A perfect day, hot enough but not so hot as to suggest the idea that the ghosts of dead ants broiled by sadistic children with magnifying glasses were somehow exacting their revenge from beyond the veil of ant Valhalla. Why, yes, the '70s were good to me. Why do you ask?
At any rate, the potential for another spectacular launch to Bunbury's first day was palpable as ID was proffered, the laminate was provided and the wristband was snapped into position. The game is afoot (or as my wife's podiatrist might counter, the foot is a game … but I digress. Why, yes the ’70s were good to me. Why do you ask?) and another spectacular Bunbury awaits.
The beginning of the day was essentially a sampler platter of roaming about and checking out a few songs from a variety of sources. I started off down at the Amphitheater Stage to check out The Upset Victory, who had drawn a pretty sizable crowd for their muscular U2-tinged brand of melodically gritty Roots/Punk. Then it was down to the Warsteiner Stage for a more lengthy taste of Snowmine, who return to the '80s/'90s with a 21st century vengeance, mining a thick vein of Depeche Mode, along with a '90s aggressive Ambient quality and a quietly powerful modern edge. Then it was down to the Main Stage for a quick shot of X Ambassadors, who blend big tribal drumming with a Punk-fueled Pop core, a little like Imagine Dragons with a few hundred thousand volts pumped directly into their hearts. Finally it was back to the Amphitheater for a few songs from the soon-to-be-large Let It Happen, who were delivering their Green Day-esque anthemics in the blistering mid-afternoon glare of the unfiltered sun.
Then it was time to hit the Lawn Stage for the triumphant return of 500 Miles to Memphis. Frontman Ryan Malott has streamlined the band down to a potent quintet (guitarist Aaron Whalen, bassist Noah Sugarman, drummer-of-the-gods Kevin Hogle and the lap-steel-and-all-round-magnificence of David Rhodes Brown) and turned up the juice to emphasize the Roots/Rock thunder and downplay the Country lightning. There's still plenty of twang in their thang, but the sizzle and the sound is turned up to 11 in the slimmer, trimmer 500MTM. The band was clearly itching to tear shit up; they've been hard at work for the last couple of years or more assembling their new album, the imminent Stand There and Bleed (the title is a Tombstone reference; if you know the movie, you know the exact scene, and if you don't, shame on you for missing the greatest Western depiction of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday ever, so go fix that before another hour goes by).
Malott and the 500 blew through a set that was stacked with great new material (particularly "Bethel," a tribute to Malott's hometown), but they didn't forget to give the master his due, pulling DRB up from his lap steel duties to haul out yet another chilling spin on Trent Reznor's "Hurt"; if the hair doesn't stand up on your neck when the Colonel's baritone rumbles out, "You can have it all, my empire of dirt," you've got one of those weird, hairless necks. 500 Miles to Memphis has been well out of the public eye for the last year as they concentrated on life pursuits and sporadic turns in the studio to finesse Stand There and Bleed, so there was an urgency to get their fresh live set across as a clarion call to let everyone know they're back. Are they ever.
After a quick stop to water my horse (namely, me), it was a fast walk over to the Acoustic Stage for an hour of blissful Roots/Folk brilliance from Aaron Lee Tasjan, whose sideman work with Todd Snider, the New York Dolls, Drivin' N' Cryin' and Tim Easton has earned him a reputation as one of Americana's most reliably astonishing guitarists. But it's his solo persona that is becoming even more fully realized, as his sterling EP releases — 2011's August Moon, 2012's The Thinking Man's Filth and the just released Crooked River Burning — have shown Tasjan to be a songwriter of depth and beauty will beyond his calendar age. Listen to any given ALT song and you'll hear hints of Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Will Kimbrough, Rodney Crowell and Ryan Adams in his delivery.
In Tasjan's Folk world, there is no bellybutton introspection set to a strummed acoustic guitar; he'll peel off a solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix after telling a story about seeing Ted Nugent shoot flaming arrows into cardboard effigies of his enemies list worthy of Arlo Guthrie. There aren't many singer/songwriters (read that: any) who are writing tributes to the late, great Judee Sill, and fewer still who make incisive observations like "You can't play Beatles music with bullshit hair." Deals don't get any realer than Aaron Lee Tasjan, and you all need to make him a star at your earliest convenience. Go. I'll wait.
After ALT's hour of power, it was back to the Amphitheater for the transcendent magnificence of Lydia Loveless. She may have grown up in the hillbilly hinterlands of Coshocton, Ohio, but she is a city girl with enough Rock sass to satisfy any Indie hipster and enough twang to hold the interest of any Americana aficionado. In a set laced with electric greatness, primarily drawn from her latest album, Somewhere Else, Loveless and her brilliant band finished with an absolutely scorching take on "Boy Crazy," the title track from her 2013 EP. The song reached a fever pitch when guitarist Todd May, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth with noir-detective-meets-Bun-E.-Carlos nonchalance, sat on his feet in front of his amp at the back of the stage, coaxing an exquisite din of feedback from his guitar, while bassist/husband Ben Lamb concocted similarly haunted sounds by running his bass down Nick German's drum kit and Loveless herself fell onto her back on the stage and cranked out sheets of heart-stopping guitar madness. It was an extraordinary end to a truly amazing and all too brief set.
Exactly what is it about the Black Owls that resonates so completely with me? First, they effortlessly tap into that primal part of my brain that was developing during my teenage years when I was soaking up insane amounts of T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie and the Stooges. Next, they punch forcefully into the neighboring brain cells, the ones that house the memories of discovering Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Talking Heads, New York Dolls and Be Bop Deluxe. And it's not that they sound like any of those bands (although occasionally they do), it's that they remind me of that beautiful, mysterious time in my life when there was still music to be revealed, and the visceral thrill that accompanied every new discovery. That is what it is about the Black Owls. They once again made that abundantly clear at the Lawn Stage when they tore through old favorites ("Wild Children," "Julias Morningstar," "Sometimes I Wish You Were a Ghost"), brand new classics in waiting ("Gasoline" and "Rook") and an absolutely hair-raising spin through Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire."
It was the standard Black Owls greatness, which is to say the quintet, as usual, presented their most familiar elements in new and unexpected ways so that even a grizzled old veteran Owls watcher such as myself was knocked back a pace and surprised by it all. Black Owls make me long for the days when bands put out two albums a year for not other reason than they could. Bassist Kip Roe continues to weave himself into the fabric of the Owls' sound and, as frontman David Butler pointed out, guitarist Brandon Losacker is proving to be a perfect songwriting foil for Butler and co-founding guitarist Ed Shuttleworth. The Black Owls seem to be entering a period of gritty reassessment, where dirty Glam riffs and anthemic chord structures are dominating the proceedings. Yes, please, and quite a bit more, if it's quite all right. And even if it's not.
Before I review the psychodots' Bunbury debut, perhaps a history lesson is in order. A good many years ago, music mogul and purported industry genius Clive Davis sauntered into Cincinnati with the stated goal of checking out The Raisins and perhaps offering them a lucrative and much-deserved contract. When Davis departed from our fair city without signing The Raisins, he explained the lack of a deal thusly: "They're an embarrassment of riches."
Please allow me to read between the lines and translate that five word headscratcher into layman's terms. What Mr. Davis was so obtusely attempting to convey was this: "The Raisins are a stellar band and I don't have the slightest idea how to market them without making them as smooth and textureless as Gerber's babyshit and as lame as a beggar in the Bible, essentially stripping them of the elements that make them unique, and if you think I'm going to dismantle and destroy this band or permanently stain my sparklingly legendary resume with the ugly reality that I was unable to sell the music of a gifted band to a quality-starved public simply because I didn't understand the complexities of either one, you've got several unpleasantly aromatic things coming in a flaming bag on your front porch."
Of course, The Raisins famously broke up, reassembling as the Bears with guitarist Adrian Belew and refashioning as psychodots without Belew. So in a very tangible sense, we owe the existence of psychodots to Clive Davis' short-sighted inability to recognize their root band's brilliance. I was devastated that The Raisins didn't make it and, after the 'dots' loosely tight/tightly loose set at Bunbury, I am relieved beyond measure The Raisins didn't make it. Success would have come at a great and terrible cost, and we would not have enjoyed 20+ sporadically splendid years of psychodots Power Pop bliss.
There may have only been 100 or so bodies at the Amphitheater Stage to witness psychodots' fabulousness (Fitz and the Tantrums were sucking up bodies like a UFO set to "harvest," and rightly so) but the 'dots never give less than 89%, and they were in full charge mode on Friday afternoon. There was Rob Fetters' squiggly guitar magnificence (I'd put him up against any guitarist in the history of Rock, and he'd be only mildly uncomfortable at being up against any of them), Bob Nyswonger's bass conjuring, using his instrument to evoke lead guitar and keyboard mayhem (and by instrument, I'm still talking about his bass) and Chris Arduser's master class in How to Drum with Power and Grace and Still Maintain a Smartass Attitude.
It was a delightfully eclectic set, with a number of old favorites ("Master of Disaster," "Living in a Lincoln," complete with Fetters' mom-inspired balloon-on-the-strings gimmick), a few quasi-oddities ("Candy," the rarely performed "The Problem Song") and a handful of non-'dots nuggets ("She Might Try" from Arduser's exquisite The Celebrity Motorcade, The Bears' "Veneer" from their last album Eureka, "Play Your Guitar" from Fetters' patently perfect new solo album, Saint Ain't, The Raisins' fist-pumping "Fear is Never Boring") and the band's always entertaining banter (Fetters apropos of everything: "Is anyone tripping?"; Bob Nyswonger after Arduser's observation that the evening was balmy: "Balmy," stretched langorously into two words). It was, in a number of words, a standard psychodots show, which means one of the best shows you'll ever see, local or otherwise. Long may they reign.
After the breathless 'dots set, I was torn between the Heartless Bastards' triumphant return to the area or the unlikely but much welcomed reunion of Veruca Salt's original lineup. With more than a couple of Bastards sets under my belt and the prospect of many more to come, I opted for Veruca Salt because, even if the reunion sticks, the possibility of the band's return to Cincinnati seems remote. The foursome did not disappoint, hauling out blistering favorites from their slim catalog in this iteration and reinforcing why we've loved their Glam/Pop brilliance for so very long. Whatever caused the rift between co-fronts Louise Post (who has kept Veruca Salt going in some form or other for the past 21 years) and Nina Gordon (who departed for a solo career in 1998), there was no evidence of any residual friction as the quartet blew like a hurricane through "Volcano Girls," "Straight" and their signature brain-boiler "Seether." The band even teased a couple of songs – including "It's Holy" from this year's Record Store Day single — from what was described as "their upcoming thing;" that thing cannot come soon enough. As final proof of Veruca Salt's newly minted reunion, Post and Gordon kissed at center stage amid a beautiful howl of squalling feedback. As the lights came up, the '90s called, they want their awesome back; they can blow it out their ass, because Veruca Salt is hanging onto it with all eight arms.
For the evening's closer, Empire of the Sun, the Main Stage was nearly as packed with bodies and gear as the field in front of it. The band's epic stage show, which has been described as Cirque Du Soleiel without the airshow, requires a lot of moving parts, and the Bunbury crowd arrived in significant numbers to witness the Rock/Synth Pop/Electronic spectacle. Empire of the Sun's primary sparkplugs, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore, and a veritable army of players and dancers offered up a wall of Prince-like Glam/Pop guitar and a danceable solution of Depeche Mode Synth Pop menace, all updated to a millennial frenzy of Muse/Daft Punk proportions. But rather than non-descript and identity shielding space/BMX helmets, EOTS prefers elaborate tribal headdresses that look like giant pre-immolation phoenixes atop the principals' heads. At one point, the dancers were all playing fake neon guitars in a 21st century version of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video. All of this plays out in front of a constantly shifting projection of disparate and arty images and screen saver light squiggles combined with a choreographed and dazzling light show that is both compelling and distracting. That dichotomy within the Empire of the Sun presentation matches the broad spectrum of reactions to the band's Cincinnati debut (and one of only a handful of American dates); the majority of the crowd was fully engaged in the band's expansive Vistavision sprawl, while a few canvased friends offered up opinions that ranged from "That was as exciting as watching glitter paint dry," to "Meh, it's okay," to "I totally love this." Editorial critique aside, Empire of the Sun was every bit as epic as advertised, and everyone who looks for spectacle in their Dancetronic music mix got more than their money's worth with Friday night's Bunbury closer.
• I started the day with a deliciously smokey pulled pork sandwich from the geniuses at Eli's, a bun so overstuffed with barbeque goodness that it's actually a pulled pork sandwich with a side of pulled pork. It's as close to a religious experience as I've ever had outside of a church (where I have oddly never had a religious experience … go figure) or a music venue (where I've had plenty; I'm looking at you, Iggy Pop). Washed down with a Fathead beer, it was the perfect start to the third charmed Bunbury.
• At the Snowmine show, I ran into "Hey-look-everybody-it's" Stu, from Paul Roberts' Three-Amigos crew. Stu reported that Paul and maybe Big Jim would be along shortly. And, in fact, they were.
• On the way from X Ambassadors to the Amphitheater/Lawn Stage area, I ran into Eddy Mullet and his daughter Jess. Eddy is the volunteer host of the Friday night 6:00-8:00 pm shift at Class X Radio, where I have surreptitiously installed myself as his quasi-co-host; I do the weekly CityBeat Report, a rundown of weekend music events, and a segment I concocted called the Gang of Four Set, four songs that are connected by a theme of my own twisted design. Eddy is also the longstanding host of Kindred Sanction, the area’s longest-running local music program that was founded by Cynthia Dye Wimmer a fair number of years ago at WAIF. Cynthia brought the show to Class X six years ago, Eddy sat in occasionally as co-host and Cynthia backed out of the show to attend to her life. Eddy's passion for and knowledge of the local music scene is legendary, and anyone who has ever dealt with him knows him as a straight up guy and maybe one of the best boosters that local music has ever seen. Class X management has seen fit to cut the show's hours and alter the format, all of which is wrong-headed and counterproductive, but all that really matters to Eddy is spreading the gospel of greater Cincinnati's music scene. And Jess is turning into a Rock chick of the first order (not like that, you gutter-minded dimbulbs). Under Eddy's tutelage, she's becoming a pretty fair aficionado of local music herself; smart, funny and fearless, she will be a force to be reckoned with in some near future. At any rate, if you see Eddy wandering around, shake his hand and thank him for his long-suffering and often unappreciated work on behalf of local music.
• Eddy and Jess and I hit a run of shows together, including the ever amazing 500 Miles to Memphis, the astonishing Aaron Lee Tasjan (who Eddy hipped me to through his love of Drivin' n' Cryin'), the gear-stripping Lydia Loveless and the transcendent Black Owls. Eddy and I could talk music for days on end, which we do at every given opportunity. Eddy also introduced me to Aaron, who he'd met after a Drivin' n' Cryin' show; that kid is going places, if Eddy and I have anything to say about it.
• Finally ran into Paul and Big Jim at the Aaron Lee Tasjan set, with "Hey-everybody-it's" Stu in tow. These three are also a great bunch of music lovers and supporters, local and otherwise, with weird, esoteric tastes. In other words, my people. I love running into them, and swapping stories and having Paul buy me beers, which he most generously did during the psychodots' set.
• Also briefly caught up with the ever-stellar Kip Roe, freshly installed bassist for the Black Owls and a prince among men. His boys, Kip Jr. and Ben, were there to witness the Owls' casual brilliance (anchored by their dad's bedrock solid basslines), but post-show were anxious to head down to the Main Stage to witness the Soul/Pop frenzy of Fitz and the Tantrums. Kip and the boys won't be spending Saturday doing any Bunbury adventuring, as they're headed to a Modest Mouse show in Columbus (a bucket list event, as Kip described it), but they will be back for the Flaming Lips on Sunday. Kip's boys are huge Flaming Lips fans. God, I love Rock & Roll families.
• And speaking of such, my other favorite component of Black Owls shows is the chance to catch up with the Owl wives, Amy Butler, Carrie Losacker and Sarah Kitzmiller (and let's not forget Ed's girlfriend, whose name, like so many other things, slips my addled brain. Why, yes, I did enjoy the '70s. Why do you ask?). We were trying to come up with a name for their defacto support group; I propose the Owlettes, and given Friday's heat and humidity, the Moist Owlettes probably was more apt. At any rate, they are wonderful people to interact with, and I look forward to their company every bit as much as the Owls' soul-stirring, flashback-triggering presentations.
• And on that subject, Ed, his girlfriend and her daughter (again, names … I remember knowing them in some distant past; maybe if they had hats with their names on them. That's how Stu solved his dilemma …) caught up with me while I scarfing down a couple of cheese coneys before leaving Friday night and offered a heartfelt Rock & Roll tale. Ed's girlfriend's daughter (note to self: this would be better with names) is a huge fan of Walk the Moon and as fate would have it, frontman Nick Petricca happened to be in town and was catching the Empire of the Sun show. Ed's girlfriend's daughter spotted Nick, professed her undying love for Walk the Moon, they chatted for a bit and she got her picture taken with him. Nick is clearly one of the good guys and his very open and engaging response to a fan's sincere outpouring of love and support is one of the reasons for the band's incredible success. And, as I noted to Ed's girlfriend's daughter, "It's always nice when you meet your heroes and they're not dicks." Thus should it ever be.
• The only thing that could have made the night complete after that uplifting moment would be a quick run-in with Jacob Heintz, former Buckra guitarist and Rock volunteer of the gods, as his constant presence at MidPoint and now Bunbury will attest. Another one of the truly great people that define the Cincinnati music scene as one of best in the known universe. I am physically fading and spiritually soaring. It's a good feeling for the end of the first day of another fantastic Bunbury.
After 96 consecutive hours of baking in the Tennessee heat and humidity, walking from stage to stage to take in as much music as possible and drinking and dancing sometimes from noon until dawn, even your third and fourth shower after returning home from Bonnaroo can be like a religious experience. Though the festival itself gets under your skin in a way that one does not necessarily wish to ever wash away. Indeed, coming down after the festival, returning to the mundane realities of everyday life, can be a difficult proposition for hardcore Bonnaroovians struggling to simply settle back into their daily routine on planet earth.
The fourth and final day of Bonnaroo 2014 found (photographer) Chuck (Madden) and I sun-dazed but smiling, still eager to soak up and savor every bit of music we could. Among the few campers stirring that murky morning, I woke early and wandered the eerily empty festival grounds well before noon. I’ve attended the festival six times since 2006, but Sunday morning was the first time I rode the Bonnaroo ferris wheel. After an hour or so of tapping away on my trusty laptop in an empty press tent, the ferris wheel ride gave me an opportunity to chill and be still for a few minutes, surveying the scene from a bird’s eye view. A crowded cornucopia of bright lights and loud music after dark, it was both surreal and serene to view the Bonnaroo festival grounds silent in the morning.
The silence wouldn’t last. Even before I disembarked from the ferris wheel I could hear Lucero doing their soundcheck on a stage that I could barely see in the distance.
Chuck’s day began with a pair of bands he would be raving about for the rest of the afternoon: Kansas Bible Company on the tiny On Tap Lounge stage and much-talked-about new arrivals Lake Street Dive in That Tent, where a surprisingly large crowd had already gathered for the band’s 1 p.m. start.
Cloudy skies and occasional drizzle kept temperatures tolerable for the first three days of the festival. But Sunday was all clear skies and blazing sun, sending temperatures into the 90s for most of the day. Always an endurance test, Sunday at Bonnaroo 2014 was a brutal trial for the thousands on site who were forced to either hydrate, hunker in the shade, or both, until the sun relented in the early evening. But shade is not easy to come by at Bonnaroo, and sitting in a hot tent is no kind of relief whatsoever. Sunscreen, long sleeves and floppy hats ruled the day. Experienced Bonnaroovians are well-familiar with the physical demands of the festival. It just so happens that after three days of relative ease and comfort, Sunday’s weather conditions upped the ante on a panting throng already sunburned and exhausted.
Arguably some of the finest acts on the Bonnaroo lineup were featured on the festival’s final day, as Bonnaroo attendees were treated to phenomenal sets by Broken Bells, The Avett Brothers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Arctic Monkeys, Shovels & Rope, Washed Out, Wiz Khalifa, The Lone Bellow, Okkervil River and an afternoon performance by Yonder Mountain String Band on the main stage that featured Bluegrass legend Sam Bush on violin.
This writer tumbled into the Other Tent just in time to catch a rousing set by Those Darlins. Like Nashville’s Wild Feathers before them on the weekend itinerary, this was sort of a hometown gig for Those Darlins, a band whose founding members met at a Rock & Roll camp in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A sparse but dedicated crowd happily held lead singer Jesse Zazu aloft as she tumbled over the barricade and into the audience. Laying back on a sea of fans’ hands, her guitar squall raged unabated at full steam as her eyes rolled back in her head. (Those Darlins play a free show in Cincinnati this Friday, headlining Fountain Square’s MidPoint Indie Summer concert.)
After a ridiculous amount of pre-gig hype, the controversial Kanye West’s Friday night performance delivered nothing but disappointment to a Bonnaroo audience that should have known better to have expected anything more. Saturday headliner Jack White and Sunday’s top dog Elton John showed that good material and passionate, substantive performances will always trump shallow arrogance, hype and bullshit. To Mr. West, who once claimed himself to be “Shakespeare in the flesh,” I submit this famous quote from Macbeth:
“Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Of far greater significance than this writer expected was a stellar Sunday night performance by Elton John, who reeled off one classic after another to close out Bonnaroo 2014. I knew Elton’s set would be great, but I was not prepared for just how truly amazing it was. With a band featuring guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson, who have been with him for 45 years (you read that right), Bonnaroo 2014 was Sir Elton’s first-ever appearance at a U.S. festival. Opening the show with Side One of his classic Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album from 1973, Elton proceeded with a version of “Levon” that concluded with a virtual clinic on Rock & Roll piano playing in the extended outro. Though I was dubious at first about Elton closing out the festival, this two-hour performance instead turned out to be such a stunner that I know I will forever count it among my all-time favorite Bonnaroo memories.
Thanks again to CityBeat for this amazing opportunity and to Chuck Madden whose concert photography is simply the best and whose friendship and company are a big part of what makes the Bonnaroo experience so meaningful to me.
This morning’s activities were as hectic as a hurricane as I jumped from one interview to the next in the Bonnaroo press compound.
Things started off nice and easy when I rendezvoused with a friend of a friend who is Lionel Richie’s stage manager. An industry veteran of many years, Sal Marinello has worked for Barbra Streisand, Metallica, Neil Diamond, Britney Spears and many more. Large festival stages like Bonnaroo are equipped with lights and sound, so Marinello’s workload and schedule today are not as demanding as a typical day on the road. Marinello and his crew arrived in the wee hours this morning with one truck instead of the usual seven. Main stage headliner Jack White’s line check completed and his gear rolled to the side of the stage by 8 a.m., Sal and his staff had Lionel’s gear in place onstage for their line check less than an hour later. (The rest of the day’s main stage performers will set up and perform in front of Lionel’s gear.)
The noon hour brought a flurry of activity that had my head spinning pretty much for the rest of the day. Nashville’s Wild Feathers returned on the red eye from St. Louis to do a three-song acoustic performance in the press tent that found the band looking ragged but sounding great as ever. Their material is strong, their performance was spirited, and their three-part whiskey tenor harmonies were crystal clear as ever. But they sure did look tired. Scheduled to play at noon, they were running late and had to jump right on the stage and burst into song immediately upon their 12:30 p.m. arrival.
Chatting with Ben Kaufman, Adam Aijala and Dave Johnston from Yonder Mountain String Band, I found the trio cautiously optimistic about moving forward after the recent departure of mandolin player and founding member Jeff Austin. Not that I expected them to be in a full-blown panic, but it was impressive to hear the calm in their voices as they discussed their future options with no apparent concern about securing a permanent replacement for Austin. Bluegrass legend Sam Bush joined Yonder for their 2:30 p.m. set on the main stage today. For their summer tour they’ll be joined by Jake Joliff on mandolin and Ally Kral on violin. (Yonder Mountain String Band plays Moonlight Gardens at Coney Island on the Fourth of July.)
The Flaming Lips brought a whole new freak rock spectacle to Bonnaroo this year and frontman Wayne Coyne was bouncing around the press tent talking to reporters for a couple hours yesterday. Spirits high and eyes aglow, Wayne happily made the rounds. The man loves to talk and this writer spent a dizzying 10 minutes with Coyne, discussing their brilliant new record The Terror. The band’s 12:30 a.m. set on the Which Stage was an explosive spectacle of lights, confetti, balloons, and dancers in costume, with the fiendish ring leader Wayne in the middle of it all looking like an evil super villain dressed in red tights with a shiny silver codpiece. (The band is one of the headliners of Cincinnati's Bunbury Music Festival this year.)
It’s not the first time I’ve seen Coyne dominate a press conference here; yesterday he spoke excitedly about The Flaming Lips’ desire to always bring something special to the Bonnaroo stage.
“If you’ve been here for three days and you’ve already seen 50 bands,” he said, “you wanna see something different. So that’s why (in 2007) we decided to land a spaceship here.”
Cool as a cucumber in spite of the summer heat penetrating the crowded tent during an early afternoon press conference, Derek Trucks fielded a question about the size of the Tedeschi-Trucks band. “An 11-piece band is a lot like herding cats.” Then he quietly mumbled the unintentionally Zen aside: “But it’s better than 30.”
Still buzzing from my conversation with Wayne, I scampered out into the crowd to catch Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke on the Which Stage. This was one of my personal Top 3 must-see bands of the weekend. It was gratifying to see the young Bonnaroo audience embrace a band that has more in common with their grandparents’ record collection than what many probably have on their current iPod playlist. I stopped to say hello to Blackberry Smoke singer and guitarist Charlie Starr after a 4 p.m. press conference and we discussed some of our favorite early Blues singers. I feel confident that he and I were probably among the very few here at Bonnaroo chatting about Ishman Bracey.
From there the day just got crazier, as the Saturday schedule was packed with stellar artists, including Valerie June, Drive-By Truckers, Phosphorescent, Lauryn Hill and Seasick Steve who boasted none other than Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass. Walking through the crowd I heard Cake play a spot-on cover of Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” with the guitar solo section cleverly transcribed for the horn section.
After a late afternoon breather back at the campsite, I wandered through Bonnaroo’s famous archway entrance to catch some of Lionel Richie’s set. My timing was perfect. As soon as I walked through the gate he launched into the Commodores’ “Brick House,” a Bonnaroo performance I’d been looking forward to for months. Again I found it gratifying to see the young audience dialed into Richie’s performance as he pulled out one classic song after another. You can imagine how his ’80s gem “All Night Long” had the dancers moving. This was a moment of such heartwarming cross-generational bonding that it gave me goosebumps in the humid Tennessee night.
Last night’s main stage headliner Jack White nearly tore the stage in half, bringing an explosive thunder and fury that’s largely missing from Rock & Roll these days. One of the most highly-anticipated sets of the weekend, Jack and his crack band did not disappoint. A frantic and fiery performer onstage, he was straightfaced and serious, as if in character, throughout a bombastic set that stretched well over two hours. White has called Nashville home for several years now and he brought noise to these Tennessee hills last night like no one ever has before. An all-out stunner from the first song all the way through to the last note of several encores, this was unquestionably one of the most memorable performances in Bonnaroo’s 13-year history.
And believe it or not there is still more to come. Today is the fourth and final day of Bonnaroo 2014. Photographer Chuck Madden and I must bear in mind that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, as we endeavor to take in performances today by Lucero, Lake Street Dive, Okkervil River, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Arctic Monkeys, Broken Bells, Washed Out, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Avett Brothers and more. The legendary Elton John will close out the fest tonight.
Thanks to CityBeat for making this all possible! Chuck and I would like to extend a special thank you to CityBeat photographer Jesse Fox who was a big help to us this weekend.
Only 361 days ‘til Bonnaroo 2015!
The blazing two-guitar Indie Prog of White Denim’s midnight set on Bonnaroo’s That Tent stage absolutely floored Chuck and me last night. Those familiar with White Denim’s fabulous 2013 release Corsicana Lemonade might find it hard to believe that the band sounded even better on stage than on record. Drummer Joshua Block repeatedly whipped the crowd into a howling frenzy throughout a 60-minute performance that found the band shooting a virtual shower of sparks that led Chuck to conclude, “We won’t hear anything else that good all weekend.”
Rarely have I seen a band who had the crowd eating out of their hand like White Denim did last night. This performance was an all-timer for me, one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had watching a band on stage. (You can catch them for free Sunday at Southgate House Revival; read CityBeat’s interview with the group here.)
Blessed relief fell upon us in the form of an unexpectedly quiet first night in the Bonnaroo campground. My Friday began with an illuminating 30-minute chat with Jake, Joel and Chris from Umphrey’s McGee. I told them I was from CityBeat and before I could even turn on my recorder they began to rave about Cincy’s late, great Ray’s Music Exchange, citing them as one of their biggest influences in Umphrey’s early days.
“Those guys were so bad ass and adventurous,” said guitarist Jake Cinninger, “It made us braver and made us feel like ‘Hey, maybe we can do this, too!’”
Sometimes described as Phish’s evil twin, or rabid little brother, Umphrey’s is much more than this. Performing a different setlist every night, indulging in wild flights of improvisation, often not repeating songs for many days, Umphrey’s musicianship and sense of adventure onstage is peerless and unparalleled. Bonnaroo veterans since the festival’s first year, 2014 marks Umphrey’s first appearance on the main stage. This week the band launched their own Nothing Too Fancy record label with the release of their new Similar Skin album. Touring through the summer and on into the fall, Umphrey’s makes a stop at Kettering, Ohio’s Fraze Pavilion on June 28.
Backstage press conferences today featured comedians Hannibal Buress and Taran Killam. Both held court in the press area for over an hour, good-naturedly conducting spontaneous interviews and posing for photos. I caught a glimpse of rapper Danny Brown, dressed head to toe in black leather and sporting a Guns ’N Roses T-shirt and dark sunglasses, chatting with a female reporter in the press tent. Just a few yards away, the members of J. Roddy Walston and the Business were laughing and carrying on with members of the assembled press like it was a family picnic. Just a few hours later Walston and Co. restored my faith in Rock & Roll with a blistering set on the Sonic Stage that found Walston himself repeatedly jumping up from his seat at the piano and into the arms of the adoring crowd. At one point he leapt onto the shoulders of an unsuspecting photographer in the photo pit before climbing once again over the barricade to crowd surf.
This writer spotted Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips walking through the crowd on Friday afternoon — but it was Toby from Dr. Dog, who I shamelessly ran after to get his autograph for my girlfriend back home. The first serious mob scene of the weekend gathered in front of Which Stage for Dr. Dog’s 2:30 p.m. performance. Unquestionably one of the most talented and promising bands of the past decade, their set was heavy on tracks from their stellar 2013 release, B-Room.
Our Friday was another typically schizophrenic zig zag around the festival grounds as Chuck and I took in sets by Neutral Milk Hotel, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Andrew Bird and the Prog Metal thunder of Animals As Leaders. There seemed to be a lot of excitement and anticipation in the air for Kanye West’s headlining set on the main stage. But, at the same time, the most frequently spotted T-shirt at Bonnaroo yesterday said, “FUCK YOU KANYE”. I heard someone in the crowd say, “If Kanye’s such a genius, he should sell those shirts himself.”
Seven hundred acres of Manchester farmland is transformed into Tennessee’s sixth-largest city every June when 80,000 people invade the area for the annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. With live music from over a hundred bands on twelve stages from noon ‘til dawn for four days, Bonnaroo presents attendees with an experience that is almost overwhelming.
Unquestionably the most diverse music festival of its kind, this year’s top dog headliners include Elton John, Jack White, Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, Lionel Richie, The Flaming Lips, Wiz Khalifa, Arctic Monkeys, The Avett Brothers and dozens more.
Often described as “James Brown singing with Led Zeppelin”, Vintage Trouble is an L.A.-based band that has built a worldwide following after three years of non-stop touring in support of their 2010 debut album, including a much-coveted slot as the opening act for The Who on their 2013 tour. As the summer festival season is ramping up, Vintage Trouble continues their grueling tour schedule with a stop this weekend at Bonnaroo. I recently spoke to the band’s bassist Rick Barrio Dill. Calling from Los Angeles, where he is recovering from recent surgery after a retinal detachment scare, Dill was upbeat and eager to discuss the band’s history, philosophy and enthusiasm for the road ahead. I asked him if the band changes their approach when preparing for a festival stage, as opposed to theaters and arenas.
“Not really,” he said. “We might tweak the edges differently, but overall our approach to a festival gig is the same kind of sweaty, sexy late night vibe as the clubs of Los Angeles where we kind of honed our thing. We’d only been a band about nine months before we got the gig opening for Brian May that immediately put us in front of the theater crowds that were sitting down. Then we got the Bon Jovi tour where we were playing in stadiums to 40, 50, sometimes 70,000 people.
“It taught us that we like setting up really tight, really close together, so we can literally touch each other no matter what kind of stage we’re on. And everything is contained in that sort of mentality. So, no matter if it’s a giant stadium or a 150, 200-seat room, we want it to get sweaty and we want it to be as intimate feeling as we can make it on the stage and within ourselves and what we can throw out and I think everybody connects. So even when we’re opening up for The Who, it still sort of feels that same 200-seater room.”
Dill said that translates to the way Vintage Trouble records, as well.
“We recorded our whole record in two and a half days, all in one room, doing all full takes,” he said. “We sort of fell into this method and later saw similarities in the footage of The Beatles at Shea Stadium, where they’re set up real tight in the middle of this giant stadium. We don’t wanna spread out. We set up in a tight circle where we can touch each other and then everything’s gonna come out from there.”
I mentioned to Dill how refreshing and somewhat ironic it is in this modern age of technological advances in the way music is generated and delivered to the listener that the old method of just coming out onstage and kicking people in the ass still works.
Chuckling a bit, he replied, “Well, it works for us! You know, we’ve played in front of hardcore Death Metal audiences, Hip Hop audiences, Country audiences and we always seem to land on our feet. I think it’s kind of a testament to how somewhere in our DNA it always traces back to old Soul, Rhythm & Blues, old, early Jazz, and early Rock & Roll.
“One of the things we try to do is we try to pull everybody into it. And it’s funny because even if you aren’t familiar with music from 50 or 60 years ago or they way they performed back then, people seem to understand. People can sort of hear some trace of that sort of thumbprint in their DNA even if they don’t necessarily have those records or haven’t been privy to what those performances were like. People get it. And that’s what’s so great about music, especially the kind of music that we do. It just seems to kind of transcend a lot of genre-making that has gone on over the last 30-40 years.”
Editor’s Note: Cincinnati musician and longtime CityBeat contributor Ric Hickey and photographer Chuck Madden are once again covering the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival for us in Manchester, Tenn., this week. We’ll be posting their dispatches from the fest as they come in throughout the weekend. You can pretend you're there with them (minus the bugs and camping and stuff) by watching the live stream at Bonnaroo.com.
Insects crawl across my keyboard as I type this in the Bonnaroo parking lot. A vast expanse of several hundred acres of rolling green countryside blanketed with cars, tents, campers, tarps, trailers and people ready to party down, these Tennessee hills are alive with the sound of music.
Returning once again with my old friend and photographer Chuck Madden for our No. 1 favorite assignment, we dig in for the long haul. After all, four days of car-camping and toughing it out in the summer sun is no easy feat. But every year, with several heavy bags of electronic gear, cameras, lenses, recording equipment and laptops slung over our shoulders, we embrace the madness with big silly grins on our sunburned faces.
A couple years in a row we were able to camp in a “guest” area just behind the main stage compound. But this year it was not to be, as we were directed to join the long line of cars by the highway that were waiting to pass through the main entrance. After an hour of waiting and a cursory search of our vehicle, we drove into the massive parking lot and began setting up camp.
Kicking off the 2014 Bonnaroo festivities on the Other Tent stage was Nashville’s own Wild Feathers. The band has been all over the world since I saw them perform an acoustic showcase in the Bonnaroo press compound last summer. With three singing songsmiths fronting the band and complimenting each other’s close harmonies, The Wild Feathers put across some of the most pristine Country Rock vocal performances since CSN’s heyday. But plug ‘em in and crank it up and it becomes a different beast altogether.
Opening with “American” from their stellar 2013 debut album, The Wild Feathers fell confidently into the warm embrace of a hometown crowd that was singing along with every word. Still a young band, a year of non-stop touring has instilled in them a simmering confidence beyond their years. Their scorching “Backwoods Company” was taken at an accelerated clip that challenged the afternoon sun for heat and intensity. More than just a band to watch, I think I’d buy stock in The Wild Feathers if I could.
Elsewhere today Chuck and I took in sets by Cass McCombs, ZZ Ward, MS MR and The Preatures. Among the late night sets that I’m excited about tonight are a pair of my favorite new bands. J. Roddy Walston and The Business perform in This Tent, while White Denim takes the stage in That Tent at midnight. Their sets starting just 30 minutes apart, I’ll face my first serious schedule conflict of the weekend.
Louis Langrée is well aware of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's rich history. The CSO's freshly minted music director also knows part of that history includes the nurturing of contemporary composers and their often unconventional works.
Enter MusicNOW, Bryce Dessner's 9-year-old festival of adventurous sounds. (Read our conversation with Dessner here.) This year's sonic extravaganza includes the CSO's take on new pieces by such esteemed composers as Nico Muhly and David Lang, as well as the title work from Dessner's new Classical album, St. Carolyn by the Sea.
CityBeat recently connected with the genial Langrée — who spoke in self-described "primitive" English by phone from Paris — to discuss the CSO's collaboration with MusicNOW.
CityBeat: Before we get into MusicNOW, I'm curious about your initial impressions of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Why were you interested in coming on as music director?
Louis Langrée: The fame the orchestra is really big. Everybody knows it's a major orchestra. But then making music with them was a completely different experience because, yes, they have the qualities of all major American orchestras — precision, clarity of the attack of the situation. But they have also from their heritage, in their DNA, this German conception of sound, that you build the sound from the base of the harmony. That means the density of the sound is something absolutely remarkable, and that's rare in the United States. I think it has to do with the tradition, the roots, of this orchestra and also, of course, about the quality and the spirit of the musicians, which is really wonderful.
CB: Why were you interested in collaborating with MusicNOW and taking on a festival of contemporary music?
LL: One of the strengths of the orchestra is to have supported and commissioned and performed contemporary music from their very early age. Having given the American premiere Mahler Third, Mahler Fifth, Stravinsky coming to Cincinnati before he was considered a giant, having premiered (Aaron Copland's ) "Lincoln Portrait," having commissioned (Copland's) "Fanfare for a Common Man" and many other pieces and many more recent pieces. That's why I wanted to open my tenure as music director with eighth blackbird and Jennifer Higdon concerto piece. It shows that we should support, play, commission and perform contemporary music — and, of course, contemporary American music.
CB: What was it like collaborating with Bryce?
LL: Meeting Bryce was a wonderful. His French is perfect. Especially compared to my primitive English. (Laughs). I like his attitude in making music and experimentation. And any strong institution should be also a place of experimentation. Music is not something you put in a museum. It's alive. And then we should perform contemporary music like Classical music and perform Beethoven music, not forgetting that he only composed contemporary music. All the composers — Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bartok — composed contemporary music, so we have to continue it. He's very focused and concentrated, but on the other hand the spectrum was quite bright. I think we have arrived on wonderful programs — very challenging, but very exciting.
CB: What makes him unique as a composer?
LL: He knows how to make an orchestra sound. It's a very clear and precise writing but at the same time there is so much flexibility in the variations of colors written and the flow of the music. It's always quite exciting to study a piece and hear it. Having the privilege of working with the composer is something wonderful because there are so many questions I would like to ask of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and of course it's impossible. So being able to ask the composer and to hear his answers is just wonderful.
Bryce is someone who has great harmonic taste, and I think for the orchestra it's wonderful because you can express yourself much easier. I think he's very much like his music — a very welcoming man, a very open, very luminous person. I see that in his music, which is not always the case with composers. With him, I get the feeling he's one with his music.
CB: How has the orchestra responded to playing these new, sometimes challenging pieces?
LL: Any new piece you don't know what to expect. What I've found is that these musicians are very open-minded, they are very generous and positive in their attitude and are eager to try any new experience. It's a privilege to perform these two concerts of new music, but it's also very challenging, so you have to be very practical.
CB: And what's the experience been like for you?
LL: It's a great responsibility when you conduct a piece, but it's also a great privilege that today's major American composers are willing to write for us. To be sharing this experiment and experience in concert, to be a part of MusicNOW, is really something beautiful.
MusicNOW's 2014 festival begins tonight and continues tomorrow. Visit musicnowfestival.org for tickets and full programming details.
The weekend after the big Bunbury Music Festival at the Sawyer Point/Yeatman’s Cove parks along the riverfront, another festival by the same fest organizers, Buckle Up, is set to make its debut. This morning, the full lineup and schedule for the Country/Americana fest was announced.
Friday, July 18: Alabama, Eli Young Band, Jamey Johnson, Marty Stuart, Ashley Monroe, Eric Pasley, Chris Janson, The Cadillac Three, Sturgill Simpson, Old Dominion, The Railers, Son of Fathers, David Fanning, Jamie Lynn Spears, Joshua Scott Jones, Pistol Holler, Jeremy Pinnell & The 55's, Sara Haze, Phillip Fox Band, Tyler Childers & The FoodStamps, The Dan Varner Band, Ashley Martin, Kaitlyn Baker, Alexis Gomez, Lonesome Jared & The Heartattacks, Messerly and Ewing, and Andrew Hibbard
Saturday, July 19: Willie Nelson / Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Old Crow Medicine Show, Emmylou Harris, Drive-By Truckers, Kristian Bush, Houndmouth, The Lone Bellow, The Spirit Family Reunion, Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, Joe Pug, Lera Lynn, Natalie Stovall and the Drive, Caitlyn Smith, The Tillers, Tall Heights, The 23 String Band, Buffalo Wabs & The Price Hill Hustle, Kentucky Timbre, Coralee and the Townies, Arlo McKinley & the Lonesome, Al Scorch, Shiny and the Spoon, The Carolines, Dean Fields, and Wild Carrot
Sunday, July 20: The Band Perry, Thompson Square, David Nail, Corey Smith, Dylan Scott, Sam Hunt, Blackjack Billy, Dallas Smith, JT Hodges, Chase Bryant, Logan Brill, Lyndsey Highlander, Abigail Rose, Noah Smith, Ruth Collins, Bobby Mackey, Straw Boss, The Kentucky Struts, Ty Bates, Carly Pearce, Jetset Getset, Honey & Houston, Zack Dubois, and Max Fender
Tickets for the Buckle Up Festival are available now ($55 for one day/$130 for a three-day pass, but prices go up after Memorial Day). For tickets and more info (including the daily schedule), visit buckleupfestival.com.
The release of the self-titled debut album from Cincinnati trio Tweens is just about a month away now. The music site Stereogum recently premiered the trio’s first music video for new album single, “Be Mean,” a great introduction to the band’s classic-Pop-meets-classic-Punk style (or “Trash Pop,” as they like to call it).
The buzz around Tweens, which scored the “New Artist of the Year” award at the 2014 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, continues to grow across the nation, with more and more music press and online outlets heaping praise on the both the band's recordings and live shows. That buzz should be almost deafening when Tweens’ debut LP is finally released on April 8 through Frenchkiss Records. The band’s usually packed tour schedule is about to get extra-busy with the new release just on the horizon, beginning with a head-spinning six performances during next week’s South By Southwest music fest/conference in Texas.
Click here to read CityBeat's most recent interview with Tweens.
Last night, music fans at venues in four cities around the region (Newport, Columbus, Indianapolis and Lexington) got a sneak peek at some of the artists slated to appear at this year’s Bunbury Music Festival, which returns to Cincinnati’s riverfront parks July 11-13.
Last night, fans at the launch events tweeted out some of the lineup as it was announced (and some smart ass started a fast-spreading rumor that Vampire Weekend was playing; they are not). This morning, the lineup was released to the general public. It was previously announced that Fall Out Boy, Paramore and New Politics would be bringing their summer tour to Bunbury; those groups are scheduled to play the fest on July 12.
Here are the local and national artists that will be joining them at Bunbury’s third annual event (an additional headliner will be announced soon):
The Flaming Lips
Young the Giant
Fitz and the Tantrums
Red Wanting Blue
The Lighthouse and the Whaler
Fly Golden Eagle
Lamps and Voids
Family and Friends
Let It Happen
Kopecky Family Band
G.Miles and the Hitmen
Brent James & the Vintage Youth
The Fanged Robot
The Upset Victory
J. Roddy Walston & The Business
Lily & Madeleine
Brick + Mortar
Yellow Paper Planes
Aaron Lee Tasjan
Here Among the Mountains
Bronze Radio Return
Daniel in Stereo
Today is the last day to buy Bunbury tickets at their current rate; the prices increase at midnight. Right now, $130 gets you a three-day pass ($325 if you’d like the VIP experience) and one-day tickets are $55.