alice can go over the top – at one
point he wears a shirt with the warning emblazoned “I’ll eat your face off,” an
all-too ominous clash with real life via the naked Miami zombie who did just
that to a homeless guy – but mostly everything’s all for fun. When the band
launch into “Elected” as one of their two encore songs, one even gets the
impression it might not be such a bad idea to do as he suggests. Could an Alice
Cooper presidency be much worse than what we get from the two major parties?

 

And with that thought on our mind, day three of Bonnaroo
comes to a crashing crescendo…

 

*     *    *

 

My first and most striking impression from Day Four here at
Bonnaroo is this:

 

Sarah Jarosz is impossibly young… at least for someone who’s
earned such acclaim. Playing fiddle at the helm of her crack person ensemble,
she dazzles the crowd here in the Other Tent and happily returns their kudos. “This
is one of the best crowds we’ve every played for,” she says giddily. “Maybe top
of the list. And I’m not just saying that!”

 

If she’s simply catering to the crowd, she’s not alone. That
seems to be the common sentiment among the artists here at Bonnaroo. It
certainly was shared by Delta Spirit, whose performance we catch briefly on our
way to our next destination, a fleeting encounter with Gary Clark Jr., whose
Bluesy flash and deep soulful groove bring to mind a current incarnation of
Jimi Hendrix, both in his virtuosity and in his daring. A recurring riff from
Jimi’s “Third Rock From the Sun” reinforces that impression, but Clark’s confidence make it all the more plausible.

 

 It seems that short
encounters will be the order of the day today, given that we have wound down to
our final day of the festival and still have so many acts left to see. Today is
our final opportunity and it’s our challenge to make the most of the limited
hours we have left. In truth, I greet the coming conclusion of this experience
with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret, because we’re having so damn much
fun. Relief, because it demands so much effort and exertion. And on Day Four,
we have so precious little of either left.

It’s already 2 PM and time for one of the major events on today’s calendar, a
press conference featuring an unlikely gathering of disparate performers –
Kenny Rogers (who to me seems somewhat out of sync here anyway), Steven Wright,
Ben Folds, Pete from the band the Antlers and the wide-eyed Sarah Jarosz. Surprisingly,
it’s Rogers who grabs most of the attention, not only with the press inquiries,
but from his fellow artists and those desiring to get a photo taken with him.

 

Rogers:
“This is a great opportunity to do what we do and share it with the crowd. I did
the Stagecoach Festival a couple of years ago and the crowd knew all the songs.
I suspect they were victims of child abuse because their parents played my
music and made them listen.”

 

Wright: “I’ve never played a music festival before…but this
is special for me. When I got my first big break on the Tonight Show, it was
surreal. It changed my life.  Kenny was
one of the guests and I ended up sitting between him and Johnny Carson. And
here I am, sitting next to him again.”

 

Folds: “I’m not big on festivals. I usually get to them
right before our set and then leave right after. But Bonnaroo is a painless
festival. I remember being at one festival and seeing Kenny’s tour bus. Then I
realized it was one of his accountant’s tour buses. And I wished I was one of
them.” Then he leans over and snaps a picture of him with Rogers.

 

Jarosz: “Look who I’m sitting with!”

 

Rogers:
“In the ‘60s, everyone was too stoned to know what was going on. Now at least
they wait awhile before getting high.”

 

So what’s the biggest revelation of the entire press
conference? Kenny Rogers and Alice Cooper used to be golfing buddies. The
juxtaposition of these two distinctly different individuals out on the golf
course causes most of those in attendance to shake their heads in wonder.

 

I linger afterwards, getting my photo taken with Kenny,
sharing a few words with Wright and get this comment: “I don’t deliberately sit
down and think up my material. My brain scans the universe and it just comes to
me. It’s like a big rainstorm, a sudden downpour.”

 

I have other up-close celebrity encounters during the
afternoon as well – the aforementioned J.B. Smoove, for whom I attempt my
impression of him ala “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (“Hey Larry, want me to take care
of him for you Larry?”), eliciting a good-natured chuckle, and original Beach
Boys guitarist David Marks, who I congratulate for a superb performance and get
a “thank you, sir” in response.

 

By this time, it’s late afternoon, and our chance to catch
the remaining acts is growing short. Sadly, I’m going to miss a bunch of bands
I had hoped to see – Bon Iver, the Civil Wars, Young the Giants, Kathleen
Edwards, War on Drugs, ALO and Here We Go Magic, among them. I’m determined to
see City and Colour, so while Alisa is prepping to shoot photos of the Beach
Boys, I hasten over to the far reaches of the Other Tent to see them. Like the
others before them, they attract a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd. The
Bonnaroo audiences are incredibly knowledgeable, because without exception,
they seem able to sing along with everybody’s songs, and City and Colour’s
amiable sound is all the more reason to encourage that communal spirit. 

 

Sadly though, I have to cut my stay short in order to journey from the Other
Tent to the What Stage (there’s those descriptive names again!) in order to see
the Beach Boys. Still, I debate that choice, knowing that they’d attract a huge
crowd and that like before, I’d be a mile from the stage. Plus, we’d seen them
only a month or two before, so there is an element of redundancy involved. But
once I hear that roll call of classics – “Heroes and Villains,” “Sail On
Sailor,” “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Good
Vibrations,” “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda,” et. al. — I decide I’ve
made the right choice. Besides, I’m able to sit in the stands on stage left,
and while I’m still a long ways away, at least I’m comfortable.

 

Now it’s time for final choices, and out of sheer curiosity
I opt to see Kenny Rogers, wondering what kind of reaction he’ll receive from
an audience at least a few generations removed. True to his reputation, Kenny’s
got the crowd in the palm of his hand and singing along with each of the 21
number one hits he promised he’d sing. Okay, so no one’s crowd surfing, but the
reaction is pretty spectacular, and even when Rogers good-naturedly chastises
the crowd for a poor sing-along attempt on “Ruby (Don’t Take You Love to Town)”
(“They sang that better in Tibet… and they don’t even speak English in
Tibet!”), the crowd seems unfazed. Ironically, this is the one VIP area that
Alisa and I are tossed out of. So, to the big burly guy in the green “Safety”
shirt who threatens us with bringing in reinforcements to ensure we leave,
you’re giving us our one rowdy encounter… at a Kenny Rogers concert no less.

 

Discouraged after that sole spot of rude behavior, we make
our way over to the Which Stage, which again, because of its giant spinning
question mark, should be called the What Stage. Never mind; it’s way too late
to be questioning such things. The Ben Folds Five is holding court, having
reunited for the first time in more than a dozen years in anticipation of a new
album to be recorded later this year. Folds is a frantic fellow, a man who
obviously enjoys his job and who attracts an audience that obviously enjoys the
fact that he does enjoy his job. He bounces up and down at his piano, the
rightful heir to Jerry Lee and Elton John, mugging, taking photos of the crowd
and generally putting on a gleeful performance. For those unawares, the Ben
Fold Five is actually only a Ben Folds Three, with both the bassist and drummer
adding an extra measure of sound beyond the traditional role their instruments
might otherwise allow. 

Nevertheless, I can’t resist asking an obviously enthused young man why it’s
three instead of five.

 

“Because it’s hysterical,” he responds. “That’s all you need
to know. It’s all right there!”

And indeed it is.

 

 

Meanwhile, the whiff of odors permeating the festival has
passed from pot to pee to poop, the latter of which reinforce my abject disdain
for porto-potties. That unpleasantness aside, we have enough fortitude to see
the Shins, who set a mellow mood and motivate more mass adulation. James Mercer
plays he perfect host, leading his reconstituted outfit through a generous
selection of songs from their newest album, Port of Morrow,
and doing it with a natural aplomb. The blissful vibe brings to mind a
‘60s-style celebration, with lots of tie-dye, long-hair, a couple more topless
women and a stoned sensibility befitting the final hours of this Bonnaroo
blast.

 

Phish will only affirm that feeling, but by now, we’re beat
and content to watch their performance on a big screen from the comfort of the
hospitality tent. It seems a strange remove, especially given the revelry that’s
taking place only a few yards away. But we’ve decided that at this point,
comfort over-rules commitment. Even the unlikely – and unexpected cameo by
Kenny Rogers, who joins Phish for an off and unexpected take on “The Gambler,”
can do little to rouse us from our sedentary state. Phish are extraordinary,
but the possibility of remaining alert throughout their four hour state is slim
indeed. We pack it up and head out, bidding Bonnaroo goodbye and remaining glad
we came.

 

An adventure ended, we can now say that even if we bungled
our way through Bonnaroo, at least we endured. Almost anyway…

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