My First Bonnaroo: Day Four With Kenny Rogers, Phish, Ben Folds, and the Beach Boys

My first and most striking impression from Day Four at Bonnaroo involves

Sarah Jarosz. She is impossibly young for someone who's earned such acclaim.

Playing fiddle at the helm of her ensemble, she dazzled the crowd in the Other Tent and happily returned their kudos. "This is one of the best crowds we've every played for," she said giddily. "Maybe top of the list. And I'm not just saying that!"

If she was simply catering to the crowd, she wasn't alone. That seems to be the common sentiment among the artists here at Bonnaroo. It certainly was shared by Delta Spirit, whose performance we caught briefly on our way to our next destination, a fleeting encounter with Gary Clark Jr., whose bluesy flash and deep soulful groove brought to mind a current incarnation of Jimi Hendrix both in his virtuosity and his daring. A recurring riff from Jimi's "Third Rock From the Sun" reinforced that impression, but Clark's confidence made it all the more credible.

It seems that short encounters were the order of the day today, given that we wound down to our final day of the festival and still had so many acts left to see. It was our final opportunity and our challenge to make the most of the limited hours we had left.

In truth, I greeted the coming conclusion of this experience with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret, because we were having so damned much fun. Relief, because it demanded so much effort and exertion. And on Day Four, we had so precious little of either left. By 2 p.m., it was time for one of the major events on the day's calendar, a news conference featuring an unlikely gathering of disparate performers -- Kenny Rogers (who to me seems somewhat out of sync here anyway), Steven Wright, Ben Folds, Pete from the band the Antlers, and the wide-eyed Sarah Jarosz.

A new supergroup? Wright, Rodgers, and Folds.
A new supergroup? Wright, Rodgers, and Folds.
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Surprisingly, it was Rogers who grabbed most of the attention, not only with the media inquiries but from his fellow artists and those desiring to get a photo taken with him.

Rogers: "This is a great opportunity to do what we do and share it with the crowd. I did the Stagecoach Festival a couple of years ago, and the crowd knew all the songs. I suspect they were victims of child abuse because their parents played my music and made them listen."

Wright: "I've never played a music festival before, but this is special for me. When I got my first big break on the Tonight Show, it was surreal. It changed my life. Kenny was one of the guests, and I ended up sitting between him and Johnny Carson. And here I am, sitting next to him again."

Folds: "I'm not big on festivals. I usually get to them right before our set and then leave right after. But Bonnaroo is a painless festival. I remember being at one festival and seeing Kenny's tour bus. Then I realized it was one of his accountants' tour buses. And I wished I was one of them." Then he leans over and snaps a picture of him with Rogers.

Jarosz: "Look who I'm sitting with!"

Rogers: "In the '60s, everyone was too stoned to know what was going on. Now at least they wait awhile before getting high."

So, what was the biggest revelation of the entire news conference? Kenny Rogers and Alice Cooper used to be golfing buddies. The juxtaposition of these two distinctly different individuals out on the golf course caused most of those in attendance to shake their heads in wonder.

In the presence of greatness: Lee is overcome by Kenny.
In the presence of greatness: Lee is overcome by Kenny.
Photo by Alisa Cherry

I lingered afterward, getting my photo taken with Kenny, sharing a few words with Wright, and getting this comment when I asked him about his source of such incongruous material: "I don't deliberately sit down and think up my material. My brain scans the universe, and it just comes to me. It's like a big rainstorm, a sudden downpour."

A wacky pair: JB Smoove and yours truly.
A wacky pair: JB Smoove and yours truly.
Photo by Alisa Cherry

I had other up-close celebrity encounters during the afternoon as well. There was the aforementioned J.B. Smoove, for whom I attempted my impression of him à la Curb Your Enthusiasm ("Hey, Larry, want me to take care of him for you, Larry?"), eliciting a good-natured chuckle. Then there was original Beach Boys guitarist David Marks, whom I congratulated for a superb performance and got a "Thank you, sir" in response.

By this time, it was late afternoon, and our chance to catch the remaining acts grew short. Sadly, I missed a bunch of bands I had hoped to see -- Bon Iver, the Civil Wars, Young the Giant, Kathleen Edwards, War on Drugs, ALO, and Here We Go Magic, among them. I was determined to see City and Colour, so while Alisa was prepping to shoot photos of the Beach Boys, I hastened over to the far reaches of the Other Tent to see them. Like the others before them, they attracted a sizable and enthusiastic crowd. The Bonnaroo audiences were incredibly knowledgeable, because without exception, they seemed able to sing along with everybody's songs, and City and Colour's amiable sound is all the more reason to encourage that communal spirit.

The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Sadly, though, I had to cut my stay short in order to journey from the Other Tent to the What Stage (there are those descriptive names again!) to see the Beach Boys. Still, I debated that choice, knowing that they'd attract a huge crowd and that, like before, I'd be a mile from the stage. Plus, we'd seen them only a month or two before, so there is an element of redundancy involved. But once I heard that roll call of classics -- "Heroes and Villains," "Sail On Sailor," "Sloop John B," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows," "Good Vibrations," "California Girls," "Help Me Rhonda," etc. -- I decided I made the right choice. Besides, I was able to sit in the stands on stage left, and while I was still a long ways away, at least I was comfortable.

I took a bad time to leave him, Lucille. Kenny Rodgers dazzles the crowd.
I took a bad time to leave him, Lucille. Kenny Rodgers dazzles the crowd.
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Next was time for final choices. Out of sheer curiosity, I opted to see Kenny Rogers, wondering what kind of reaction he'd receive from an audience at least a few generations removed. True to his reputation, Kenny had the crowd in the palm of his hand and singing along with each of the 21 number-one hits he promised he'd sing. OK, so no one was crowd surfing, but the reaction was pretty spectacular, and even when Rogers good-naturedly chastised the crowd for a poor sing-along attempt on "Ruby (Don't Take You Love to Town)" ("They sang that better in Tibet... and they don't even speak English in Tibet!"), the crowd seemed unfazed. Ironically, we were in the one VIP area that Alisa and I were tossed out of. So to the big burly guy in the green "Safety" shirt who threatened us with bringing in reinforcements to ensure we leave, you gave us our one rowdy encounter... And at a Kenny Rogers concert, no less.

Discouraged after that sole spot of rude behavior, we made our way over to the Which Stage, which again, because of its giant spinning question mark, should be called the What Stage. Never mind. It was way too late to be questioning such things. Ben Folds Five was holding court, having reunited for the first time in more than a dozen years in anticipation of a new album to be recorded later this year. Folds is a frantic fellow, a man who obviously enjoys his job and who attracts an audience that obviously enjoys the fact that he does enjoy his job. He bounced up and down at his piano, the rightful heir to Jerry Lee and Elton John, mugging, taking photos of the crowd and generally putting on a gleeful performance. For those unawares, the Ben Folds Five is actually only a Ben Folds Three, with both the bassist and drummer adding an extra measure of sound beyond the traditional role their instruments might otherwise allow.

Still, I couldn't resist asking an obviously enthused young man why it's three instead of five.

"Because it's hysterical," he responds. "That's all you need to know. It's all right there!"

And indeed it was.

James Mercer of the Shins.
James Mercer of the Shins.
Photo by Alisa Cherry

Meanwhile, the whiff of odors permeating the festival had passed from pot to pee to poop, the latter of which reinforced my abject disdain for porta potties. That unpleasantness aside, we had enough fortitude to see the Shins, who set a mellow mood and motivated more mass adulation. James Mercer played the perfect host, leading his reconstituted outfit through a generous selection of songs from their newest album, Port of Morrow, and doing it with a natural aplomb. The blissful vibe brought to mind a '60s-style celebration, with lots of tie-dye, long-hair, a couple of more topless women, and a stoned sensibility befitting the final hours of this Bonnaroo blast.

Phish only affirmed that feeling, but by now, we were beat and content to watch its performance on a big screen from the comfort of the hospitality tent. It seemed a strange remove, especially given the revelry that was taking place only a few yards away. But we'd decided that at that point, comfort overrules commitment. Even the unlikely and unexpected cameo by Kenny Rogers, who joined Phish for an unexpected take on "The Gambler," could do little to rouse us from our sedentary state. Phish are extraordinary, but the possibility of remaining alert throughout their four-hour state was slim indeed. We packed it up and headed out, bidding Bonnaroo goodbye and remaining glad we came.

An adventure ended, we can now say that even if we bungled our way through Bonnaroo, at least we endured. Almost anyway. 


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