From the Thursday ‘Bonnaroo Beacon’: Desitively Bonnaroo
Dr. John, Bonnaroo 2011 (Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola)
“Ain’t never was, never gonna be, another big shot like me.”
So sings the late Mac Rebennack—better known as Dr. John, The Night Tripper—on his song “Big Shot,” which appeared on his 2012 album, Locked Down. And Mac wasn’t lying. The legendary New Orleans singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, voodoo shaman, etc., who passed away at the age of 77 last week, mined the swampy depths of the Louisiana Bayou to produce some of the most influential funk, boogie, and rhythm and blues music of his time—including, as many of you probably know, the record that gave Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival its name, 1974’s Desitively Bonnaroo.
The exact definition of that album title has been debated somewhat over the years, partly because some try to attribute it to French and/or Cajun when, really, it seems like it’s simply just laid-back Louisiana slang for “positively the best.”
Quite a fitting phrase for this weekend, don’t you think? Well, the founders of Bonnaroo, it probably goes without saying, tend to agree.
“I’m a huge Dr. John fan,” says Ashley Capps of the the Knoxville-based promotion company AC Entertainment, which co-founded Bonnaroo with its NOLA counterpart, Superfly, in 2002. “I saw Dr. John when I was in high school—and I’m an old guy—back in the early ‘70s, when The Night Tripper would come through town and play here at the [Knoxville] Coliseum. I had this tiny club for a while that held 200 people, and one of my most memorable Dr. John experiences was when he came in there and just did a solo piano show. I was reminiscing about this the other day. It was just an unforgettable evening and one that I remember like it was yesterday—sitting in the dressing room and listening to him tell these amazing stories. Dr. John was like a walking library of American music. He embodied so much about the spirit of American popular music, and he had it—literally—at his fingertips.”
And, though Dr. John has passed on from this life, his influence and presence—along with his impressive catalog of songs—resonate. Just earlier this week, it was even reported that a final album from the icon, featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville and more, will grace our ears soon enough. But, for now, The Farm seems as good a place as any to celebrate Mac’s memory.
“Obviously, the festival is named after one of his albums—and there’s that show that he did with The Meters, where they recreated Desitively Bonnaroo, which was one of the epic moments of Bonnaroo history,” Capps continues, referencing Dr. John’s 2011 Bonnaroo performance with the equally legendary band that backed him on the original album. “Remembering his legacy is really important to us. He just embodied so much of what the festival itself hopes to capture.”
This year, which marks Bonnaroo’s 18th return to Manchester, the festival continues to showcase the inclusive, expansive and—above all—celebratory spirit that has brought thousands of music fans to the middle of Tennessee for nearly two decades, and there’s more to enjoy on The Farm than ever.
One of the main additions to Roo in 2019 is Where in the Woods, which can be found near VIP camping and south of Plaza 2 and promises to “transform the forest into an unforgettable magical landscape for late night fun and day-time escape from reality,” offing DJ sets, late-night dance parties and, during the day, a welcome and entertaining respite from the summer sun.
“As in recent years, most of the fresh action is in the campgrounds,” notes Superfly’s Kerry Black. “Where in the Woods will bring to life an epic wooded area that has never been open to the entire festival. I have always dreamed of seeing a venue like this at the festival since seeing The Glade at Glastonbury many eons ago.
“And, dear to my heart, I love seeing that New Orleans will continue to be strongly represented with Bayou Libre at Plaza 9 curated by Freewater,” Black continues. “I am especially excited to see their take on Beignets and Bounce!” (Don’t miss the powdered sugar–covered deliciousness this evening, 5–7 p.m.) Also, the Christmas Barn interior has gotten a face lift and will feature some unique programming like the Kasvot Växt party—make sure to don your finest whites!”
Black is referring, of course, to tonight’s tribute to Bonnaroo headliner Phish’s 2018 Halloween performance, when they “covered” the obscure, early ‘80s Scandinavian band Kasvot Växt’s album, í rokk (spoiler: it was actually a collection of brand-new Phish tunes). The event’s curator, DJ Uncle Jesse Lauter, promises a “blend of Scandinavia’s funkiest, Trans-European contemporaries of the band, modern artists influenced by the Växt, and little påskäggs [Easter eggs] from that time Trey, Page, Mike and Fish paid tribute to Jules, Cleif, Horst and Georg.”
Besides the triumphant return of Phish, who are playing Bonnaroo for the first time since 2012, and among the many, many artists to see on The Farm this weekend, Capps has some suggestions.
“I’m thrilled that we have the Grand Ole Opry back, kicking things off tonight,” he begins. “That was a really exciting step for us last year, a tremendous musical tradition as well as a Tennessee tradition. And there’s so many bands that I’m excited to see. The Comet Is Coming, who are also playing tonight, I’ve had the opportunity to see those guys several times in the last few months. What a way to kick off the festival. Those guys are going to take us all into orbit—such an incredible band. I’m thrilled that Solange is finally coming back to the festival, and it’s great to have Childish Gambino back. And, of course, Phish—finally, again, after all these years.”
Among other new highlight offerings—and possible future Bonnaroo staples—is The Farm’s first-ever Pride Parade, brought to you by Brooklyn’s House of Yes on Saturday afternoon. Capps calls the decision to host the celebratory event a “no-brainer,” not to mention the fact that Bonnaroo—in true New Orleans fashion—has always been quite fond of parades.
Looking back on 18 years of Bonnaroo, Capps notes that most people thought the festival’s founders “were crazy” back in 2002, but here we are, in the midst of yet another run of festival-filled spring and summer months around the country.
“The entire festival landscape has transformed, and it’s really remarkable to have been at the forefront of that transformation,” Capps reflects.
But you won’t catch Bonnaroo’s curators trying to maintain the status quo just because they’ve had some successes in the past.
“The beautiful thing about the world of art and music is that it’s continually reinventing itself,” Capps says. “New artists and new ways of making music are emerging all the time. Keeping a finger on the pulse of all of these exciting new developments, while remaining true to that core spirit of creating an amazing festival experience, is really at the heart and soul of what we do. And there’s no formula to it. I’d love to tell everybody, ‘This is how we do it,’ but we experiment, and some experiments work out better than others. I think the audience knows that we’re really committed to making Bonnaroo an absolutely, fabulously unforgettable weekend experience.”
And some of this year’s plans might still be on the way. When asked about a possible tribute to Dr. John this weekend, Capps offers, “We’ve been conjuring up a surprise or two, but they’re still in the works—we’ll see what happens…”
Welcome—or welcome back—to The Farm, everyone. Without a doubt, this weekend promises to be desitively Bonnaroo. Laissez les Bons temps Roo-ler.