By Jim Fusilli
At Bonnaroo on Friday afternoon, there was an opportunity to good to pass up: To see if bands whose new albums are sure to turn up on many fans’ and critics’ “best of ‘09” lists play as well live as in the studio.Doing so meant passing up a chance to see an impressive collection of artists from West Africa – Vieux Farka Touré, Toumani Diabate, King Sunny Adé, among them. These days at major festivals, you can drive yourself to immobility by trying to choose exactly who to see at what time. As I sat in a sun-strewn field surrounded by a crowd thrilled by Animal Collective’s brand of electronic psychedelic jamming, as exemplified by their recent “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” considered the first great album of ’09, I was thinking, “I could be watching young Touré now and soon Diabate will be playing with Béla Fleck…” With Animal Collective, the new album works but the live show felt unfocused and pointless.
But my decision paid off. On a stage that presented performers selected by David Byrne, the Dirty Projectors mixed syncopated West African rhythms – yep, irony – with Byrne-like melodies and vocal harmonies that reference ‘50s pop and ‘60s soul, topping their work on their new, very enjoyable “Bitte Orca.” In the song “Stillness is the Move,” the two guitars played repeated figures in the highest register, approximating the West African lute known as a kora – irony again; Diabate is a master kora player – as high vocal harmonies soared above the ringing notes. Byrne, looking very much the happy patriarch, joined the group for its finale, “Knotty Pine” from another fine album of ’09, the multi-artist compilation “Dark Was the Night.”
St. Vincent, a project lead by Annie Clark, followed with a set of sophisticated, often elegant, often startlingly aggressive rock largely culled from her excellent new album, “Actor.” Clark is a wonder – she steps on the stage with a quiet, seemingly gentle demeanor and soon she is unleashing buzz-saw torrents on guitar. Or singing quietly and gentle to her chamber pop. Here, her guitar locked in with a violin, plucking notes under a flute; suddenly, she stepped on a pedal and her guitar let out a roar over pounding drums. Then a lovely ballad. I know her work quite well, I think, and yet I was repeatedly surprised by her performance.
On another stage, Grizzly Bear was playing tunes from its new “Veckatimest,” a terrific album that sounds even better live. The quartet is remarkable composed as they, even at the most assertive moments, let their indy rock unfold, which creates a joyfully tense underpinning for their complex vocal harmonies. I’ll concede a bias to this type of clever, textured, timeless rock and pop, which delights in its own ingenuity without arrogance, but I’d still call Grizzly Bear’s the best set I saw yesterday. At one point, I noticed the photographers pit was empty, so I crouched down, crab-crawled through the mud and sat directly in front of the stage; for a few songs, it felt as if the band was performing only for me. Until the crowd behind me burst into rabid cheers at the end of each shimmering song.
I bypass Al Green’s set to see TV on the Radio, whose album “Dear Science” was at the top of many “best of ‘08” lists. I find the band to be so challenging as to require concentration and reflection: There is so much going on in their music and so many influences distilled into a singular sound that I can’t comprehend all they’ve doing. At one point, I focused on the free-jazz squeals on the saxophone. Later, I tried to anticipate the sudden shifts in tempo. Then follow the different vocal lines. Then the raspy, syncopated guitars. I’ve seen the band several times now and I always come away with the same impression: that was too much, and great.
Byrne’s band followed TV on the Radio and he immediately demonstrated why he is godfather to many of the musicians I followed today. In succession, he performed “I Zimbra” from Talking Heads’ ’79 release “Fear of Music,” which merged art rock and world rhythms; “One Fine Day,” a beautiful ‘50s-style pop ballad with African-influenced vocal harmonies; and “Help Me Somebody,” from “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” his ’81 project with Brian Eno that married electronica and ambient music with African and Brazilian polyrhythms. I luxuriated in the richness of his work, grateful for the reach of his influence 30 or so years after he first appeared on the music scene.
Still, a tinge of regret: How was Touré, Fleck and Diabate, King Sunny Adé? When will they appear in the States again? And in one place?