Dr. John, The Meters, Pres Hall & More at Bonnaroo
June 9-12; Manchester, Tenn.
How deep and true is your love for live music? That question faces even the most resilient or chemically affected festivalgoers at Bonnaroo, the annual four-day fete in Manchester, Tenn., that celebrated its 10th anniversary this past weekend. Would you walk endlessly in desert heat for rock and roll? Stand until your lower vertebrae crumble in the name of traditional jazz and bluegrass? Inhale more dust than a barefaced al-Qaeda trainee to hear heavy metal? Become one with a never-ending herd of shirtless, sunburnt college boys to savor hip-hop? Simply put, the weekend is an endurance challenge, but, given the range and magnitude of the lineup, the rewards can outweigh the risks. (And the risks can be very real, as this year’s fest saw two fatalities.)
Bonnaroo began in 2002 as a jam-band fest and quickly morphed into America’s premier rock and pop event. This year’s lineup included everything from Neil Young, who managed to turn a reunited Buffalo Springfield into Crazy Horse, and Robert Plant to the anthemic indie-rockers Arcade Fire, rap superstar Eminem, country legend Loretta Lynn and the Swedish prog-metal band Opeth. Jamsters like Widespread Panic, the String Cheese Incident and Galactic remained staples.
Jazz and improvised music have figured into Bonnaroo in ways extending far beyond jam bands. In 2007, Blue Note Records sponsored “Somethin’ Else,” an air-conditioned tent decorated like a West Village club, and presented Robert Glasper, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Ravi Coltrane and others in it. That same year Ornette Coleman appeared on an outdoor stage, famously passing out due to heat exhaustion midway through his set. In 2011 jazz existed as parts of larger hybrids, some willful and some natural.
One of the more intuitive fusions of jazz and just about everything else arrived with banjoist Béla Fleck and his reunited original Flecktones, including bassist Victor Wooten, Drumitar mastermind Futureman and long-absent harmonica player and pianist Howard Levy. The quartet’s chemistry seemed wholly reestablished, on labyrinthine compositions whose strong, optimistic melodies kept the musicians’ virtuosity accessible. (There’s an Americana lilt to Flecktones music that can recall Pat Metheny at his most new age.)
During the 80-minute set, Fleck redefined bluegrass technique on acoustic banjo and got guitar-hero on his electric instrument, Futureman fooled anyone with a lousy sightline into thinking he was playing a real kit, Wooten was perhaps the most harmonically advanced groover ever, and Levy made his presence seem essential: On piano he played with a notey, rhapsodic sweep that recalled Chick Corea, and on the harmonica he transcended all comers—even Toots Thielemans—with his impossibly fast, fluid lines. (He did, however, still get in some greasier blues licks.) The “tunes” skipped around stylistically, from the funky “Sex in a Pan” to the Heartland-evoking “Big Country” (with guest fiddler Casey Driessen), and the improvisation was undeniably jazz-indebted—totally aware of the changes, devoid of aimless jam-bandy vamping. There were proper solo sections, but also nonstop embellishments in the nooks of the harmony. With all four members standing facing each other and playing with a chamber-ish temperament, the interplay simmered, exciting but soothing.
Collective improvisation was of course a hallmark during performances by New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who could have been called Bonnaroo’s house band for 2011. On Friday they even appeared onscreen at Bonnaroo’s Cinema Tent, in Preservation Hall: A Louisiana Fairytale, an excellent new film by photographer and director Danny Clinch. The hour-long documentary is partly a historical portrait of Pres Hall, its band and its founding family, the Jaffes, and partly a narrative about the band’s collaboration with rockers My Morning Jacket. The film’s overall arc is inspiring—no “What ever happened to the jazz audience?” self-pity here—and there are some genuinely intriguing details, like the fact that the vintage bullhorn used by MMJ’s Jim James was once the property of pianist and singer Sweet Emma Barrett. The performance footage, taped at Preservation Hall in front of a fervent audience, is clean and sharp and largely unfettered; fans of Robert Mugge’s docs will appreciate it.
After the credits rolled, the Preservation Hall band played a couple tunes, including “St. James Infirmary” with an emotive period vocal by Clint Maedgen. James was scheduled to appear but didn’t show, so fans had to wait until the end of MMJ’s performance later that night to witness a Pres Hall/MMJ collaboration in real time.
Only an hour before that main-stage appearance, Preservation Hall wrapped a 90-minute program with bluegrass sage Del McCoury’s quintet, wherein the bands collaborated and performed numbers separately. Despite some sound issues that presented a distraction early on, this union felt impressively focused and intuitive. Both sides were highlighted at the same time bigger points were proven—about the commonalities in form and feel among all American music, and about jazz’s ability to still function as a good-time vernacular music (like, say, bluegrass).
The highlights arrived early and didn’t cease, save for a hokey “official song” commission called “Bonnaroo (Feel the Magic).” On Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” a McCoury vocal, the integration was impeccable. During Jelly Roll Morton’s “Milenberg Joys,” the solos came in rounds, and each band’s top gun came to the fore: For Pres Hall it was trumpeter Mark Braud; for McCoury’s group, mandolin player Ronnie McCoury. Though the crowd here didn’t overflow as with so many other Bonnaroo sets, the reception was one of pure ebullience. Hippie kids danced to two-beats and bluegrass gallops, and soaked up some deliciously direct and inside traditional-jazz solos. (On “You Are My Sunshine,” trombonist Freddie Lonzo gave a clinic in the lost art of instrumentally dressing up a vocal melody.) Whenever Pres Hall’s Charlie Gabriel offered some of his hammy charisma, whether singing or on clarinet, the house came down.
And there were other New Orleanian delights to be heard. Guitarist and singer Jamie McLean, in a band featuring tuba player Kirk Joseph and keyboardist Ivan Neville, matched blues-rock with second-line groove. More of a main event were the original Meters, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, who recreated their work on the Dr.’s 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo—the record from which the festival lifted its name. (Toussaint produced that disk; here he played second keys and directed the music.)
The Meters (guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Ziggy Modeliste and organist Art Neville) opened the gig, and if you’re only familiar with the quartet’s classic instrumental R&B sides from the ’60s and ’70s, things have changed. On jams like “Africa” and “People Say,” the band sounded less nimble and more lumbering: Modeliste’s pocket was loud, large and rock-like, and Nocentelli outright shredded with a metallic, high-gain timbre that brought to mind Vernon Reid. It wasn’t your worn 45 of “Cissy Strut,” but it was excellent.
Then came a horn section, and two back-up singers, and John and Toussaint on opposing pianos, and the proceedings shifted back toward the mid-’70s. In the Dr.’s discography, the Desitively album follows the Dr.’s hit In the Right Place, and covers similar terrain: funky New Orleans rock with pop appeal punctuated by drifting, torchy detours. The funkiest material, like “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away” and the title track, fared best, but such slow numbers as “Go Tell the People” allowed the Night Tripper to thrive in balladeer mode.
After the close of the set came a surprise second-line parade led by—who else?—the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, from the site of the Dr. John show to a surprise gig by a rock outfit called “Portugal. The Man.” That trek might seem awkward and forced, but why not? Cross-pollinations and open minds are what this fest is all about, and, thank God, the sun wasn’t to rise for another few hours.