Bonnaroo Day Three
June 14, 2008
High Tide Blues, Mason Jennings, Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, featuring Bela Fleck, B.B. King, Ben Folds, Chromeo
all photos by Mark C. Austin
It’s Sunday morning here in the Tennessee sun, and after a torrential downpour on Friday night and into Saturday morning, folks are starting to a) reek or b) shell out $7 for a shower. I’ve chosen to go the former route and have vowed not to bathe until I get home on Monday morning. You know, solidarity with the masses and all that, or maybe I’m just cheap. Some of my colleagues in the press tent are judging me silently for this choice, I suspect, even though I’m careful not to stand too close to anyone.
One of the best things about Bonnaroo is that there are so many bands playing that you’re bound to stumble upon groups that you’ve never heard of before. Whenever there’s down time here, I tend to wander towards the tiny Sonic Stage, which often features smaller bands. Yesterday afternoon I caught the end of a set from an Atlanta-based band called High Tide Blues, who play a rollicking, jangly, southern brand of rock n’ roll. The band came to Bonnaroo after winning first prize in a radio contest, and they were like kids in a candy shop, jumping around stage and grinning from ear to ear. At one point the lead singer/guitarist said, “I’ve been to Bonnaroo every year for the past seven years and it’s basically a dream come true to play here.” This sort of enthusiasm is refreshing after seeing a bunch of shows from more established artists, and can be powerful stuff. Best of luck to them.
Later in the afternoon the folk singer and guitarist Mason Jennings played to a sizeable crowd, many of whom listened from blankets spread out on the grass in front of the stage. Jennings is living proof that simple chord changes played on an acoustic guitar paired with straightforward lyrics still carry weight in a music scene that is increasingly dominated by sub-genres with names like acid electro-funk and bubble gum dub-hop. Simplicity can be nice sometimes. Jennnings mixed older tunes with material from his latest album, In The Ever, including the gems “I Love You and Buddha Too” and “Soldier Boy,” both of which had the crowd singing along.
Of all the bands at Bonnaroo this year, I may have been looking forward to Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet the most. The band is a supergroup in every sense of the word: all four players are virtuosic on their respective instruments, they’ve got star power in the form of Bela Fleck, and, while they are essentially an American roots band, they have a serious international bent due to the fact that Washburn often sings in Mandarin Chinese and they regularly integrate east-Asian melodies and harmonies into their tunes. Washburn herself is originally from Evanston, IL, but lived in China for some time when she turned 18 and regularly visits. Oh, and her voice is otherworldly, swinging back and forth between a breathy bluegrass falsetto (think Alison Krauss) and a full-on belt, with vibrato to spare. The group played renditions of a number of American folk songs and some of their own material. Additionally, each member performed a solo number, all of which were simply stunning. I had the chance to chat briefly with Washburn later in the afternoon – I’ll post that interview in a bit.
I’m happy to report that the king of blues is alive and well: B.B. King’s set at Bonnaroo was everything I’ve been hearing it would be and more. The guy has been playing so damn long that he just oozes stage presence and charm, even when he’s just chatting up the audience. “Ladies and gentleman, thank you for putting up with me for so long,” he said near the end of his hour-and-a-half long set, after a rousing version of his 1964 hit “Rock me Baby.” He finished the show with a spare and inventive guitar solo in “The Thrill is Gone” and stirring vocals in the crowd pleaser “Guess Who.” Before he was escorted off stage, he made an observation: “You know, every show I’ve played since my 75th birthday I see people walking around with banners that say ‘B.B. King’s last show.’ I just want to let you know – no one asked me about this…”
Ben Folds was supposed to play in the same time slot as B.B. King on another stage, but they bumped his show back half an hour at the last minute, so I managed to catch the last few songs. I’ve seen Folds perform a few times before, and every time I’m stunned at just how hard he rocks the Baldwin grand piano he plays. At Bonnaroo he was in fine form, taking time to teach the audience harmony parts to stand-out tracks like “Army,” which he then conducted while standing on top of the piano. This is pop music at its most satisfying.
Finally, we saw a late set by Chromeo, an electro-funk duo from Montreal and NYC. These guys sound like they fell directly out of the early 1980s club scene, with sizzling keyboards and synth lines, and somewhat excessive use of a talk box, which sounds something like a vocoder but, you know, hipper. The show was full of kids in ‘80s-style neon track suits throwing glow sticks around, bouncing off each other and singing along to standout hits like “Bonafied Lovin’” and “Tenderoni” until the wee hours.
More to come, including: Broken Social Scene, Jakob Dylan & The Gold Mountain Rebels, Ladytron, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss featuring T Bone Burnett.