…of Bonnaroo brought more heat and humidity, but it also brought some great headlining bands for the day, including The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, and Arcade Fire, who all played one after the other at the What Stage, the largest stage at Bonnaroo. Interestingly, a lot of bands that played Bonnaroo this year are part of the growing trend of bands building summer tours through festival dates, rather than the standard club/theatre/stadium tours. Last year, Ticketmaster and Live Nation took a beating as concert sales were down across the board. Festivals are way up, as more and more have sprung up in recent years and are basically supporting summer tour structures for all but the biggest bands. It’s a safer bet for the promoters and for the bands. Check out the NPR story “Summer Concert Season Gets A Reboot” here.
Arriving from the air-conditioned RV just for the tail-end of Grace Potter, I was immediately sorry that I had not arrived earlier. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals makes me think of Grace Slick and Led Zeppelin; ok, that’s a stretch, but Potter’s vocals are strong and piercing and powerful, and the Nocturnals are a really tight rock band. No wonder they have “graduated” to the main What Stage from the smaller stages they played in past years. This line-up at the What Stage for Day 2 was phenomenal, so it was the best day to stay and relax in one spot, though I did go see Atmosphere before The Decemberists at the This Tent and was definitely impressed and digging the hip-hop grooves coming from their set.
Next up was The Decemberists, who I had not seen before, but who I would love to see again. I was surprised by how great they were live and have been told by some of their hardcore fans that they have gotten much better on stage than early on in their career. Supporting their latest album, The King Is Dead and displaying their unique style of indie folk, The Decemberists played a number of songs from their new album, nailing “Down To The Water,” and some older classics like “Sixteen Military Wives” and “The Crane Wife 3.” Sara Watkins, of Nickel Creek, is on the Decemberists current tour and she provided superb back-up vocals and violin playing and sang a couple of songs, including “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga).” Colin Meloy is a relatively charismatic frontman and band leader, and shows that confidence on stage, as he daftly challenged Bela Fleck to a “pick-off” at the upcoming Telluride Festival a week later. Watch out Meloy, you may get what you’re asking for. It was fun theater on stage though, and it had the crowd roaring for the supposed contest. (Does anyone know if it happened? If you went to Telluride, let us know!) After dropping his pick at one point, Meloy called out, “Eat your heart out, Bela Fleck.”
I’ve seen My Morning Jacket five times; they are no question one of the best live bands on the planet, and while their performance at this year’s Bonnaroo was great, it was probably not one of their most inspired performances. Especially not compared to their almost four-hour legendary rager in 2008; you can download it here. Performing on the What Stage for the first time, My Morning Jacket played another great set, playing 22 songs in all over two hours, including the title track to Circuital, “Mahgeeta,” “Golden,” “I’m Amazed,” Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” “Outta My System,” And for two of the last three songs of the night, “Highly Suspicious,” and “Dancefloors,” the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who opened for MMJ on their last tour) joined them on stage for rousing, get-on-your-feet closers, followed by the guitar jam of “One Big Holiday” to close out their Bonnaroo exhibition. As usual, My Morning Jacket brought their big sound and a great show, but with Arcade Fire following them exactly an hour later, they seemed more tempered and controlled than they usually are. It was obvious that the Bonnaroo powers that be were keeping the bands on a pretty strict timetable, unless they were the last band of the night, and unfortunately even then in the case of Arcade Fire and Widespread Panic, What Stage closers on separate nights.
As Arcade Fire was coming up next, there was no need to get up and move anywhere, so I fortunately caught the horde of parachuters who dropped in from above seemingly appearing suddenly from what seemed to be just the dark cloudy night, as they filled the sky with tons of sparkly material that dropped on the crowd below. Just as quickly, they were gone, and we were left to wonder what was next. This stunt was definitely meant to appeal to a certain, um, segment of the audience.
Arcade Fire came out and took one more step towards claiming their rightful mantle of the biggest rock band in the world. Their show was a spectacle, with a light show, crazy film clips flashing by, and plenty of hits from their first and third albums. Their set ended in almost exactly an hour and a half, and either they could not or did not want to take advantage of their status as last band of the night, as they ended right on time unfortunately. I was hoping for more! Fireworks lit up the sky as Arcade Fire left the stage, which would be repeated after the Eminem show the next night.
Bonnaroo 2011 – Day 3
For the third day, we started to develop a schedule which included staying up to enjoy the late-night acts, and using the built-in generator in the RV or getting in any air-conditioned space in the early-mid afternoon hours to avoid the worst of the heat. (Make sure you go in with a full gas tank. They also allow two 5-gallon gas cans to be brought in; we only used half our gas, but we were conserving it our first day – that ended quickly.) It was still hot and humid at night, which even shows up as little dots in the pictures, but nothing like the middle of the day. This strategy meant missing a few bands in the early afternoon a few times, but to avoid the heat and humidity, and to make it through the rest of the day, it was a good way to go. There were people literally just laying around all over the place in and out of the shade in the early afternoon. Movement was pretty much too much to think about at that time.
If you enjoy acoustic music of any sort, and a great band with beautiful harmonies, then you have to see Alison Krauss and Union Station, featuring Jerry Douglas. That’s a mouthful, but Jerry Douglas deserves calling out. Union Station is an all-pro band, and Jerry Douglas is a master musician among the greatest on the planet on the dobro and lap steel. Alison Krauss herself has an incredible singing voice, and is an extremely talented fiddle player – or violin, depending on what style of music you like. Krauss has won 26 Grammy Awards, “making her the most awarded singer, the most awarded female artist, and tied for the third most awarded artist overall in Grammy history.”
Following Alison Krauss at the Which Stage was Mumford and Sons, Grammy and Brit award darlings (they won the latter, struck out at the former, but their performance during the Grammy’s raised their profile in the U.S. extensively) due to the huge success of their debut album Sigh No More. They had a HUGE crowd for their show, put at 50,000 by the Bonnaroo newspaper, and their crowd was as big as or maybe even bigger than the Strokes’ crowd on the last day. And while they were playing, Loretta Lynn and Bootsy Collins were playing at other stages at the same time. That’s rough. The crowd loved the Mumford and Sons show and they performed most of their debut album, including “Little Lion Man,” which the crowd sang along to and “The Cave.” Jerry Douglas even came out and joined them for “Awake My Soul” and Jerry Douglas and the Old Crow Medicine Show both joined them for their closer, “Amazing Grace.” Now that’s a down-home set. One of the best things about Bonnaroo is the amount of shows that incorporate guests from other acts also performing at Bonnaroo. You never know what you will get, and you’re probably missing another great guest star on another stage. As we were at this very moment. I’ll come to terms with it someday.
Buffalo Springfield played the Which Stage next. Why, I’m not sure. They should have been at the What Stage, the largest stage, but for some reason they were relegated down a tier. That was a mistake on the part of the Bonnaroo organizers there. They played a great set, and seeing the recently reformed band with Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay was a special treat. They played “For What It’s Worth,” and “Mr. Soul,” their late ‘60s rock classics. It was apparent that they had not spent much time playing as a group in over 40 years, as their seemed to be a separation and each member playing their pieces, though Neil Young did attempt to jam with Stills some, and called out to the crowd a few times. Buffalo Springfield was a very influential band, and their members were parts of Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young, Poco, and Loggins and Messina. Poco (Crazy Love) was formed from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield by original members Richie Furay and Jim Messina, and Loggins and Messina, with Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina had a number of hits in the ‘70s. Remember, “Your Mama Don’t Dance?” A lot of classic rock history was wrapped up in this set.
After Buffalo Springfield, it was onto Eminem at the What Stage. As a friend noted, Eminem’s vibe did not necessarily fit the Bonnaroo vibe. Eminem, though he put on a great set, has a somewhat more aggressive, even an angry vibe, and while that can certainly fit within rock and roll and rap, it definitely goes a little against the grain of the hippie, green, laid back vibe that Bonnaroo has cultivated. Eminem’s set was spectacular though; he was active and all over the stage. The stage performers were great and the whole thing was over the top with the light show, the video scenes playing out and the whole performance. Even if you’re not an Eminem fan, you have to respect his talent and stage skillz; they certainly pay the billz.
The late-night shows on Day 3 included another legendary jam band, the String Cheese Incident, who jammed for hours. The String Cheese Incident has a decidedly more folky feel to their jam sets than Widespread Panic, or at least they did for this show. More instrumental brilliance, and a Grateful Dead cover of “Tennessee Jed.’ Very appropriate. Although I missed the inflatable dinosaur that dropped down on the crowd during this set. You can purchase the String Cheese Bonnaroo show, and any of their other concerts, here.
Performing at the same time as String Cheese Incident were the Scissor Sisters at the This Stage and Dr. John (a 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee) with the Original Meters and Alain Toussaint at the That Stage, performing their 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo, the album that inspired the Bonnaroo name. The Dr. John / Meters / Toussaint show was great, with one of a number of full-on New Orleans blues sets at this year’s Bonnaroo. I hit all three shows and got a piece of each. The Scissor Sisters upped the sex quotient for Bonnaroo as Ana Matronic told the crowd that there were a lot of women at Bonnaroo who had dressed up like whores, and that was good. She then proceeded to tell everyone in the crowd to remove at least one article of clothing, which a lot of people did. And the sexual innuendo continued throughout what I saw of the set. Talk about loosening up!
Bonnaroo 2011 – Day 4
There was an exodus starting in the early afternoon on the last day, and everyone was asking each other, “when are you leaving?” “What have you heard is the best time?” A lot of people tried to watch a show or two, then take off, and beat the crowd and they seemed to be pretty successful doing that. But, to do that, you had to miss Iron and Wine, Robert Plant, Gregg Allman, The Strokes, Explosions in the Sky (they were great), the Annual “Super Jam” which this year featured Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys with Dr. John, and Widespread Panic. Are you kidding? I can see wanting to beat the crowds, but that’s a long way to come to miss all that. We did see some sulking among some groups that took off early, when not everyone was on board with the early exit.
I missed the Smith Westerns as they were one of the first bands of the day, and that was too bad as I really like the pop hooks and Beatlesque sound of their latest album Dye It Blonde. The first band of the day for us, Galactic, with their ninth Bonnaroo appearance, is an fabulous P-Funk influenced New Orleans soul-funk band. I’ve wanted to see Galactic for a long time, ever since I first picked up Crazyhorse Mongoose and their show was excellent, with rousing horns, killer backbeats and the powerful vocals of Living Colour’s lead singer Corey Glover. Really, Galactic is just a great, get up and dance kind of show, and Glover’s been joining them a lot recently. Maybe a full-time gig?
From there, it was off to see Iron and Wine, a band that I have just recently come around to. From the Decemberists, to Bon Iver, to Fleet Foxes, The folky hippie is definitely making a comeback in 2011, and you can add Iron and Wine to that list. The last album, Kiss Each Other Clean, has been much more accessible than Sam Beam’s earlier stuff, and the full folked-out countrified show his band put on was fantastic. Iron and Wine recorded a live album from Bonnaroo in 2006, and this marked their third Bonnaroo appearance. With this performance, they have definitely earned another spot.
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy seems a bit of a coup for Bonnaroo, though one of many in the festival lineup, and as Robert Plant said, “Most of us live near here anyway,” as several members of the Band of Joy live in Nashville. Once again, they were a fabulous act, with songs from the Band of Joy album, including “Angel Dance,” and a number of swamped-out reworked Led Zeppelin classics, leading off their set with “Black Dog.” The Zep versions sound so different, that for several songs, the crowd did not know it was a Led Zeppelin song until they heard the lyrics. One person actually said, towards the end of the show, “I wonder if they’ll play any Led Zeppelin.” Meanwhile, five Zeppelin songs had already gone by. Check out the Musichord review of a recent Robert and the Band of Joy show in Washington, D.C. here.
Before Robert Plant had even finished his show, I took a walk to check out The Strokes, a bit of a different band for the day, as few Strokes songs even touch four minutes, but they have that Ramones look and Albert Hammonds Jr.’s grab-you-by-the-balls rockin’ guitar licks and Julian Casablanca’s swagger which makes them a band not to be missed anytime anywhere. They played a number of tracks from their first album, which were clearly the songs that the crowd knew the best. When the Strokes get a crowd going, they get them going, the whole crowd was singing along for “Last Night” and they put on a good old fashioned rock show.
Sunset started to fall so I went from the Strokes over to see the Texas instrumental band, Explosions In The Sky, as I had been told not to miss them, and I was able to see why. At this point, I was employing the “hit-every-show-for-half-an-hour” methodology, so that I could experience some of each of the acts, before it was all over and time to go home. Explosions in the Sky had a Britpop turned to alternative hard rock sound, heavy on the guitar reverb, and keyboards and synthesizers, with a powerful instrumental show that made me want to pick up some of their albums asap.
The Super Jam with Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys was great. As Auerbach said, and I had imagined, “We had a great time working up these songs this week together, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.” How much rehearsal goes into a Super Jam must change every year, but the Super Jam is more of a commitment for the band members that play in it, as they can’t play with their regular bands, or play their regular sets. They have to work out what they’re going to play and how it’s going to work ahead of time, and I imagine sometimes it goes more smoothly than other times. It looked as if it had gone off without a hitch during this set, with the raw blues style of Dan Auerbach, and the New Orleans delta blues style of Dr. John melding into a great southern blues set. Auerbach’s slide guitar sounded awesome. Joining them were My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan and there was a surprise appearance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Widespread Panic, a Bonnaroo regular, closed out the show, and as usual, they put on a great jam band performance, playing a pretty diverse selection from their 11 studio albums, and closing out the show and Bonnaroo 2011 with “Love Tractor.” Bruce Hornsby, who played with his own band, came out and played keys on several songs and the crowd roared “Bruuuce!” when he came out. Widespread Panic was great, though this last show of the festival ended on a bit of a downer, as Widespread Panic played one encore, and then ended right on time, per the Bonnaroo schedule, which the fans did not expect. As the lights went on, they finally realized it was time to head out. And decide on whether to buy tickets for Bonnaroo 2012.
Oh, and check out youtube for performances from most of these acts, a ton of them have been posted, so go take a look, you may find it!
This year was the tenth anniversary of Bonnaroo and I emailed Gordon before I took off to get his take on any of the side stage bands that he really liked, so I could make sure to see any good bands that I might have otherwise missed. His reply was along the lines of, “That’s insane, too many good bands – but an awesome overload!” It is too many bands, and for every awesome band you see, you’re missing at least two other great bands. To really enjoy Bonnaroo, you have to come to peace with that. That’s not easy for a music-obsessed type of person like me or most people who attend these kinds of festivals.
Bonnaroo is an amazing event with a really eclectic lineup. While Bonnaroo started off ten years ago mainly focused on jam bands, the selection of bands now brings in acts as diverse as Gogol Bordello (gypsy punk), Arcade Fire (alternative rock), Eminem and Lil Wayne, (rap/hip-hop), The Decemberists, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and Iron and Wine, (bluegrass/folk Americana), String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic, (jam bands), and Galactic with Corey Glover from Living Colour and Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears (soul/funk/jams). With almost 175 bands performing over four days, that list could go on for a while.
Getting to Bonnaroo
Before I talk about the bands though, let’s talk about the experience, especially for anyone who has never been before. Over 85,000 people descended on Manchester, Tennessee this year, and between 75,000 and 85,000 have come to Bonnaroo most every year since it started in 2002. Arriving outside the gates at 2:30 in the morning, we then sat in traffic for three hours to get inside. That’s not as bad as some, as there were stories of five or six hours or more, though some who came later got in within an hour. Bonnaroo opened up earlier this year to hopefully spread out the arrivals. But, every car is “searched” on the way in by Bonnaroo staff, who are mainly looking for weapons of any sort, drugs, and glass bottles, which are not allowed, and this slows down the entry process. If you look like you don’t have anything you shouldn’t have, they probably will not even mess with you. If you roll up with beer bottles laying around in your car or RV and smoke rolling out, they may decide to search you a little diligently. Also, the police will be out looking for speeders on the way in. It’s good sport, some of the country roads have pretty low speed limits, and they know they may get lucky if they get a chance to search you, so watch out for that. One other way the police look to pull you over is if you violate the “move over law” which says you must move one lane over if you’re in a lane and there is a law enforcement or emergency vehicle on the shoulder. They sit there; you drive right by without changing lanes, and they pull you over.
The event is held on 700 acres, and much of that land is dirt and rocks. While a good bit is also grass (some of it is spiky grass that slices right through flip flops, watch out!), the roads are dirt roads that have golf carts and water trucks rumbling down them pretty constantly, raising huge dust clouds that roll into people’s tents – and lungs and eyes. Everywhere I went there were masked bandits protecting themselves from the elements. And be prepared to walk, it can be miles from your site to the Centeroo area (the fenced-in area of the campground where the bands play and most of the vendors are), and you may walk more miles going between stages. There are those golf-cart taxis though, in case you can’t make it. There are multiple options for where you stay at Bonnaroo, most people either camp or bring an RV/camper of some sort. There are also some hotels in Manchester, with the Holiday Inn recommended by Rolling Stone (better quality, after parties and, oh, available groupies).
I recommend the RV, as it gives you a bathroom (porta-potties in 95 degree heat and with almost 90,000 people?), a shower, shelter from the elements, and probably most importantly, air conditioning. There are no RV hookups for power or water, so you have to come prepared for that. This year, the heat and humidity was really bad in the afternoon, most likely leading to two deaths (possibly with a combination of alcohol/drugs) and I was told that the heat was even worse last year. However, this year, according to the Tennessean newspaper, “air-conditioned medical tents were taking in about 25 percent more people than in past years,” estimated Carl Monzo, director for Bonnaroo’s Emergency Medical Services. Bonnaroo offers a number of on-site structures that have air conditioning, a cinema building, a sports bar, etc., but they can only hold a small fraction of the crowds, and during the hottest parts of the day there were long lines, and you’re missing good bands then anyway. However, the ability to take that 20-minute walk back to your campground, or shorter, if you paid for a VIP ticket, and cool down your body temperature for a half hour or hour makes a huge difference. You can also have a much cheaper beer. And a much cheaper bottle of water, though free sulphur-tasting wellwater is available at fountains throughout Centeroo.
Handling the Bonaroo Schedule
For any music fan, at any given moment there are likely to be multiple incredible, must-see bands playing at the same time. Take a look at the 2011 schedule here. And, while I looked for the spot in Centeroo where I could just hear all the bands playing at the same time bleed into each other, that’s not very satisfying. This is a constant dilemma, and when you are with other people, it can be even tougher.
There are really two basic ways to see bands at Bonnaroo, or at any festival of this size. The size of the crowds is huge at every venue; with 80-90,000 people, there can be 20,000-plus people at even the smaller stages. Mumford and Sons had 50,000 people in their crowd, as reported by the Bonnarro daily newspaper and Loretta Lynn, !!!, Bootsy Collins and Wiz Khalifa were all playing and overlapping that same time frame. (Yes, that’s right, there is a daily newspaper provided by Relix Magazine and Jambands.com.)
Only a few bands played sets longer than an hour and a half. So, you can try and give all of the bands a half hour to an hour of your time, and work your way from the back up closer, (go up front on the sides, wait to see people walking out and walk in right where they came out) or you can just sit or stand further to the back, and then head to the next show. I did that on Saturday. But you can’t do that all the time; at some points, there are going to be some bands that you want to get up close to the stage to see better, or find a good place in the field and just stay there and enjoy the show. In that case, it is good to get to your stage at least 20 minutes early, if not half an hour or more, in order to get a good spot staked out. Pretty soon, another show is going to end and the hordes will appear at your show. Getting up close is a little easier at night, as being jammed armpit-to-armpit in a tight crowd of drunk, shirtless and profusely sweating teenagers in the blazing sunlight can even wear on the drunk teenagers themselves. But, if you want to sit, you will have to sit back a good ways.
The Stage Set Up
Bonnaroo has five actual stages, with two that are large outdoor stages, the “What Stage,” and the “Which Stage,” and three “Tents” that are large covered areas with stages on one end, a “This Tent,” a “That Tent,” and “The Other Tent.” Not the most imaginative names ever. Depending on the size of the crowd, the tents were mostly awful during the daytime, with poor lighting and huge dust storms if the crowd got going. The Tents are just large coverings to provide shade for the stages, but they have the stages set too low, and not nearly enough lighting to compete with the blazing sunlight seeping in. Combine that with the constant dust storms, and I literally could barely see the stages sometimes unless I was within a hundred feet or less. I saw two different bands at the That Stage in one day, the first during the day, the other at night, and the experience was completely different. The What Stage, the largest, was far and away the best stage, with a huge grassy field and two video screens, and that is where the biggest bands played – Eminem, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Robert Plant, etc. The Which Stage is the second biggest, but it’s on dirt and rocks, and only offers one screen. The Tents have no video screens, unfortunately. They need them.
What else is going on?
Bonaroo has so much going on, it could be spread out over months instead of days. They also had an air-conditioned Cinema Tent where classic movies were shown (like the cult classic Harold and Maude, 8 Mile, Saturday Night Fever, Ghostbusters and a lot more), Q&As with famous film personalities. Zach Braff took questions on Garden State, and John Waters discussed his many brilliant movies. There is a comedy stage with Cheech Marin hosting such comics as Kathleen Madigan and Lewis Black. There is also a silent disco which one does have to see, if not go groove within. It’s a covered, outdoor dance floor, with a couple hundred or so people dancing with headphones on. Anyone watching will hear no music, but the dancing crowd certainly can. It’s pretty cool to watch the people dance and sing along to the songs that only they could hear. There was a “Food Truck Oasis,” following the current trend of popular food trucks, great food everywhere (surprisingly) and pretty much at ballpark type prices. There was a “Broo’ers Tent” with numerous local and national breweries offering their beers for between $6 and $8. There were yoga classes every morning, art installations ongoing that you could participate in, and impromptu corner shows by fans who brought their musical instruments randomly just happening in the campgrounds. People like to wear crazy outfits as well; there was a man in a tutu, The Burger King man (how much did that guy pay for that outfit?!), Sylvester the Cat and a lot more. Though usually only at night time, it was WAY too hot during the day for costumes.
The Bonnaroo App
Bonnaroo has a smartphone app, which I downloaded a few days before the festival start. There were a lot of negative reviews, mainly around the fact there was no map yet, and in past years, the map was up earlier. So, the day before the start, while I was en route, an update was released with the map. Unfortunately, my phone told me the app was over 20MB, so I needed to connect to wifi or a computer to download. I was able to connect to the wireless provided at Bonnaroo, but it was either a poor connection, or there were just too many people on it, so I could never access the Internet at all to download the update – and because it was in the middle of trying to update, I could never even open the app the whole time I was there! I deleted it when I got home without ever even opening it.
The First Day
The first day had a shorter schedule than the other days, and no one appeared on the two main stages. Wanting to see some California surf pop, I made my way over in time to just see the last two songs from Wavves, and then went straight to the That Stage to see Best Coast. As Best Coast frontwoman Bethany Cosentino and Wavves frontman Nathan Williams are supposedly dating, it made sense to have them play on the same day, and one right after each other. Best Coast put on a great show that got the crowd going, but the sound quality at The Other Tent was not up to the quality of the main stage soundsystems, or even That Tent, the largest of the tents. Next up was Band of Skulls and the Walkmen. Band of Skulls blew the crowd away, as night had fallen, and the light show on stage helped give a spooky backdrop to the dark garage rock offered by the British trio of Russell Marsden (guitar, vocals), Emma Richardson (bass, vocals), and Matt Hayward (drums). Unfortunately, after Band of Skulls was done, so was I. I watched two songs from the Walkmen, and had to go pass out for the night. We drove (and waited in line) all night, set up our camping site, and then hit Centeroo, and I had hit a wall. You have to stay hydrated and you have to get your rest at Bonnaroo. The next day (and the day after), the shows started at 12:30pm and went till daybreak. The heat index got close to or over 100 every day, and the humidity hit you like a wet noodle. Alcohol (and other drugs) were everywhere, and that combination with the heat was obviously kicking people’s butts. I watched a pale redhead girl with no top stagger around one evening, and pass out drunk on the side of the road. Bonaroo security had already been called and they carried her away on their golf cart. I imagine she was pretty embarrassed when she woke up in a strange room with strange people around her…and with only one article of clothing on.
Next up, Days 2 – 4 in review. What do you think? Did you go? Have any Bonnaroo stories or pictures to share? Let us know!
My Morning Jacket’s latest album, Circuital, was released May 31st, and the hype machine was out in full force to promote it. And, for good reason. My Morning Jacket (MMJ), now on tour to support their latest release, has become arguably one of the biggest bands on the planet. And, in recent years, co-founder and lead singer/guitarist Jim James (or, on most other projects, Yim Yames) has done his part by putting his hands in almost every pot out there. Ranging from solo projects, (a George Harrison cover EP), side projects (The Monsters of Folk, with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, and M. Ward.), providing vocals for other bands (such as Dr. Dog and The Decemberists, just to start), to constant and intense touring, and even following Jack White’s lead and starting his own record label, Removador Records, James has been a man in motion.
With their latest, the southern rockers from Louisville, Kentucky, who have built a reputation for delivering unbelievable live shows, continue to turn out great rock and roll. However, if they are maybe a little less experimental on Circuital than they were on their last album, Evil Urges, it’s understandable. Doing much of the album in live takes, Circuital was mainly recorded in a church gymnasium in Louisville, and mixed in Nashville, and according to Jim James:
“Z was looser than Evil Urges. On Evil Urges, we deliberately tried to get it as exact as we could – which we had never done – but I think that for us, that was kind of a stressful process that we didn’t end up enjoying, and didn’t want to replicate. This process (recording Circuital) has been a lot more free. We found an organic space that was kind of our own – it wasn’t a normal studio – to really grow and make the record in, and explore by ourselves.”
My initial recommendation is to say buy this album; if you like MMJ, you’ll like Circuital, and if you don’t know MMJ, you will still most likely like it. It has all of the elements that have made MMJ the inventive, creative band they are, kick-ass guitar, great vocals, sing-along choruses that instantly bounce around in your head, and a mix of genres that they distill down to their own brand of rock and roll. But, if you don’t like MMJ, this album may not be the one to convert you.
While MMJ has laid claim to a certain sound that is all their own, there does not seem to be a lot of new ground covered on their latest. The music is great…but there are no real surprises and nothing quite jumping out at me musically. Certainly not compared to It Still Moves (with their masterpiece song, “Golden”) or Z. At the same time this is one of those albums that you instantly feel will take multiple listens to even begin to decipher and appreciate. That is certainly not a bad thing; as brilliant a band as MMJ is, their music makes a little bit of work worth it. Pop candy, it’s not.
The opener, “Victory Dance,” has vague elements of Pink Floyd, (as does “You Wanna Freak Out,” which honestly sounds like it could be a song from Ween), a Bob Seger classic rock feel, and sonic soundscapes that turn into a sped-up crescendo, before fading into Circuital, the title track.
The first single, “Holdin onto Black Metal,” is guitar led, but with added horns, bright harmonies, James’s high, taut falsetto, and a children’s choir chorus. In “The Day is Coming,” Jim James’s uproarious vocals seem to be an anthemic call to action, “The Day is Coming, the day is near..the way is clear.”
“First Light,” offers a Black Keys fuzzy-guitar sound, and hopeful outlook, and, like most of their songs, many jumping off points to grow into a killer ten-minute live jam. Circuital also has soulful and piano-based songs like “Movin’ Away,” a teary ballad to something we all must go through, a change in love, life, and home. “A new life to create,” sings Jim James in the album closer. An album which also clocks in as the shortest in the MMJ discography, about 45 minutes, as opposed to an average of an hour for earlier albums.
Circuital is an album of complicated textures, of multiple guitar riffs playing off each other, and music that veers from organized pop structures to thrashing rock and roll, to ’70s piano and acoustic, to funk and soul riffs, to old-school country to ‘60s-sounding Beach Boys melodies and harmonies (“Outta My System”). As my Musichord partner in crime Gordon noted to me after his first listen, “It’s kind of like if Radiohead made a country record. I can’t figure out if it’s alt country trying to be weird, or weird trying to be alt country?”
Good question. Melding all of these fantastic influences and sounds into a cohesive album that you can still sing along and bang your head to is really a big part of what makes MMJ great. Well, that, and their incessant touring and powerful, blow-it-all-out concerts that melt your face off.
A band that has achieved the success that they have, inevitably leads to a band trying to redefine themselves or struggling to find their identity, as success can’t help but change a band’s identity. Regardless, they are confident in their spot in the music world, the music they’re making and the music they are going to make, and while Circuital isn’t going to alter the musical universe, it’s one more bright spot in this band’s dazzlingly brilliant career and catalog.
My Morning Jacket, formed in 1998, is: Jim James/Yim Yames (singer-songwriter, guitars), “Two-Tone” Tommy (bass), Patrick Hallahan (drums), Carl Broemel (guitars, pedal steel guitar, saxophone, vocals), and Bo Koster (keyboards, percussion, vocals.)
Musichord Rating: 7/10