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Bonnaroo Friday evening: Gillian Welch, Tool, and an attempted Incident

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Stringcheese_lAfter more than 12 hours on the farm at Bonnaroo yesterday, my darling, pocket-bound PopWatchers, I am sad to say that I headed home and before blogging or even uploading pictures this time, I collapsed. Yesterday, Friday, was the first full day of activities at the fest, running from noon until 3:30 a.m. Even if I’d wanted to take in everything, I could not. I’m just one tiny drop in this Bonnaroo bucket, and walking around the grounds seeing people of all shapes and sizes letting their freak flag fly at whatever level they’re comfortable — from topless guys to, well, topless girls — it just makes me feel happy to be a small part of it. And also happy I eventually graduated and moved on from art school, because holy white-girl dreads does that stuff get old after a while.

So much to say about the latter half of my Friday: Dierks Bentley rocked, I tried very hard to get into the String Cheese Incident (pictured), and, amazingly, Gillian Welch surpassed expectations. Check in over at our Flickr page, and then stay tuned after the jump to hear about all of that… plus a 24-year-old named Mike explains Tool. TOOOOL!!

addCredit(“String Cheese Incident: Jun Sato/WireImage.com”)

I’m currently sitting side-stage for Dr. Dog — thanks for the bonus credential, people who helped get me a bonus credential — and I like it! Cold War Kids do not lie! The boys are wearing their playoff beards, and so I can’t help but think they’re like a more forthright My Morning Jacket. I like it, especially the vocal harmonies I think they cribbed from old girl groups.

Speaking of harmonies… oh, PopWatchers. When last we spoke, I was gearing up to see Gillian Welch for the first time in countless years, having scheduled myself out of her set at the other festivals so far this year. Well, that wasn’t happening again. I marched myself right over there yesterday and stayed for the whole thing, start to finish: “Orphan Girl” to “Jackson,” the latter with special guest John Paul Jones (who G.Welch dubbed “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Bluegrass,” and who would live up to the first half of that title later in the evening when he anchored a slick “Good Times Bad Times” at the Superjam).

But hey, Gillian Welch and long-time guitar buddy David Rawlings really don’t need any guests to be special in their own right. Their voices blend perfectly with one another, Gillian keeping perfect rhythm on her guitar while Rawlings handles the complex, always-unique solos on his. Her stage banter is dry and self-deprecating, whether introducing “Elvis Presley Blues” as “a song about dead guys, which always makes me want to party harder,” or describing “Everything is Free” as “this one starts out kind of slow and then fizzles out altogether.” (No worries on that song. It’s got one of my favorite lyrics of all time in “never minded working hard/it’s who I’m working for.”) It was especially nice to see our Americana princess smile, as her jaw seems so often set in a dour place. But when JPJ was onstage — first for “Look At Miss Ohio,” then “Wayside/Back in Time” — she looked positively thrilled to have his mandolin in the mix, and he and Rawlings played off one another like lifelong bandmates. But what got me, again, were those harmonies: How they softened Radiohead’s “Black Star” into a lullaby, or the way when Rawlings took the lead on “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” — which he penned with Ryan Adams — his voice, so comfortable on the high harmonies, sank someplace guttural, allowing Welch to come in above him and give my heart the flitters. Their driving jam in the middle of “Revelator”  — full of peaks and valleys like the Tennessee hills — nearly floored me, and by the time things closed out with “I’ll Fly Away” and the aforementioned Johnny Cash song, I was blissed from head to toe. And as for Gillian’s constant references to feeling awkward playing her soft, sweet music at these festivals (where it seems like every time they perform, “next to us is, like, the Who”): I wouldn’t worry about it, darlin’. You held your own just fine, and the crowd let you hear it.

A lot of those same folks stuck around the tent for country superstar Dierks Bentley, who came up next. I sort of love the guy — mine is not an unbiased perspective — but I was blown away at the deafening enthusiasm of the crowd. I think the Bentley team wasn’t so sure what to expect, being the only mainstream country act playing this very alternative festival, but I can attest to the fact that the response to hits like “Every Mile a Memory” and “What Was I Thinkin'” was as loud if not louder than anything I’d heard up to that point. Another good sign: Dierks’ wife noticed a girl hula-hooping to the music — hula hoops being to girls at Bonnaroo what devil sticks are to boys — and there were, by my count, at least four topless women on their boyfriends’ shoulders, happily exposing themselves to Mr. Bentley. Some had body paint covering their bosoms. One especially notable girl did not. It was very much like Girls Gone Wild for a second there. But the best moment of the show, for my heterosexual female money, was a short intro of Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” bleeding into Bentley’s “Settle for a Slowdown.” It started with a low, mean rumble, like a semi engine idling in a dark truck stop, and then tapered off into the latter song’s mournful bass line… perfection.

After a quick dinner stop with the Dierks crew, I took a deep breath and headed for Tool. (TOOOOL!!) I have no idea what to say about that show, really. I saw Tool at Coachella ’06, and this seemed remarkably similar — creepy videos on the jumbotron, and a wall of mechanical, throbbing sound emanating from the distant stage. Here and there I picked up songs I knew —”Schism” being the only title I can pull out for ya right now — and mostly I just sat (illegally) on a fence outside the press tent, which I was soon asked to GET OFF of, and which I returned to 10 minutes later after going into the pit and watching a bunch of kids pass out. Of course, I was immediately asked to GET OFF again (there were other people sitting up there, by the way, it wasn’t just me getting busted), but the fence was the best vantage point I could find. Tool, for me, requires a bit of detachment. I eventually sucked it up and headed back into the crowd, only to find myself standing next to a skinny kid named Mike, who graciously took me under his wing.

“Is this a good Tool show?” I asked him.

“Oh, with Tool, don’t worry about it,” he replied. Apparently, they always sound very much the same, and it’s the crowd that changes the quality of the show. (Mike would have preferred the 80,000 people in the field to be throwing more glowsticks than they already were, or at least pulling up the grass or something.)

“Right,” I said. “But what is it about their music that appeals to you?”

Mike smiled. “You probably just hear, like, droning noise, right?”

“Well, I mean, I like some of their songs when they’re on the radio, but this just all runs together.” 

“Look,” Mike said, patiently. “It’s the time signatures. You can’t just zone out and listen. These songs are written so they’re a little off. They’re not in 4/4, they’re in, like, 11/8. It’ll hurt your brain. Listen to the cross rhythms, the drums and the guitar.” At this point, he was leaning into me, tracing the rhythmic shifts in the air. “There,” he murmured, pointing. “There. There. Do you see?”

Weirdly… I did. I asked him if the lyrics were important. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Every song is about something. Like right now, this is one of my favorites. “Aenima.” It’s about California falling into the ocean.” And then he sang, quietly, into my ear, with a clean, clear, boyish voice: “F— these dysfunctional, insecure actresses.” And for the first time, I could understand Tool lyrics. And almost, I could understand Tool. Almost.

(Bonus points to Mike, by the way, for thinking I was 23 years old. Seriously sweet kid. Thank you, Mike. TOOOOOL!!)

The night wrapped up with a tired, dazed, sleepless wandering through the many midnight options: Superjam, featuring Ben Harper, John Paul Jones, and ?uestlove bluesing happily through Zeppelin hits; the rap of Aesop Rock; and finally, the longlasting jam of the String Cheese Incident, who I stood and listened to for as long as I was able. (My legs would not carry me to STS9, as we’d passed the 12-hour mark and I was bobbing and weaving a bit as I traveled through the crowd, a dangerous and slightly intoxicating activity, my eyes wavering between decent night vision and total blindness thanks to golf-cart headlights, flamethrowers, kids wearing headlamps, and a barrage of glowsticks.) I didn’t hate String Cheese Incident. But something about their traditional hippie sound was making my eyes feel heavy, and so I stepped around the twirling dancers and the passed-out revelers, and hit the parking lot. My car, for the record, had not sustained any further damage.

Okay! It is now the middle of the day on Saturday, and I’ve got lots to see: Regina Spektor, Ziggy Marley, the Hold Steady, Spoon, the Police, and the Flaming Lips. Here’s hoping my good mood holds, and this fancy credential does its job. I’ll try and get pics of Sting & Co and post them… but I’ve no idea if that’s really possible. Once again, fingers crossed. I would also like to thank Jon Pareles of the New York Times for making me feel like both a slacker and a sucker. His posts are numerous, concise and beautifully written. Oh, to have that ability, PopWatchers.

And here’s your question for the day: Tomorrow, between 4:30 and 8:45, I need to see the Decemberists (with special guest Mavis Staples), Wilco, Feist, Ornette Coleman, and the White Stripes. They are all essentially playing at the exact same time. Any suggestions for how to pull that off? Cloning techniques? Transcendental meditation? Come to think of it, there’s probably any number of people here who can help me with that last bit…