Originally created 06/17/04

Unstoppable songs and inspired jams at Bonnaroo



MANCHESTER, Tenn. -- As far as many of the musicians who inhabited the stage at the Bonnaroo music festival are concerned, there is no such thing as the "jamband community." And even if there was, they wouldn't consider themselves a part of it.

Ask Warren Haynes, Steve Winwood, Trey Anastasio - they'll tell you that such constructions are born of a music industry fixated with categorizations and chain record store divisions. They'll tell you, smiling or frowning, that music doesn't have a "scene."

Therefore, any jamband discussion, like a conversation about love or morality, is ultimately the discussion of an idea, a beautiful amalgam of vagaries. So the scene at the Nashville airport last Thursday night - a mass of tie-dyed 40-somethings and sad-eyed hipsters searching desperately for a ticket to a sold-out festival over an hour's drive away - was testament to the fact that, since the first Bonnaroo in 2002, the idea of music is never stronger than here.

Bonnaroo is keenly aware, nurturing even, of its eclectic nature, contrasts and even sense of confusion (thus the locations "Which Stage," "What Stage," "That Tent," "This Tent" and "The Other Tent"). Last weekend, this manifested itself in wonderful performance juxtapositions like Friday afternoon's lineup of Bob Dylan, The String Cheese Incident and Gillian Welch.

It also was evident in Friday's midnight to 3 a.m. session, which, despite exhausted festivalgoers sleeping on damp ground less than 100 yards from the stages, was the most energized of the first day. It had the combination of Umphrey's McGee, Vida Blue (featuring an all-star cast of Phish's brilliant Page McConnell, renowned Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbidge and Russell Baptiste of the Funky Meters) and Praxis. The latter featured special guest Col. Les Claypool, whose Primus played their own impressive set on Saturday.

The Friday night feature set joined two of the so-called scene's most revered figures: Dave Matthews and Anastasio, the festival headliner and frontman of the soon-to-be-disbanded Phish. The compelling southern energy of Matthews' songs, paired with the characteristic sense of ecstasy in Anastasio's play, provided a performance fitting of the first mass union of the festival population.

Their show was highlighted by feeling renditions of Some Devil's "Save Me" and "So Damn Lucky," Matthews' fantastically written synthesis of the pathos of life and death. But the most elevated moments appeared in inspired renditions of the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog" and Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," and a particularly joyous closing version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You..." which saw Anastasio joining in on drums and Matthews in a crazed, stage-encompassing dance, a cross between his traditional pseudo-bop and a nod to the drug-induced, hippie writhings that would become so familiar over the weekend.

Earlier, though, there was Dylan.

Against the backdrop of the festival's first sunset, the juxtaposition of Dylan against the immense, youth-injected crowd showed the poet's perpetual relevance and ability - sometimes to the chagrin of more nostalgic listeners - to reinvent his material. Seated mostly behind his keyboard, he smiled slyly, deeply dipping his shoulders in lyrical emphasis amid searing performances of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Samson and Delilah."

Although Dylan's gravelly voice - more suited these days to a rendition of "Louie, Louie" than his heartfelt closing performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" - hasn't remained as faithful to him as his sense of feeling, it strangely accentuated the irreverence and tattered wisdom underlying his timeless songs.

One of the most powerful performances came from Gillian Welch. Singing with a touching, haunting smoothness, she extracted immense feeling from minimalist musical spaces, particularly during "Miss Ohio" and "Like a Wrecking Ball."

"A good song is unstoppable," Welch told The Associated Press backstage before her performance. "No one can stop you, no one can do anything to you, ever, if you write a good song."

Such lyrical preoccupation provided a moving contrast to the fearless instrumental tightrope-walking of bands like Umphrey's McGee, Addison Groove Project and Moe. But the balance between poetry and jamming was best maintained by the band that built the scaffolding for an event such as Bonnaroo.

The Dead took the main stage Saturday night amid atmospheric drama worthy of the festival's most anticipated performance. Flashes of lighting on the horizon and torrential sheets of rain drove the throng not into tents, but to chants of "rain or shine!" and perhaps the loudest mass singing of "Come Together" since The Beatles' dissolution.

Opening with a celebratory "Tennessee Jed," the iconic band delivered a show that exploited the dichotomy of songwriting and abstraction, sensitivity and surrender. A history-laden, sing-along set including "The Weight," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Good Lovin" and "Casey Jones" played against a second set that, with Dead classics "St. Stephen," "Dark Star" and "Slipknot," highlighted the almost spiritual instrumental wanderings that have cemented the Dead's patriarchal position.

The most significant juxtaposition that Bonnaroo maintains, which is to say the most significant rupture it attempts to mend, is between past and present. Musical nobility like Doc Watson and recent Hall of Fame inductee Steve Winwood are placed against the rapidly emerging brilliance of acts like Yonder Mountain String Band, The Bad Plus and The Black Keys, a murderous, bluesy two-piece (drums and guitar) that produced such a depth and force of sound, at times they made the White Stripes seem like they should be playing proms.

Watching Watson, the 81-year-old epicenter of bluegrass guitar, perform on Saturday was like examining a kind of musical primordial ooze. Bowling over the multigenerational audience with numbers like his take on "House of the Rising Sun," Watson even offered up a bit of Dylanesque caginess upon receiving a deafening ovation: "If you don't quiet down and listen to the music," he said in mock seriousness, "I'll leave the stage."

Ultimately, though, beyond any sense of dichotomy, Bonnaroo is a celebratory melting pot of musical ideas. Thus its final hours encompassed David Byrne (who traveled from Verdi to captivatingly altered renditions of Talking Heads classics like "Psycho Killer") and acidy jazz-rock icons Medeski Martin & Wood setting the stage for a closing performance by Anastasio.

A live realization of his recent solo release, "Seis De Mayo," Anastasio's performance featured him conducting the Nashville Chamber Orchestra (and dressing the part in a black suit). Clearly rediscovering a degree of childish joy while acting as conduit for an estranged sound which he called "the most beautiful man has ever produced," Anastasio led the ensemble through stirring orchestrations of the Phish compositions "Pebbles and Marbles," "The Inlaw Josey Wales" and a brilliant meshing of "My Friend, My Friend" with fan favorite "Guyute."

When Anastasio's own band took the stage, it was a textured explosion worthy of the festival's climax. Opening with a blistering, expansive rendition of "Mr. Completely," the set was littered with equally frenzied versions of "The Night Speaks to a Woman," Zeppelin's "Black Dog," band staple "Push on Till the Day" and the completely unexpected Charlie Daniels tune "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Finally, Bonnaroo found release in a near riot-inducing rendition of Phish's "First Tube," massive fireworks exploding in the early morning sky.