The Bonnaroo Whirlwind kicks into high gear on Saturday afternoon. Today it was hardly half past twelve when Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears ripped the Other Tent in half with 60 minutes of high fructose Funk and Gospel that had the surrounding throng speaking in tongues.
As we reached the halfway point of the festival, I took a step back and reflected a bit. I was dirty, sweaty and sleep-deprived; and yet I could not have been more excited for what was to come. Phish had whet my appetite for their festival-closing performance on Sunday, and who could forget that one of the greatest live acts in the history of music (maybe a little hyperbole), Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, would be rocking the stage this very night. There was a sense that truly magical musical moments were on the horizon and little did I know what those inclinations would bring.
I haven't done LSD in at least a decade, but Thursday's MidPoint Music Festival sure felt like a psychedelic flashback. My long-ish, strange-ish trip began at 9 a.m., as I drove into downtown and found Central Parkway colorfully dressed up as if an army of elderly women had sneaked in overnight and turned the strip into a Dr. Seussian wonderland. The colorful crocheting that hugged the trees, lampposts and practically everything else sticking out of the ground was actually the work of The BombShells' Yarn, who've dropped similar "yard bombs" on statues downtown (like the William Henry Harrison one in Garfield Park).
Regardless of whence it came, it set the trippy tone for my first day at MPMF.11. And things only got trippier. I'm a big fan of the surreal and bizarre, so it wasn't a bad trip, by any means. And the soundtrack was pretty kick-ass.
Since her 1994 indie debut, The Honesty Room, Dar Williams has attracted a diverse and pathologically loyal fan base with her quirkily hybridized Folk/Pop ministrations. Like an elegant gene splice of Shawn Colvin and Loudon Wainwright III, Williams can easily triangulate the emotional distance between breezy humor, somber reflection and crystalline heartbreak, on subjects as intimate as family and love and as broad as culture and politics, by finding the commonalities between them and translating them through her muse. Equally relevant is the fact that Williams hasn’t shied away from experimenting with her base formula over the past two decades; her desire to extend her reach is a testament to her restless creative spirit and her success in doing just that is a testament to her steadfast audience.
In the Time of Gods is Williams’ ninth studio album and, like the majority of her catalog, it is a work that somehow manages to be both spectacular and subtle. In keeping with her need to experiment, Williams conceived In the Time of Gods as a concept album with each song representing a particular Greek mythological archetype, while also weaving contemporary emotional, social and cultural concerns into the narrative. It’s an unlikely formula, and one that requires an almost impossible songwriting balance, but Williams was clearly up to the task, because In the Time of Gods stands with the best of her albums to date.
Part of its brilliance is that Williams uses the Greek pantheon as a launch point to create her own dieties and address her unique issues, proving that mythology must be both consistent to be permanent and malleable to be relevent. The element that drives all of this home is Williams’ impeccable songwriting skill as she finds the connective tissue between gods and goddesses like Hera (“I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything”), Hermes (“You Will Ride with Me Tonight”), Dionysus (“I Will Free Myself”) and Poseidon (“The Light and the Sea”) and places their gifted and flawed archetypes in real life situations with real life outcomes.
As always, Williams’ musical accompaniment in this endeavor is engaging and beautiful and exactly right, providing the consistency that runs through her estimable canon. With a surgeon’s skill, Dar Williams has grafted the wisdom, wonder and humanity of Greece’s ancient pantheon onto In the Time of Gods’ modern cautionary tales, further evidence of the contention that Williams is among the finest Folk/Pop songwriters of the last half century.
I've had nearly a dozen different people ask me the same question over the last week or so: “What have you been listening to?”
Luckily, it's been a fruitful season for (relatively) new music. Here's my answer:
PJ Harvey —Let England Shake: Harvey's latest gets better and digs deeper with every spin via its textured arrangements and curious, Folk-tinged genre U-turns. I'm still not sure I like her more overtly topical lyrical bent, but her voice is as affecting as ever.
Our third and final day on-site at Bonnaroo was no less crazy than the previous two. I took occasional breaks during the day, sometimes in the air-conditioned press tent, and other times back at the campsite where I’d snack, get off my feet for a few minutes and pour water over my head.
The day began with an 11:30 a.m. press-tent panel discussion on changes in the concert industry since Bonnaroo’s inception 10 years ago. The panel included Bonnaroo founder Ashley Capps who reminisced about the festival’s early days. Capps and crew intentionally booked bands for the inaugural festival who already had direct contact with their fan base via the internet. By tapping into this pre-existing network, they were able to sell out the first Bonnaroo in just 18 days.
Singer/songwriter Eric Falstrom has been performing locally for several years, including with the rockin’ Mystery Wagon in the early ’90s. Since then, Falstrom has been working the solo route, releasing records on his own off and on since the end of the Wagon.
But Falstrom’s latest disc, Love Will Come Through, feels much like a reintroduction, featuring some of the best writing and performing of his career so far. The album is rich and focused, bringing Falstrom’s strengths (poetic lyrics, a heartfelt singing voice and beautiful arrangements) to the forefront.