The Popkin Report: The Bonnaroo Experience

Written by June 15th, 2010 at 7:00 am

Matthew Popkin is American Songwriter’s writer-at-large.                                             (Photo by Laura Dart)

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DAY ONE

Walking along the unpaved and rugged road of Bonnaroo Thursday night, I heard a most melodious siren song. Little did I know that I was about to fall head over heels in love. Well, not really, but when there’s one girl in a band full of sweaty dudes, she becomes about ten times more attractive. And when she kills it on the drums? Totally unfair.

Just kidding, Tiny Animals. Sort of. Sure, the drummer was cute but don’t worry, fellas, you guys were handsome in your own right. And more importantly, the three-piece band put on one of the best shows I saw on the first day. They brought it, including a rocking medley of 80’s sitcom theme songs, which showcased my personal favorite, “Growing Pains.”

After their set, American Songwriter had a chance to catch up with Tiny Animals lead singer and guitarist Chris Howerton.

What did you think of your set?

I wouldn’t say it was our greatest set ever but it was definitely our most fun set ever and the most people we’ve ever played for. When you’re a perfectionist and you miss a note, you’re going to be disappointed but that was the best time I ever had in my whole life and Bonnaroo was amazing.

How’s your festival experience been so far?

We’re a small band. We don’t act like big shots or anything but we pulled in and said, “We’re an artist. Where’s the artist camping ground?” They told us, “Oh, you’re not special. You’ve got to park here with everyone else.” So we had to go to this mud pit where we got stuck and then they had to pull us out. That’s how our day started. And then we had to find the showers and it was crazy and hectic but then we get here and play this amazing show. Man, what a pay-off.

Do you feel like you won over a lot of new fans?

Absolutely. We’ve never sold this many CDs. It’s so great to be here because people are so into the music. We come from New York where people can sometimes be a little jaded.

How long have you guys been playing together?

Well, Rita the drummer is actually my sister. We’ve been playing together since we started playing music together in elementary school and Anton joined us maybe a year and half ago.

Are you protective of your sister of the road?

Oh, absolutely. You should see the guys who come up to her. We played D.C. a couple nights ago and this 60-year-old guy came up to her and shook her hand and grabbed it with two hands and said “You have cast a spell on me and I am still under it.” His wife was behind him and said, “Hey, wait a minute. We’re together.” My sister told her, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be alright.”

What’s next for Tiny Animals?

We’re going home and recording our second album. It’s got a real nostalgic feel and we have all the songs ready. We’re just going to try to make it the best album possible.

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After that, I headed off to see Mayer Hawthorne, who was dressed in his best Buddy Holly get up complete with those signature wide-rimmed glasses. He ripped through a set that went everywhere. Displaying his brand of Motown-era soul that hopped in a time machine circa 1967, Hawthorne led the crowd in hand-clapping and singing and just about everything else. Stand-out songs included the opener, “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” and the swinging “Maybe So, Maybe No.” His backing band, The County, dove into a cover of “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra and The Dream’s hook from “Gangsta Love,” as well as a shout-out to Hawthorne’s past as a hip-hop DJ with a sing-a-long of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend.” The crowd was jumping, fists were pumping and a few hipsters were even swing dancing way in the back.

The night closed with a core contingent of the American Songwriter staff catching the Wale show, which featured the worst hype man of all time. Here are your responsibilities as a hype man: 1. Get the crowd pumped. 2. Get the crowd pumped. 3. Get the crowd pumped

That’s it. That’s all you got to do. However, Wale’s DJ proceed to play snippets from songs the audience did not want to hear—stuff like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as well as that one Disturbed song about bodies hitting floors. People booed, which is the pretty much the opposite of being pumped. Our group headed backstage to watch the show where we saw a member of Wale’s entourage try to get a group of girls to let him pour a mystery drink into their mouths. They declined. That’s my Certified Good Call of The Night.

My Certified Not A Good Call of The Night happened right afterward when our managing editor and I attempted to return to his car where all our camping gear was. Oops. Probably should’ve done a better job, a) Remembering where the lot was and b) Remembering where exactly we parked in that lot since it was 3 A.M. and dark and muddy and somewhat scary because let’s be real—most people who are out and about at Bonnaroo at 3 A.M. on the first night have ingested something D.A.R.E. warned you about in middle school.

Finally, I gave up on our quest and headed to the other campground where the rest of our group was staying. Curling up with my backpack for a pillow and a coworker’s towel for a blanket, I fell into a deep sleep—one that lasted until the air inside the tent reached about 120 degrees, or if you prefer in a more standard unit of measurement, 7:40 A.M.

On to Day Two!

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DAY TWO

This past Friday will always been known as the day I set the world record for most unlikely pair of interactions with two different Bonnaroo artists in one day. But we’ll get to that later. First, a public service announcement.

For those not at Bonnaroo, it might be hard to imagine how hot it is here. Some of you might think that when I said it was 120 degrees in my tent, I was taking some literary license. Well, let me tell you something. It’s so hot here that people are going around topless! And some are even stripping naked like that fat guy who went streaking at LCD Soundsystem and got beat on! (An activity also known as my Certified Not A Good Call of the Day.)

Oh, what’s that? That’s normal for Bonnaroo?

Sorry for the mix up. Still, trust me when I say it’s ridiculously hot here. I escaped any damage by slamming water all day and managed to catch a full day of shows. First up was New Jersey punk-rockers, The Gaslight Anthem. Showing the influence of their fellow Garden State native Bruce Springsteen, they ripped through a set full of songs about blue collar guys doing blue collar things. Also like Bruce, Gaslight Anthem has the ability to put goose bumps on your arms. Their song, “The ’59 Sound,” is a must-listen. If you haven’t heard it yet, go do so now! I’ll wait here for you.

Gaslight Anthem also had the best line of the day. Upon seeing a New Jersey flag in the audience, front man Brian Fallon told the crowd. “I love it! A New Jersey flag. Yeah, I know what it looks like. But don’t go taking that to a [New Jersey native] Bon Jovi show. They’ll get nervous!”

Next, our team headed to go see Damian Marley and Nas on the main stage. With our super awesome passes, we got to watch the show from back stage, about thirty feet Nas and his blue Mets cap, Marley and his floor-length dreds and the one guy whose whole job was to wave the Jamaican flag all show long. As I looked over the sea of humanity and smoke in front of me—I’m pretty sure those weren’t cigarettes in the crowd—I was in awe. That feeling only increased when I spotted Marley’s bassist lighting up off-stage during his one song break halfway through the set. Again, probably not Marlboros.

Marley and Nas played selections from their new album, Distant Relatives—check out “As We Enter” and “The Strong Will Continue”—as well as their own hits, including “Jamrock,” “Made You Look,” and my favorite, “Got Yourself a Gun.” After the closing number—a cover of Damian’s father’s smash hit, “Could You Be Loved”—I exited with my head down, typing out a text on my phone. When I looked up, there were Marley and Nas walking right in front of me. I called out to the latter and he hit me with a head nod, giving me part one of my record-setting day.

Part two would come later. But first, I went to see The National. Having officially blown up with their newest album, High Violet, charting at #3 on the Billboard Top 200, the Cincinnati natives drew quite the crowd. Front man Matt Berninger was in fine form, pouring himself a glass of white wine on stage, throwing it into the crowd and then asking for and filling up the glass for the lucky recipient who caught it. Their performance of “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was outstanding and they kept the energy high despite the somewhat melancholy nature of their lyrics.

Then came the pinnacle of my Bonnaroo and maybe my life, courtesy of Interactive Editor Davis Inman, proud recipient of my Certified Good Call of the Day. Thanks to his timely phone call alerting me of my target’s whereabouts, I was able to snag a short interview with legend Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates fame, asking him about his songwriting habits and why he was about to play a show with Chromeo, electronic rockers half his age, and set my world record for strangest pair of interactions.

Can you tell me about Live from Daryl’s House [the video podcast on his website that features a different artist each month jamming with him] and how this all came about?

That’s a long question! Live from Daryl’s House came from an idea I had after going on tour around the world for years and years. I decided to bring the world to me. No audience, just sitting around with friends. Make some music. Drink some wine.

When you write songs, is it usually the music or the lyrics first?

Any way. It can come any way possible. Sometimes it will start with a riff. Sometimes a lyric. Sometimes a drum beat. Sometimes it will start with a melody. Any of the above is possible.

What are the common themes featured in your music and in Chromeo’s?

I think that there’s a certain, oh boy. It’s melody and funk married together.

That Philadelphia Soul?

Philadelphia Soul. That’s sort of the signature of Philadelphia Soul. Melody and funk.

Hall did not disappoint. He and his self-proclaimed brothers, Chromeo, played all the hits, from “You Make My Dreams Come True” to “Private Eyes.” While the crowd may have been there mostly for Chromeo, Hall’s catalog of songs blew their selections away. Even Chromeo knew what was up. At one point, their front man remarked, “When we wrote this song, I remember saying we needed a Daryl Hall style keyboard riff.” The moral: Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it doesn’t hold up well right next to the original.

With that, another day was in the books. I walked back to our campground and fell asleep to the sound of The Flaming Lips absolutely butchering The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. Thank goodness for ear plugs.

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DAY THREE

When is wearing a giant mouse head made of metal acceptable? What sort of supremacy is Stevie Wonder okay with? And what’s Memphis Bleek up to these days? Thanks to Bonnaroo, I can now confidently answer all of the above. Now that’s some interactive learning I can get behind.

The third day of Bonnaroo truly got started with the screening of the U.S. vs. England World Cup game on the outdoor Lunar Stage. Our American Songwriter team had just gotten done interviewing the British band Mumford and Sons, and ended up watching the game next to them. While the small British contingent celebrated their early goal like crazy, they were much quieter when the Americans equalized the score right before the half. Chants of “U-S-A” continued for the rest of the match and the game ended in a draw, which us Americans were far more excited about than our tea-sipping counterparts. Mumford and Sons recovered from this setback to put on what from all accounts was a killer set

I only caught one song, the raucous “Little Lion Man,” because I was on my way to see Los Amigos Invisibles. The Latin Grammy winners played their infectious dance-pop-funk mix for a crowd that made up for its small size with its enthusiasm. There was some talk-boxing and shirtless keyboard playing and some sick fuzz created by the guitarist detuning his strings while playing with heavy distortion. Check back here tomorrow for an interview with the band, in which they will have to defend their decision to cover EMF’s super-annoying hit, “Unbelievable,” (my Certified Not a Good Call of the Day) and answer to whether or not Christopher Walken would approve of their extraordinary use of cowbell.

If you’ve never seen the band, GWAR, you should probably do an image search. Fair warning—you might have nightmares for weeks since they dress like ten-year-olds who decided they wanted to be ridiculous demons with certain body parts way, way, way out of proportion for Halloween. One of the band members was in the press tent during the afternoon where he proceeded to talk about many subjects, including the tragedy that was Gary Coleman’s life, President Obama’s awesomeness, and how GWAR is the master of the human race. It was just as coherent a speech as it sounds.

The night and the festival peaked with last night’s headliners. First up was the legendary Stevie Wonder, who entered the stage in an all white outfit, jamming out on a keytar. He then sat down at his keyboard to began what was a truly a transcendent performance. From his rendition of “Higher Ground” to his take on “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” everything was picture perfect—the exact way you’d imagine a Stevie Wonder show would and should be.

Several times during the show, Wonder implored the crowd to not let any party split us up and turn us against each other. Before breaking out “Living for the City,” Wonder told the audience that the reason he was playing this song was to make sure we never went back to a time where racism was that prevalent. As he told the crowd, “If you’re going to be a supremacist, be supreme at bringing people together.”

I had the good fortune to be about five rows away from the stage and let me tell you, the atmosphere was electric. The crowd was urged to sing-a-long at every opportunity, which lead to some great moments during “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once In My Life.” His backing band was outstanding, especially his three back-up singers, who were breaking out classic Motown style dance moves at every possible occasion—they mimed “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” like you would not believe! Wonder even brought out a full choir and an ensemble of international drummers from all sorts of cultures—including Japanese, Indian and Native American—to accompany him on his last two songs. I can now proudly tell my way-off-in-the-future kids that I once saw the great Stevie Wonder play live, and that it might have been the best show of my life.

Notice I said it might be. Jay-Z sure did his best to keep up. I’d already seen him once earlier this year so I was a little wary of if the show would just be a copy. Well, it wasn’t. From rapping “Heart of the City” over a live sample of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” to bringing a birthday girl up on stage and having 80,000 people sing to her, the man put on a show. Hova and his special guest a.k.a. hype man, Memphis Bleek, played all the hits—“99 Problems,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”—and even broke it down a capella a few times. The highlight of the set was the rendition of “Young Forever,” not for the song itself but rather for the fact that Jay-Z got 80,000 people to put something illuminating in the air—lighters, cell phones, glow sticks—and then turned all the lights down and rapped in the dark, creating a field filled with bobbing lanterns. That was a pretty transcendent moment itself.

The night ended with me catching about twenty minutes of DeadMau5’s set, which consisted of a skinny white dude with a mouse helmet on putting on a rave for a bunch of kids absolutely going crazy in the audience. If there’s one lesson to take from Bonnaroo, it’s that I need to learn to DJ. Now. Kids just wanna dance and have lights flashed in their eyes until they have a seizure. In my Certified Good Call of the Day, I left before that could happen to me, content that the only lasting damage was seeing some spots on the long walk back to the camp.

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DAY 4

You want to know how crazy Bonnaroo is? How absolutely nuts it is going to see great band after great band amongst 80,000 people in the mind-melting heat? To have a security guard tell you that Jay-Z is the devil at 3 A.M.? To see a guy dressed up as Edward Scissorhands and not even flinch since that no longer makes the Top Five strangest costumes you saw this weekend? To forget that you even saw the Kings of Leon Friday night?

Yes, that last one is true and my Certified Not A Good Call of the Day. Only yesterday did I realize that I had completely wiped that concert from my mind. So to make up for my failings, here is my very short and very late Kings of Leon report from Day 2: “Sex on Fire,” “On Call,” “Fans,” and some new material, which our American Songwriter brain trust decided sounded like what would happen if you gave Brian Wilson a fuzz pedal.

But enough living in the past! Let’s get to Day Four, which started with me catching Tucson-based band, Calexico. They played their trumpet-and-guitar-heavy songs throughout the set, even breaking out into a prolonged instrumental that sounded a lot like mariachi music but with a much heavier back beat. This combination caused an onlooker to declare, “Man, this really puts me in a Quentin Tarantino mindset.” Other highlights included the drummer’s jazzy cross-stick technique throughout and a killer rendition of their song, “Man Made Lake.”

After the set, I headed back to the press tent to sit down with Los Amigos Invisibles guitarist, José Luis Pardo, whose show I caught during Day Three.

How’s Bonnaroo treating you?

It’s great, man. Festivals are the best opportunity for bands to catch fans that normally wouldn’t go to see them and to catch up on what’s going on and listen to a lot of music. We definitely prefer festivals to touring by ourselves.

Any acts you’ve particularly enjoyed?

I love Stevie Wonder. I mean, come on! It’s Stevie Wonder! We got to catch like an hour of Norah Jones, who we’re big fans of and I’m looking forward to seeing Phoenix tonight.

What’s your band’s songwriting process like?

We have traveling for together for almost twenty years now. Whenever someone comes with an idea, it’s very easy to give the rest of the band references like, “Ok, I got this idea. I want it to sound like Herbie Handcock,” and everybody gets it because we’ve been playing together for so long. Somebody comes with an idea or a lyric or a track and we work from references. Everybody brings their iPods and there’s a sound system in the studio where we rehearse so we can listen to tracks and say, “I’m imagining the bass like this, like how it is on this track.” It’s a totally collaborative process.

Who are some influences on your guitar playing?

That’s a tough question! I would say Prince and Santana.

Do you have a name for your move where you detune your guitar while playing to make that intense buzzing sound?

[laughs] No, I don’t. Make one up. You’ll have to make one up and make me look good.

You won a Latin Grammy. How are you trying to expand your popularity to some people in American that may not have heard of you?

We’re trying to get more of an American crowd. The easy thing with Los Amigos is to target it to a Latin crowd but we decided that we need to play more festivals like this. We love the jam crowd and we want to jump into it more like by doing a jam cruise this year.

What’s next for Los Amigos Invisibles?

We’re going to festival in Brussels called Color Café. Then we are doing another festival in Spain, and then we’ll be at Lollapalooza and Summer Stage in New York so we are doing a lot of festivals. As I said, we love festivals!

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My name for Pardo’s detuning guitar move? The One-Man Twilt-A-Whirl. If you’ve got a better idea, leave it in the comments.

After catching the only Blues Traveler song we wanted to hear, “Run-Around,” our group headed off to see another legend absolutely killing it on the main stage. Looking young at heart, John Fogerty went through all his hits from his Creedence Clearwater Revival days, including “Down on the Corner,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Fortune Son,” and “Proud Mary.” You name it, he played it. Literally, he was the one playing it, considering his two backing guitarists took no solos or main riffs—it was all Fogerty, all the time. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The guy can still tear it up! He even broke out some guitar tapping a la Eddie Van Halen at one point in the show. Fogerty’s vocals sounded just like they did forty years ago as he laid down covers of “Night Time is the Right Time” and “Pretty Woman,” as well as earning my Certified Good Call of the Day for breaking out his baseball bat guitar to play his hit ode to the national pastime, “Centerfield.”

My Bonnaroo experience was capped off with a great performance by Phoenix. Waiting in line to get backstage, our group spotted actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse, best known for his role as McLovin’ in the movie, Superbad. Just like us normal folks, he was seen rocking out as Phoenix played through every song on their new album as well as older cuts such as “Run, Run, Run,” “Long Distance Call,” and “If I Ever Feel Better.” At one point, lead singer Thomas Mars climbed the scaffolding at the side of the stage as the capacity crowd screamed their collective heads off. For the first time at Bonnaroo, I spotted people crowd surfing as Phoenix went into their smash hit, “1901,” which extended into a long instrumental encore in which Mars spun his mic around his head like a helicopter. As the sun went down and the guitar and synths strained towards that final note, the only thing left to do was to try in vain to soak it all in. Oh, and to begin making plans to go back next year. Bonnaroo 2011—start planning now so we can see you there!

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