June 12 2016
So my camp was packing up on Sunday morning so I gathered my things, and even though it took me two trips to bring my stuff in, I managed to pack mule myself and get out in one trip. It took me a long time, I really didn’t end up learning the most direct path from camp site back to car until I was almost done for the weekend.
I got to my car, started it to cool it down, and put my stuff for the weekend in there before day three. I had a sandwich provided by my neighbor and got to know him. That’s one of the great things about festivals, meeting your neighbors, learning their stories, and getting to know yourself through other people. I got in the car a little while later, it was not quite noon, and the thermometer read, 100 degrees. I accurately predicted that it would not get cooler as the day went progressed. So I took my time and soaked up the AC, got hydrated, and started to make my way back.
First band was Charles Bradley on the What Stage. I had seen a special on him on CBS Sunday morning and was intrigued. He was the third in a line of mature African American bluesman who made it as a result of a combination of patience and good luck meeting the right people. The first of these that I got into was Ted Hawkins in the mid 1990’s, and he is well worth the listen. The next was Kid Rock discovery Robert Bradley’s (no relation) and his band the Blackwater Surprise. Both great bands, and I could tell that Charles was going to be something else.
And he was. The band is filled with young players who seemed to be a few years removed from music school, paying reverence to the man and style, while quietly flexing their muscles and showcasing their learning. The band and sound are essentially a rhythm and blues soul revue, much like the Blues Brothers did 40 years ago. Charles is an amazing singer and the band backs him with the hype, verve, and energy necessary to showcase his unique talents.
I am not well versed enough in his music to list a set list of anything but I recognized a few tunes, and I don’t think that there was much in the way of covers, the set seemed to be dominated by his original music and it was worthy for sure. The band was reverential and showcased his talents. For his part, Charles Bradley is an extraordinary soul singer. He was able to infuse his music with every bit of the pain and tragedy that you require out of a soul singer. But he was also able to inject a level of joy that I am not used to in soul music- this combination of pain and joyfulness seems to be his domain, a duality that he can deliver in a way that any of his peers can not.
Midway through his set he left the stage and let the band stretch out, and he changed his clothes and returned after a few minutes. This, among other things like well choreographed dance steps and banter showed me that he had spent all of his considerable years preparing fore this opportunity. And I don’t just mean Bonnaroo, but all of what is happening right now, his unexpected rise to public consumption (not spotlight necessarily). You could tell he has done all of the training of his generation, choreography, clothes, facial expressions, the whole look, feel and sound of what makes a professional mature soul singer. Run, don’t walk, directly to the next Charles Bradley show if you enjoy soul music at all.
Did I mention that it was hot? Well, it was, like real hot. But Bonnaroo was prepared, with a huge mushroom shaped fountain in the middle of Centeroo, free water stations spread throughout, and a capable medical crew tending to those with heat problems.
I wandered back to the What Stage to see a bit of Jason Isbell. You could see the heat written on people’s faces, and the length of the weekend was starting to become evident. I went to one of the shade tents at the back of the concert field and relaxed for some of Isbell’s set. I had seen him a few years ago opening for Son Volt and really enjoyed his sound, which I found to be part of the alterna-country no depression americana revival spear headed by Son Volt and Wilco and the like. What I found at this show was a sound much closer to Nashville, a very true country in the modern era sound.
His fan base has expanded considerably of late and lots of people were enjoying it. His down home vibe seems to be getting closer and closer to country, and I think his audience is expanding because of it, but it is straying further away from a sound that I like. I stuck around for a time, and then wandered my way to do some shopping in Centeroo.
I found lots of cool vendors, and bought a poster for my son for his birthday. There were plenty of food and craft vendors of all sorts throughout Centeroo so if festival shopping is what you seek there is plenty of it. Additionally there is a significant Shakedown Street in the parking / camping lots from Wormtown Trading Company to food vending out there and lots more. So fear not, if you wanna spend some money on souvenirs, that is easy to do.
I made it back to the music by checking out one of the tents (the Other Tent I think, but it gets blurry after awhile.) The whole day was set up as The Bluegrass Situation, giving that tent a consistent theme throughout Sunday. I was there for Steep Canyon Rangers, who I knew a little bit both as a result of their collaborations with Steve Martin over the last several years, and all the way back to when I was hanging out with Western Carolinas bands like Snake Oil Medicine Show. They have a reputation of being the standard bearers of modern bluegrass and their set showcased their considerable skill. The instrumentation was traditional with guitars, fiddles, banjos, upright bass and great voices.
They had quite a stockpile of original material and I assume that there were some traditionals in there. The band is more than proficient, they are quite excellent- and anyone seeking out a quality bluegrass show should not hesitate. Even inside the tent it was incredibly hot, but the shade provided some relief. I liked the show, but I have to say that I was not blown away- but perhaps the heat effected the performers as well as the audience. They are a great band- listen for yourself:
I went back to the What Stage to check out Deathcab for Cutie. They appear in my Pandora mix occasionally and I knew a little something about their poppiness and longevity, but not a lot. I chatted with some gals near me, and they declared them Emo Pop, and had some more specific labels for them which I didn’t catch. The band’s sound and show revolve around Ben Gibbard who plays guitar and piano and sings, and his emotional delivery and compositions are the backbone of the band.
They are good, and I recognized several of the tunes. He was as awkward as my new lady friends described, and had command of the band, stage, and audience. I got into the lengthy version of their hit Soul Meets Body and could see why people could fall in love with this band. I also took this opportunity to dine at a few of the food places that lined the concert field where I got some smoked wings and fries, and another great fish taco (highly addictive.)
It was still blazing hot- and you could see people huddled in the shadows of the various vendors, shade tents, sound areas, handicapped areas, and any place that would cast a shadow. It reminded me that you really have to be in shape mentally and physically for a three day festival like this, carefully conserving your energy and hydrating to stay safe and to be able to have the necessary energy to last the whole weekend.
There was a good hour to kill before Dead and Company took the stage to act as the finale for the weekend. I noticed on the schedule that Ween was playing elsewhere and it is one of my few disappointments in the weekend that I didn’t go over to see them. But I had a good spot relatively up close, somewhere to hang my recorder, and a piece of shade and I felt like I shouldn’t over estimate my reserves. I spent a good amount of time chatting with the people around me, meeting folks from the southeast and the northeast, and sharing in the collective experience.
Dead and Company took the stage at the expected time and fired up- opening with Truckin and firing on all cylinders from the first notes. They morphed into Smokestack Lightning and we were well on our way. The band was showing more than just proficiency, showing dexterity and a level of comfort that comes from the fact that they have been together for some nine months now. The bluesy nature of Smokestack allowed for Mayer to showcase his blues chops on lead guitar. He is able to both reference the Garcia sounds and other styles that are more personal to him, accessing the sounds of Clapton and Buddy Guy and mixing them with the sounds that Dead fans expect.
The biggest surprise of the night came as the band transitioned into Bertha as Bob Weir introduced Miss Donna Jean to the stage. I did not see that coming, and she joined the band on vocals. You can tell that a lot has improved both within the band and the technology they use on stage as the vocals had a nice blend to them.
The real test came immediately, as Playin in the Band unfurled. Generally speaking, Donna Jean blended in with the myriad of vocalists for harmonious takes on the choruses of songs. As the band meandered through the lengthy solo jam section, Donna left the stage. She came back as the jams were heading for her signature part, and this is really what everyone’s Donna question comes down to- will she do the wailing vocal part during Playin in the Band? Interestingly, she did not. She stuck to harmonizing on the main vocal ensemble parts. Playin spilled into Birdsong which was thick and tasty as you wish it would be.
Predictably for the show we got a nice playful Tennessee Jed. When Shakedown started Donna Jean returned to the stage (not on for TN Jed) and remained for Passenger. As a tune that features Bobby and Donna on the album it was easy to see that they are adept at performing it together still. There were smiles all around between Donna and various band members and it was like a long lost relative had returned for a reunion. Passenger entered a transition and the band returned to Bird Song which had not been finished earlier in the set. It was clear that a set break was due so I was a little surprised when they busted into a Casey Jones to close, it felt like bonus material. It was a little rough during the vocal flourishes to end the song, but as always, the Dead’s audience is a forgiving one, and simply the band’s ability and desire to play was enough for the crowd.
Set break afforded more opportunity to hang out with friends new and old within the audience, time that I always cherish. Set two was about to begin and you could just tell by the way that they were flexing prior to the music what the opener was going to be. Help on the Way started and you could just feel the energy level jump a bit. Mayer seems to really enjoy this one and the subsequent Slipknot that came after. Instead of the normal Franklin’s Tower though, there is a completely seamless transition into Scarlet Begonias. It was really impressive and a nice take and alternate direction for the suite.
Fire on the Mountain signaled Donna Jean’s return to the stage and the vocal blend among all of the singers was excellent. Terrapin Station was the epic lead in to Drums and Space required of such a momentous show. Donna left after Terrapin and out of Space we got a very spirited version of The Other One. Bobby sang Wharf Rat with beauty but this is a song that for sure I miss Jerry’s emotional delivery. The band transitioned into the Franklin’s Tower that we were missing from earlier in the show and Donna came back to contribute vocals.
After a brief pause to close the show, the band returned for Touch of Grey. Like with Casey Jones there were some odd vibrations toward the end of the song and perhaps not everyone was on the same page, but this is nothing new with this crew- they bring it out warts and all. Bobby made a comment on the Orlando shootings which had happened the night before, called out some politicians for their remarks and inaction, and sent us off into the night.
Dead and Company are doing their best to keep the torch lit, and they do it well. They sound like the Grateful Dead, as much or more so than any other post Jerry version. It has its differences from Furthur and the Other Ones, as you would expect, and they are developing their own flavor spectrum. Plenty of people complain about John Mayer, but I think that is theoretical more than it is justified. His joy is evident on stage, he is an excellent vocalist, and I actually would prefer that they lean on him vocally more than they do. His guitar playing is excellent, he treats the guitar work reverentially as we would demand, and brings in his own flair. He is clearly ecstatic to be here, and he has studied the material thoroughly and the band is rehearsed much more than they were for GD50 without doubt. I personally think that it’s a great fit and provides the elders a chance to continue to show their mettle.
I did notice that there were times when Mayer was solo-ing and he would notice Bobby doing something cool on the rhythm guitar. And while he continued to hold down solo types of licks and lines, he was backing off to showcase Weir and his particular guitar work. This was exciting as it was really heretofore uncharted territory, showcasing Weir on guitar in ways that we’ve heard but not in the front of the mix. And did I hear right, was that Weir taking a few solos here and there? It’s clear that the band is excited by Mayer’s presence and he has the thoughtfulness to really showcase these Hall of Fame talents in quality ways.
I for one wonder if originals aren’t possible with this current lineup… All in all this band is great, and this show was great. I’m sure they have plans to continue on this circuitous road for many years to come if they are able and I will be there to bask in the light.
I walked to my car and got in around 12:15 A local time, 1:15 EST time. I pulled out of my parking space and drove solo the 1060 miles back to New England, arriving just after midnight in northern MA. I had a lot of time to reflect on the Bonnaroo experience and I could not have loved it much more than I did. Kudos to the organizers who put on an amazing festival.