We played at Bonnaroo festival on Sunday. We arrived in the neighboring town in the morning having driven overnight from Asheville, NC and awoke to find ourselves surrounded by big box stores—all of them, all around us, in one place: Home Depot, Wall Mart, Target, Staples… on and on. There are no independent stores anywhere to be seen.
On arriving at the festival site, I pull my folding bike from the bay and set off to get the lay of the land; which stage is where, that sort of thing. I have done this in the past, and it’s a really speedy way to get from area to area, via the behind the scenes paths that staff and artists use, and one can then see many acts in a day. It’s fun and super efficient. But this time a security guy (their shirts say SAFETY) stops me and says there’s no bike riding anywhere in Bonnaroo. Woah. OK. I don’t challenge him, but WTF. I guess I’ll be walking today.
I manage to catch a few acts before we have to get ready for our 7:30 show…we’re the last act on the "Which" stage for this festival. Tom Petty, who goes on after us at the larger "What" stage, has no one playing against him. Same went for Paul McCartney and whoever was headlining last night.
I caught quite a bit of Macklemore’s set. Some of our horn guys sat in on his "Thrift Shop" song. For the bulk of his set, it was mostly him, a DJ/laptop guy, and a trumpet player. He was good! A real showman and improviser (or so it seemed). He doesn’t have many songs so far, so he padded out the set with entertaining patter and clever spoken bits that were funny and sometimes quite serious—there was a long spoken word/unaccompanied poetry thing that was impressive—a bold move.
Made it over to the comedy tent where I caught David Cross’ set—really good, though he did go to some iffy places: jokes riffing on Sandy Hook? Really? Well, to be fair the jokes were about the NRA’s response to Sandy Hook. Brave move here in Tennessee.
Kendrick Lamar was pretty much what you would expect. If you know his material—as the huge and vocal audience did—you were in it 100%. I was impressed by the emptiness of his stage setup. It’s a common hip hop thing—the vast empty stage—no amps, instruments, cables, singers, musicians. Visually it’s closer to a stand up comedy look, or a serious dance performance than it is to a stage associated with the rest of the musical traditions represented here. I’ve tried to come close to this, and in recent years I’ve managed to eliminate a lot of cables and mic stands. About a decade ago I switched to in ear monitors, so I don’t need any of the monitor speakers that line the front of the stage here and block part of the audience’s view of the artists. Monitor speakers—especially when they’re loud—also make it difficult for sound mixers to get a super clear mix as well.
Swans were a revelation. I didn’t see them back in the day, maybe I wrote them off as Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham clones, but they were great. While there are elements of the guitar drone orchestra that they share with those guys, Gira has taken the thing into a more expansive place. There are songs, or bits of songs, and the look is of a bunch of characters out of a dark Flannery O Connor story—men in black come to tell you that the end is coming soon, and here’s what it sounds like. I stayed for 40 mins. and was right up close in front, but then I had to leave, fearing that my ears might close down (our ears “close down” when assaulted by loud or sustained loud noise—they re-open after awhile, usually) and we still had a show to do.
Our show goes well. It’s shorter than our normal set—fewer ballads as the festival crowd has been out in the sun most of the day. I sense that the reception to our show carries less baggage than our theater shows. In other words, there isn’t a contingent of folks who mainly want to hear my old material. I enjoy doing some of those songs, but what was nice is that this mainly young festival audience is hearing much of our material, mine and Annie’s, maybe for the first time, so their reactions are visceral—based on how they liked the songs and performances right there and then. Sometimes an Annie song that maybe got an OK reception in our typical theatrical settings got a big response here. That was nice—there was a more level playing field.