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31 Dec 1969: 16 June 2006
Having left the camper behind, we venture forward into the abyss. The first act I’m set to catch is the increasingly popular Chicago son, Andrew Bird. On stage there are a variety of pedals, a drum kit, and a phonograph straight out of a southern plantation’s sitting room. Bird emerges to an excited crowd, dressed in jeans, a cut-off blue t-shirt, and sunglasses.
Known to completely reinvent his songs live, Bird stretches his words and notes like a cat’s cradle, pulling off an impressive improvisational reading of his work. The stiff classical reputation of the violin vanishes in Bird’s hands, as he reconfigures his instrument to suit his particular need of the moment. He plucks, he loops his sounds, and he strums his violin to cheers and howls—garnering loud adoration like few violinists have heard before. And then there’s the whistling. Any asshole with lips, a jukebox, and a barstool can keep up with Axl Rose’s little ditty on “Patience” or John Lennon’s contribution to “Jealous Guy”, but Bird’s whistling adds an entirely new dimension to his tunes. Spectacular. Easily one of the best sets of the weekend, and we are just getting started.
Pulling from his days with Ben Folds Five along with his solo career, Ben Folds is a nice, upbeat pickup with which to fight the staggering southern heat. The crowd is treated to a number of fan favorites, including “Zac & Sarah”, “Brick” and “Not the Same”. I know very little about Ben Folds, but I do know that “Not the Same” is the song he always introduces as the one “about his friend who took acid, climbed a tree, and came down a born again Christian”. It is unclear whether or not the explanation this afternoon is part of a routine or a warning about the misuse of drugs. If it is the latter, it clearly falls on deaf ears.
The crowd seems most entertained when Folds breaks out his popular cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. Hearing Folds’ boyish voice lament about “sucking on deez nuts” gets the thirty-somethings giggling like eight-years-olds who just figured out how to crack the password to the Parental Control lock on the cable box.
Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes) was being called the “new Dylan” long before he could drive or germinate the seed of his own Wallflower. It seems that a lot of us pay more attention to his reputation than his music, and that’s too bad because last year he put out some impressive stuff. “Lua” is especially touching today, as Oberst reflects upon his transplant from the fields of Omaha to the sidewalks of Brooklyn. In the song he explores the idea that a person can more readily change their zip code than their vices (“It takes one to know one, kid/ and I think you got it bad”), and that it is in these similar pitfalls—as opposed to dreams, opinions, or interests—that we find our friends and lovers (“the love I sell you in the evening/ by the morning won’t exist”).
During his set, we’re treated to a surprise appearance by Gruff Rhys of Welsh rockers Super Furry Animals. He belts out a mood setting version of “Hello Sunshine”. Though I have never seen Bright Eyes and have counted myself a fan for some time, I begin to find myself losing concentration in the heat.
It is too hot and I am dehydrated, so I rule out catching Cat Power’s set. We go back to our camp to eat burgers and abuse our generator. Pairs of my pranksters roll in at different points. Some are sunburnt, some are burnt. Others immediately pass out. We try to organize and discuss who among us will be attending headliner Tom Petty‘s three-and-a-half hour set. A Heartbreaker hater muses that Tom will have to run through his greatest-hits disc twice to fill such a long slot.
I leave to catch the last two and a half hours of the Petty set while half our camp stays behind. Those of us going walk away to jeers, our friends telling us to enjoy the acoustic version of “Learning to Fly” we are bound to hear. They plan to kick back and continue their vigorous assault on the four cases of Yuengling resting at their feet.
There’s a huge turnout, but most people appear too tired to enjoy the set. A mass of men and woman over dance in their fanny packs, trying to cop a toke from their neighbors between songs.
I’m not as excited as those around me when Stevie Nicks comes out—at first I’m not even sure who she is. As I’ll later realize, my parents are the only two people born in the ‘50s who do not own a copy of Rumours. After 40 minutes of Nicks’ dancing and Petty’s grinning, I call it quits—right as an acoustic version of “Learning to Fly” begins to float from the stage. I duck my head and focus all of my attention on navigating the crowd without stepping on some passed-out hippie.
My Morning Jacket
Two hours later and chemically rebooted, I’m ready for My Morning Jacket. Or so I think. After 45 minutes, I feel spent and leave my friends some 30 feet from the stage. I doubt I’ll have a bigger Bonnaroo regret. The band goes on to play almost three more hours after I leave. I later hear that they played covers by the Stones, the Band, and the Misfits. People will go on to talk about this set all weekend long (in line for the crappers, in hushed tones around 4 a.m. fires, and in their sleep).
Most people mention Jim James when talking about My Morning Jacket, most specifically his Neil Young/silo-drenched reverb voice. When the band plays live you do initially notice James’ haunting voice through the bushels of hair atop his head and on his face, but slowly your attention spreads around the stage. A few songs in, you forget he is even out front. The band headbangs through the entire set (at least what I see of it) like they probably did as kids listening to their favorite Poison ballads. They drag out each song without pulling the thread out of its soul, and stop on a dime in the middle of their joyous collaborations. This is only the beginning of the chemistry they possess.
Playing their third consecutive Bonnaroo, My Morning Jacket epitomizes the reasons why a festival like Bonnaroo is such a memorable experience. They set the standard for the entire festival I think to myself as I lay in a patch of moonlit grass in the middle of nowhere Tennessee. And I can’t even claim to have seen the majority of their set.
Shame on me for puttering out, and blessed are those who stayed for its duration. This is a show that will be talked about by those who witnessed it for years to come, that much I promise you.
Check back tomorrow as PopMatters brings you all the action from Day 2 of Bonnaroo 2006
Bright Eyes with Gruff Rhys - Laura Laurent [Live at Bonnaroo 2006]
// Notes from the Road
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