It wasn't easy to enjoy Sunday at Bonnaroo this year.
In Florida, a queerphobic gunman opened fire at an Orlando LGBT nightclub killing 50 people and injuring 50 more. My bisexual little sister had been to Pulse, the club where the killings took place, two years ago when she was interning at Disney World. Deeply rooted queerphobia in America and our nation's sociopathic obsession with guns robbed 50 people of their lives. 50 sons. 50 daughters. They're dead because our nation has a deep-seated hatred of those who just want to love a certain way...because they want to be true to their own gender identity and not let centuries of patriarchal and cisheteronormative oppression hold them back anymore. They escaped into one of the few sanctuaries our world offers where they can be who they are with no jokes, no insults...a place where they have love and acceptance waiting for them. And they're dead.
And while this violence rests on the hands of the shooter, this blood is also on the hand of everyone in America who refuses to stand up to homophobia when they see it. It stains the hands of every American who says they don't agree with homosexuality but they tolerate it because that base condescension is only hatred filtered through a half-assed attempt at being polite. And that blood drips off the hands of every person in America who is empowered by the queerbaiting sexual politics of hatred that the GOP peddles at every turn. America is a river of blood of queers, trans folks, people of color, and women because we can't put away our guns. Heterosexual, cisgendered men will kill rather than find room for other voices and other views in positions of power. We refuse to learn to love each other rather than fear each other. And until those in the positions to really make a difference take the right stands and force America to come to terms with its history of violence and oppression and exploitation, nothing will change. Orlando wasn't the first incident like this. It won't be the last, and if that thought doesn't break your heart, I'm not sure that you have one.
And if Bonnaroo ever needed to live up to its reputation of a community of music lovers that take care of us each other and if it ever needed to embody its ideals of radiating positivity, it was the slate of Sunday performances. Thank God, I managed to catch shows that embody everything that I love about that festival and the ways that music can lift us up in those moments that we need it the most.
Although I was born in the South and spent most of my life nestled in the hills of Appalachia, I spent the first 23 or so years of my existence actively raging against the music that my region helped to birth.
Commercial country music from the late 90s up until recently has been a bastion of the worst impulses of conservative and corporate American culture. Guns, misogyny, consumerism, xenophobia, jingoism. Any white person that ever criticized the violence of rap culture needed to take a good long look at country which was host to a glut of its own sins. And that horrific celebration of all of the worst parts of living in the South made any remotely progressive individual run screaming for the hills away from the genre of country on sheer principle.
But arguably the most important lesson I've learned in the last three years is how many great artists there are out there who can actually capture what growing up in the South is like...who can pair the majestic beauty of rural America with the economic devastation that plagues the folks who live there. The folks who get both the sense of community that small town America can foster but also the ugly ways that those small towns can begin to "other" folks that don't fit into its neat definitions. The South is a world of sweeping contrasts. Rolling countrysides, trees as far as the eye can see, space where you can actually live without being piled on top of one another. But it's lonely. It can be bereft of the cultural opportunities that folks in big cities start to take for granted. If you're queer or not white, there are so many people who will go out of their way to make you not feel welcome.
And although we're in a country renaissance fueled by artists like Chris Stapleton and the Lone Bellow and First Aid Kit, if there's a single performer out there who is capable of capturing both the romance and tragedy of the South in the elegant poetry of its dialect, it's Alabama native Jason Isbell.
A modern-day Faulkner, Isbell uses the lyrical tropes of classic country (drinking, death, family, work, America, love) and explores what they mean today. "Elephant" is a haunting treatise on watching a friend waste away to cancer. "Cover Me Up" is a naked tribute to the lengths one should go to be a better person for someone that you love. The title track of last year's Something More Than Free is how grateful we can be for a job and money to take care of ourselves and the ones we love even as that job sucks all of our energy and life from us and how f***ed up that whole situation can be. And all the while, he pairs it with the best of 70s country instrumentation and occasionally a bit of rock & roll for good measure.
And, live, it's impossible to escape the emotional authenticity that Isbell brings to bear in his music. When he sang about sobering up during "Cover Me Up," the crowd broke into applause and you could see that affirmation of his decision to clean up his life riding its way through him. As he looked at his wife who inspired the track, you could feel the waves of love and affection pouring off of him and how much he cared for her. It's in the quiver of his voice as he belts out "cover me up and know you're enough to use for me good."
I went into that set only knowing "24 Frames" and proceeded to spend roughly two-thirds of my eleven hour drive home from Tennessee on Monday listening to Southeastern and Something More Than Free.
Jason Isbell has arrived, and it's only going up from here.
"We will get by."
The Grateful Dead have been doing their thing for a long time. Coming up in the 60s alongside Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and his Merry Pranksters, the Dead help to represent the nexus between the philosophical intellectualism of the Beat movement and writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Boroughs and then the later hedonism of the hippie movement with which they are so often conflated. They were at the foreground of the psychedelic movement as well as the beginning of the rock & roll avant-garde, and although the band's lineup has shifted over the years and most of its founding members have passed away, those members that remain have stayed true to a musical and spiritual ethos rooted in warmth and love, and when Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, John Mayer and the rest of the newly christened Dead & Co. took the stage on Sunday for a marathon four hour set, their performance was a web tying generations of fans of live music that can uplift down through the decades.
That's one of the miracles of Bonnaroo. You see Paul McCartney in 2013, and he performs "Hey Jude" and you hear 100,000 people raining down the extended chorus of "Na na na na na na" and you feel connected to every single person for the last 50 years who has fallen in love with the Beatles. You hang out with a beautiful girl during Elton John. He sings "Tiny Dancer" and you can't help but fall for her a little bit. And every time you hear Elton John, your affection for that girl starts to swell inside of you and you think of all of the people whose romantic affections are directly tied to his music. You dance in the rain to Tom Petty and "American Girl" and you feel the decades of pleasure he's brought to folks who love rock & roll. And for four hours, the Dead brought thousands of new fans into a world that is downright spiritual for many of their most dedicated followers.
It's impossible to discuss the Dead without discussing drugs. But in a weekend that saw folks abusing the worst of drug culture (the aggressive "raging" of fans of uppers in particular), my observations with the Dead were community and sharing driven. Fans who had grass and rolling papers but didn't know how to roll a joint were finding friends and strangers to share with who could help them out. Folks that were clearly high might have been stripping down to their underwear and dancing but they were dancing in respectful, ecstatic harmony. And considering four hours of music is a lot for even the most dedicated fans, it's hard to blame folks who want to slide down into a world where the loose and fluid jams of the Dead begin to match the loose and fluid worlds of their own chemically enhanced perceptions.
I've never been a Deadhead although American Beauty is one of my favorite records. But while it's okay to find the Dead's extended jamming to not be your thing, there's little question that this current incarnation of the band is overflowing with some of the best improvisational rock musicians on the planet, and that they could hold our attention for those four hours is as high a testament to their talents and impact as one can give.
I also saw Father John Misty on Sunday. His hyper-emotional and intimate songwriting paired with his sardonic and witty use of genre and showmanship was a fascinating intellectual exercise if not quite as moving as Isbell or the Dead. But Misty's live shows should put to rest any notions that he's an ironist. His music is deeply felt. But, like comedians such as Louis C.K. or Woody Allen, he wraps those feelings in tragicomedy (and then throws in a little classic rock showmanship pizzazz for good measure). And although he may seem like the new spokesman for Brooklyn hipsters, there's too much sincerity in J. Tillman for that crowd.
But Bonnaroo is done. I'm home. My rental car which was covered in a thick layer of dust is back at the dealership. I've showered for the first time in nearly a week. I've had actual meals and not festival food. I've said goodbye to the friends I made for the first time this year who I hope stay a part of my life to come as Bonnaroo friendships tend to do. I know I have a comical backlog of records I need to listen to that I want to really get to know after all of the great sets I caught this weekend. I pray that my sunburns heal quickly and with as little pain as possible.
And I know that Bonnaroo's tough and this year's extreme heat made it that much tougher. But I know deep down that I'm never going to escape the Farm.