Bonnaroo

[Ancient Faith Radio; June 21, 2007]

Frederica: I’m sitting here on the sofa in the blue room in my house with my son Stephen, who has a red wristband on that says ‘Bonnaroo.’ Does it say ‘Bonnaroo 07’ or just ‘Bonnaroo?’ 2007. And on the other sofa is Jocelyn, I think fast asleep. Yeah, she’s fast asleep. They’re exhausted because last night at this time they were just getting in the car to leave the Bonnaroo music festival and they had an 11-hour drive and have done laundry and a number of other things in between. Steve, when was the first time you and Jocelyn went to Bonnaroo?

Steve: We went in 2004. The festival has been going continuously since 2002, and the first time was 2004 for us, it was serendipitously it was just a week after our wedding, so we had already been planning on going, and we kind of factored it into our honeymoon, I guess you could say. Kind of as the centerpiece of us having a nice couple of weeks out in the woods in Virginia. We went down to Tennessee to the festival and really enjoyed it and have been going every year since.

Frederica: You made that a tradition ever since.

Steve: Yeah. You know, one honeymoon every year is a good way to do it.

Frederica: Sounds pretty good. Well, this year’s special because Jocelyn’s pregnant for the first time. She’s, I guess, three or four months pregnant now, and both of you have put a priority on going to this music festival every year, which would look strange to a lot of people who are serious about their faith, serious Christians or cultural conservatives, as you and Jocelyn both are. From the outside people would say, ‘It’s a hippie music festival. It’s like Woodstock all over again. There’s a lot of dope going around, and a lot of things being said from the stage, exhortations to various political positions that you wouldn’t agree with. Why do you want to keep going under those circumstances?’

Steve: Sometimes I wonder, to be honest. The music is just fantastic and as a person who loves music, and as a person who, well, I’d like to consider myself a musician.

Frederica: Your major was musicology.

Steve: Yeah, as someone who studied music in college, and someone who plays instruments and who has tried to do some composing and so forth, I think that this particular festival, Bonnaroo, just draws some of the best of a wide variety of music in a lot of the styles that I love: underground rock, of course jazz, folk and bluegrass, and world music and blues and electronic and hip-hop. Some of the most talented artists that I think are working today come to this festival. So it’s just a wonderful experience to be able to see them. And it’s economical, I guess you could say, too, because to add up the prices of all of these shows individually, it would be, well, much, much more than the festival ticket. But I can’t deny that the first time we went in 2004 it was—I had certainly been to concerts before and I had a vague idea of what to expect, but the hedonism was so much more rampant than I would have ever expected. They – the festival promoters – they make motions toward try to come off as – well, maybe that’s too harsh – I do believe that they are anti-drugs, and anti- anything that would be illegal or dangerous. I know they don’t want to promote that kind of thing.

Frederica: At lease officially.

Steve: Exactly. Yeah. But you certainly notice when you’re there that there doesn’t seem to be as much regulating as there could be or there should be, and I’m sure perhaps that’s on the part of the policemen. That they have their system of trying to crack down on that kind of thing. That they don’t want to scare people away.

Frederica: Which battles they choose to fight?

Steve: Exactly. Exactly. But I’m sure that a part of it also is that they know that’s where their bread and butter is, is these people that wanna come and do drugs and listen to music. So that’s tough, sometimes, wondering, am I contributing to this? Even if I’m not going there and doing anything illegal like that. Am I still kind of partaking in what I would certainly consider as a sin, by being there with these people?

Frederica: By sort of supporting it by your presence, or tolerating or condoning?

Steve: Exactly. And certainly being a customer of it, giving my money and buying a ticket and so forth, I’m supporting them that way. And they are in turn supporting these people living this kind of lifestyle, at least for one weekend to go and, it’s surprising how extreme some of these people can be. Not all of them, but sometimes it’s, it can be almost heartbreaking to see, you know, the lives that these people lead.

Frederica: Wow. You know, I just thought of, your dad went to Woodstock. He went to the original Woodstock all those decades ago and doesn’t remember a lot. He says he remembers lying on the ground a lot. And he remembered Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at dawn, waking him up in the morning. Yeah, so a lot of things have not changed. But I think one way you are different from your dad and me is you just know a lot more about music. You’re a lot more discriminating, you listen more intently, and you hear things that we don’t hear. And an example was you talked about when the Flaming Lips began playing some of the chords from Stravinsky’s Petrushka and you though you were probably the only person in the audience who’s yelling out, ‘Go, Stravinsky!’ at that moment. A lot of people are not there for the same reason you are, to actually listen to music. Just name off a few of the different – it was such a variety. You were talking about Ornette Coleman, Ralph Stanley—what’s some of the variety that you heard this year?

Steve: Yeah, I might venture that this was the best year yet. They really branched out much more strongly into jazz, and a variety of jazz as well. I really enjoyed that. They had some very kind of funk and old-school soul influenced jazz, they had somewhat avant garde stuff. Of course Ornette Coleman, the godfather of free jazz. It was wonderful to see him. They had kind of post-bop, smoother, more mainstream versions. They had world-music-influenced jazz. So that was really nice to see. And of course they had other living legends like Ralph Stanley; it was very nice to see him.

Frederica: Ralph Stanley being a gospel performer from – how old? He’s in his 80’s right?

Steve: Yeah. At least. Yeah. I mean, the Stanley brothers, way back in the day, some of the founders of bluegrass. You know, won tons of awards and so forth and he’s –

Frederica: I knew him from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” He sings “Oh Death” — it’s his voice that’s singing that a capella.

Steve: And he did that in concert, and it was chilling to hear it. And to go back to what you were originally asking about, that was very strange to be at that show and to see him and other band members making a couple of frank and open comments about Christian faith. You know, his grandson, a member of his band, actually, introducing him as a person who has a very strong faith in, quote, ‘Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.’ And to hear that being spoken out to this crowd of young college-aged men and women, that have been drinking and doing drugs all weekend, and probably a lot of them are high at that moment, while this band is up there playing these clean-cut gospel tunes about how Jesus is your friend and Jesus is your savior. Yeah, it was such a strange experience, and you gotta hope maybe it sinks in with some of them. There’s certainly hope for that.

Frederica: So you saw The Police, and the Flaming Lips, and who else?

Steve: The White Stripes were there, of course. That’s definitely one of the biggest names there and they were very –

Frederica: They’re strange. I don’t get them. [Laughter]

Steve: Yeah. There was a very big crowd for them. Gosh, who else? Well of course they had some comedians, some up-and-coming names and some famous names. They had David Cross, who of course we, in our Mathewes-Green family know and love very much as Tobias Funke in the show “Arrested Development.” And they had Dimitri Martin, a very clever young guy who’s getting a lot of attention nowadays, I think. They had a rock group out of Philadelphia called Dr. Dog that I’ve become a big fan of. They’ve just a wonderful Beatles-esque sound. I know a lot of people say that bands, certain bands sound like the Beatles, but these guys really do. In the best way possible.

Frederica: Oh, and Fountains of Wayne, too.

Steve: Yeah, pop-rock group. A lot of people give them flack for what they say is going mainstream, because they had such a big hit with the son “Stacy’s Mom,” but I’ve always felt that they are just quality, quality songwriters. They really know what they’re doing in crafting a good melody and they’re very clever guys with their lyrics.

Frederica: And very wholesome, too.

Steve: Yeah. Quirky, and so much of their lyrics have to do with presenting a main character, because a lot of them are narratives, someone who is kind of a goofy person, not totally confident in themselves, and they’re very charming. They’re fun. Of course the band Tortoise, from Chicago, was one of my very favorite groups and I was very excited to see them this year. Just an exciting sound. Somewhat experimental. It’s so difficult to describe what they sound like, but I genuinely feel like they’re one of the few bands out there that’s really pushing forward music as an art within rock. It’s very good.

Frederica: A lot going on. Tell just briefly about what happened at the Ornette Coleman concert, because that was sort of touching.

Steve: Well, I believe that Ornette is 77 this year, and so he’s really up there. It’s striking to me to think that he’s still active in playing music and making albums and he’s older than my grandfather was when he died. So he was up on stage with his quartet, they sounded very nice, they were really very tight and putting on a wonderful show, and Ornette was sitting on a stool. He had been playing the saxophone, and seemed to be sitting there and kind of drooping a little bit and closing his eyes and yawning. He gets up to play a solo, he plays for a couple minutes, he sits down again and kinda wobbles and then falls down. I was in the front row and I saw the entire thing, and it was just terrifying to see that because he’s so old. And of course on top of that he’s a living legend.

Frederica: And of course all of this is outdoors and it’s terribly hot and dry and dusty.

Steve: Yeah. This is Sunday, late afternoon; it’s the hottest day of the festival. He’s in a full suit and he was overcome by the heat. Fortunately that’s all it was. It could have been something worse, and I can assume that he’s okay now because that’s something pretty easy to recover from, although it can be pretty scary at the time. So of course they stop the show and they carried him offstage and made sure –

Frederica: You said that his son was on drums and he, like, leapt over the drums.

Steve: Yeah. Yeah, his son Denardo Coleman came to his rescue very quickly, which was very, I want to say ironic, though that’s probably not the right word.

Frederica: Poignant.

Steve: Yeah. Poignant that this happened, of course on Father’s Day. I can’t imagine what that must be like on Father’s Day to see your father fall ill. So when that happened, the people in the audience, they just wanted him to be okay. They were okay with the show ending; they didn’t expect them to continue playing, so people are yelling out, ‘We love you and we hope you’re okay!’ So I yelled out, ‘Happy Father’s Day!’

Frederica: Next year this time you’ll be a father. Are you going to take your baby to Bonnaroo?

Steve: We hope so! We’ll play it by ear. We do see families there. We see people with young babies and children and preteens. They’re doing some good work in trying to make it more family-oriented, or at least more accessible for families. So I hope that we can take part in some of that. I think that it would be a lot of fun. No point in stopping now, I guess. And the festival’s only getting better and better, I think. They’re constantly trying to outdo themselves, so if they had these types of acts this year, I can only imagine what they might have next year.

Frederica: That sounds great. I don’t think I’m gonna go with you, though. [Laughter]

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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