Bonnaroo 2011 : Friday report

By Jon Stone

It’s Friday night at 1:14 and I’m waiting for Deer Tick to metamorphose into Deervana. This after just witnessing a two-hour set from My Morning Jacket followed closely by an hour and a half from Arcade Fire. My legs hurt. I’m sunburned and dirty. I’m weary. I am so incredibly happy. What a day it’s been.

Oh, the dust.

(It’s hard not to make these reviews into a travel-log. Skip around at will.)

Sharon Van Etten – The last time I saw SVE was at Pitchfork last year doing a solo show to a relatively sparse crowd. I remember feeling underwhelmed. I’d just seen Cary Ann Hearst the night before and, really, it was an unfair comparison (please go see Cary’s band, though: Shovels and Rope!). I’ve spent a lot more time listening to Van Etten’s work since then and was genuinely excited to see her again. This time, full band in tow, she was fantastic. She played a good number of songs from last year’s EP as well as a smattering of older and brand new material. In the former category, we heard “Tornado” from her first full-length, Because I Was in Love housing these great lyrics: “I’m a tornado, you are the dust. You’re all around and you’re inside.” Oh Sharon, the dust. The dust! In the latter, she played the new and great “All I Can.” We’re all looking forward to the her next release.

Ben Sollee – I’ve been a fan of Sollee’s for a year or two and loved his record Dear Companion with Daniel Martin Moore. His new album Inclusions picks up where the duo left off and after spinning it a few times, I’ve been anxious for a chance to see him. I should have been more anxious. He and his band are so, so good. I was moved. He has assembled a really lovely group of musicians to accent his cello work, including a two piece horn section and the phenomenal Phoebe Hunt on violin singing harmony vocals. Sollee’s talent as a songwriter and musician, though, is something else.  If you’ve yet to hear his new record, check out the song “Bible Belt” which captures Sollee at his subtle best. The dissonant horns on that song against its subtle, agnostic critique of southern religious expectations is some of the best writing I’ve heard this year. When I heard it live, I was, as I said, moved. The little yellow flowers they passed around during the closing number summed up the sentiment perfectly, I think.

Justin Townes Earle – When I saw JTE earlier in the year, I knew it was going to be tough to ever pass up an opportunity to see him again. Not only is he amazing, but the guy not unlike a trainwreck, you can’t look away once he’s on stage, as if any moment, he may burst into flames. Using the images of fire and train-carnage to describe the charisma of a musician is odd, but that pretty much sums it up. He played several of his best, never in the same tempo as the records and always with something witty between: “I’ve never been known to stay long under the porch” or “My mamma knows perfectly well that I’m here today, but I know that right now she’s up in Nashville wondering where the hell I am” or the less-subtle, “I really love me some drugs”. The man is an entertainer.

Here’s a kind of crazy story that feels not a little bit tabloid, but I’ll relate it anyway: I’m standing there watching JTE and there’s a guy with his wife/girlfriend/sister in front of me that looks so much like Justin he could be his brother. After the set, I plucked up my courage and asked him if he had any relation to Earle. The man (and he didn’t look a day under 20) said simply, “Yeah. Son!” JTE was born in 1982. Everything Earle has ever sung hard living is absolutely true.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band film screening: Live From Preservation Hall: A Louisiana Fairytale, directed by Danny Clinch – I’m all mixed up about this one. Abigail Washburn, whom I adore, was playing her main set at the same time as this film was being screened, but there was a promise on the bill that Jim James would be making an appearance with the actual Preservation Hall band, and since AW is playing on Saturday, I took the chance. And here’s the thing: the documentary was fantastic. It is both a short history of Preservation Hall and its revolving cast and a chronicle of My Morning Jacket’s collaboration with the band a few years ago. In it, Jim James is portrayed in the way I’d like to imagine he is: down-to-earth, kind, selfless… not the typical arena rock star. So, after the film (and the theatre was packed with folks hoping to see James close up), everyone is waiting for Jim to come out. The Preservation Hall Jazz band does and they are, of course, amazing. But after their two-song mini set they leave the small riser and no James. After a few moments of awkward standing around, a woman comes out and says he decided to skip it. “He’s hot and wants to focus on tonight’s show”. I was bummed and it created this paradox of who was depicted on screen and who Jim James actually is: a rock star who does rock-starish things like skip a two-song performance for an audience full of (likely) his biggest fans at the fest. It sucked. Whatever.

Ray LaMontagne – after wandering over and through the wide expanse of land and people that were gathered to see the Decemberists at the main stage, I decided I couldn’t deal with further paradox (really? 10,000 people during the hot of the day lazily standing around [or sitting or laying out or whatever] listening to the Decemberists? I couldn’t stomach it – and that is nothing against the band. I need to see them play a real show). Ray LaMontagne offered the perfect solution. In true LaMontagne fashion, he and his band played with no stage lights making those of us standing in the distance reliant on the new jumbo-tron on the Which stage, but also more inclined to just sit back and be soothed. I wasn’t a huge fan of his last record, but had a hunch it would sound sweet live. It does. The Pariah Dogs, as his band has now been christened, are an amazing bunch of journeyman musicians. Two (yes, two!) pedal steel player among them (they take turns) and a woman on bass who looks and sounds as though she’s played her whole long life. They played several songs off the new record (I’m going to have to go back and listen again), including “Repo Man”, “New York City is Killing Me”, and “Devil’s in the Jukebox” as well as some classics, “Trouble” and “Jolene” among them. It was just what I needed and I will see Ray and his band any time I can. Such talent and class.

I’m going to break from my travel-log here at the end and try to say something meaningful about seeing My Morning Jacket and then Arcade Fire and then Deer Tick playing a Deervana set. I mean, that may be enough. That happened. Set lists? I’ve got those (see below).

Despite my love for the small and intimate setting, despite the hypocrisy of not wanting to watch the Decemberists on the main stage… despite it all, there is just nothing like seeing a band like My Morning Jacket or Arcade Fire play to thousands upon thousands of people. To be a member of the chorus of voices singing along to “Rebellion (Lies)” or bobbing heads to “Off the Record” – this is an experience that has made an industry out of coliseum rock but is one particularly suited to Bonnaroo. It’s hard to say much more than that about the seeing two of my favorite bands play back to back other than I feel blessed by the privilege of watching a caped Jim James shake his rock-star mane and play that Flying V and love (love!) to see the big smiles on the faces of Win Butler and his crazed band of ex-pats and Canadians. So fun.

And then, Deervana? Well, folks I’m gonna let that one remain a mystery best experienced for yourself.

MMJ – Victory Dance / Circuital / Off the Record / Gideon  / Anytime / First Light / Mahgeetah / Outta My System / Golden  / You Wanna Freak Out / I’m Amazed / Slow/ Slow Tune / Steam Engine / Smokin From Shootin (with Ben Sollee) / Run Thru (End)  / Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2  / Good Intentions / Wordless Chorus  / Holdin On To Black Metal  / Highly Suspicious (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band) / Dancefloors (with Preservation Hall Jazz Band) / One Big Holiday

Arcade Fire – Ready to Start / Keep the Car Running  / Neighborhood #2 (Laika)  / No Cars Go  / City With No Children  / Rococo  / Haïti  / Intervention  / The Suburbs  / The Suburbs (Continued)  / Suburban War  / Month of May  / Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)  / We Used to Wait  / Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)  / Rebellion (Lies)  Encore: Wake Up /Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

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