In a previous post, we talked about Delaney and Bonnie & Friends’ Accept No Substitutes. Fast forward 44 years to a surprise encounter with Bonnie on a visit to my brother Jim in Nashville— one of those trips when music started happening as soon as I got there.
A cab carried me from the airport to SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) in an industrial zone of boxy, anonymous buildings. No sign announced the artists working there that day. But dropping the right names at the reception desk directed me to a large room filled almost end to end with a stage full of players and singers – lights, monitors, front of house PA and teleprompters. It looked just like a show, and held preparations for one.
I was an audience of one at a rehearsal of John Oates (Daryl Hall And…) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) All Star Rock & Soul Super Jam Dance Party – a big name for a big band. When I walked in on them they were prepping to play Bonnaroo two days later. Up front Oates, James and Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket) played guitars. But eclipsing them in presence and power, singer Brittany Howard (then with Alabama Shakes) was destroying the place, killing the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” I couldn’t see past her as she filled the room completely. Only when she finished did I recognize drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (the Meters) and jazz percussionist Cyro Baptista; and I didn’t meet the rest of the Revue until a break: keyboardist Kevin McKendree (Delbert McClinton’s band), bassist Steve Mackey (hundreds of Nashville sessions); singers Bilal (Robert Glasper and many NYC jazz & hip-hop projects), Lee Fields (the Expressions), Bekka Bramlett (vocals; daughter of Delaney & Bonnie, onetime member of Fleetwood Mac, and a firecracker) and Wendy Moten (session singer deluxe). In the back stage-right corner stood the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horns (sousaphone or baritone horn [a scaled down tuba with the range of a trombone but a darker, fuller sound], trombone, trumpet and tenor sax). Leading them was my brother Jim who arranged the horn parts and was the only horn player (on alto) who’d get a solo in the show; he also played a harmonica solo. The mood was workmanlike/laid-back and nobody questioned me, or even noticed me much, as I walked around behind my Nikon.
As I watched, Bonnie Bramlett came in to see daughter Bekka sing, sitting next to me on a couch before the stage. The cover photo of “Accept No Substitutes” shows Delaney & Bonnie with two young kids: Bekka is the baby in the photo. As Bekka and Wendy worked out a harmony, I leaned toward Bonnie and suggested they needed her to help shape and sing their parts. Bonnie laughed, told me she considers herself retired from music and related some good-riddance stories about the business. She said she still loves to sing and wanted to form an a cappella crew of women singers to busk on street corners. I’d never seen the Original Delaney and Bonnie & Friends except in TV clips, so I was delighted, awed, to meet her. She was friendly, relaxed and happy to be acknowledged, at peace with her legacy.
When Oates spotted Bonnie there at SIR, he stopped the rehearsal, ran down and greeted her with glad reverence. During this lull, my brother Jim launched trad.-jazz numbers for fun and the Preservation Hall guys lit up and jumped in. Trombone player Ronell Johnson was especially good on these impromptu numbers and happy to take those rides. He comes from a big New Orleans musical family, though not as big as saxophonist-clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, then 80 and one of 20 children, all musicians. Jim was delighted to meet up with Charlie on Saturday before the show and talk old-time music and musicians. The Preservation Hall guys play what everybody else calls Dixieland but New Orleanians (who hate that term) call traditional jazz— the first music that Jim and I both loved, and still like.
On a break, Jim and I met up with Ziggy Modeliste at the coffee stand. We told him we admired his playing, and he replied, “When I play, I try to speak English” – and maybe no drummer lays down a beat with the clarity he brings to the kit.
OK, that was Thursday.
Then, on Saturday, show day, the band van picked us (Jim, our sister Annie’s son Noah and me) up at Jim’s house and took us to a hotel, Bonnaroo HQ in Manchester, for another rehearsal in a ballroom with the same crew, plus bassist Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone). The other guest stars who’d sing cameos – Billy Idol and R. Kelly – never made the rehearsal, which revolved around Larry Graham’s booming bass. At one point, though, Bekka Bramlett noticed her fellow singer Bilal seemed to be hanging back, as if unsure of his place in the music. She reached around his waist, gave a smile and tugged him right into the song, and he smiled back, grateful and glad.
Everybody felt upbeat after this last rehearsal, knowing the music was polished and strong, but not too polished. It breathed. It swung. It rocked. It had soul.
Then vans took us inside the festival to backstage at This Tent – Bonnaroo stuff is called What Stage, Which Stage, etc. We could see a ferris wheel lighting up in the dusk beyond This Tent; later, big-ass fireworks hit during intermissions. Jim and I went out front and watched from the photo pit as Beach House played and totally delighted the 12,000-15,000 fans packed into This Tent. When they came off, grinning their way backstage, singer-keyboardist Victoria Legrand looked fresh but partner Alex Scally and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch looked like they’d been playing in a car wash.
Backstage at Bonnaroo were various facilities for artists before and after they played. As Jim’s guest, I had all access— a rock and roll term of art that means freedom to go everywhere backstage. I remember brother Jim getting all excited when he realized who Charlie Gabriel is and that he could just go talk with him, ask him about making music in New Orleans. Now, New Orleans traditional jazz is the first music Jim and I loved as kids. We both still do. So Jim was super-excited to strike up a conversation with Charlie, a living, lucid repository of that music, a natty man with a long memory. Jim invited Charlie into a hospitality tent to get out of the hot sun. Charlie was in an elegantly cut dark suit, dress shirt and tie – like in this video. I considered joining them, but I held back. I wanted to just let Jim have the conversation – without me butting in to ask the sorta questions a non-musician would.
When Jim and I decided to go eat, security radio’ed a golf cart which picked us up and hustled us through the throngs to the Artist Hospitality area. There, our Artist wristbands admitted us into a tent complex with a giant buffet (GOOD food, too! – grilled salmon, tofu and T-bones; baked potatoes; cauliflower; broccoli; sweet potato fries; fresh rolls & bread), salad bar, juice bar, dessert bar, open drinks bar, picnic areas and a barbecue shack. The Lumineers were playing right beside us; very cool dinner music. Then the golf cart took us back to This Tent where the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was just about to go on. I was worried about how they’d go over, because they’re old guys in black suits playing antique music. But the same people who loved Beach House loved them, too, and that was really fun. Jim James came out and sang with them and the crowd went comprehensively bat-shit.
Sound effects-comic Michael Winslow came onstage unannounced in Hendrix wig and clothes and uncannily imitated Hendrix’ Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” with just mouth noises and effects-pedals = astounding!
Then the Rock & Soul Super Jam hit it at 12:35 a.m. and it was joy supreme: old soul and rock songs, done right and with spirit by pros/fans. When they finished “Thank You Falettinme Be Myself” – Larry Graham led the big bunch of Sly songs – and went off, the crowd kept chanting the refrain for about 5 minutes, really together and really loud. Then the Super Jam crew came back onstage, introduced guest R. Kelly and they tore up “Change is Gonna Come” and “Bring It On Home to Me.” Kelly left and out came Billy Idol to sing “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Neither Kelly nor Idol had ever showed up for rehearsal and nobody knew if they’d make it – but they both raced over after their own sets and threw themselves completely into the music, delighting the musicians. Brittany Howard roared through “Satisfaction,” Otis Redding-style, and Idol stuck around singing everything: When brother Jim raced down front from the horn section for his harp solo at Jim James’ vocal mic in “Take You Higher,” the last song, he bumped right into Idol and they both laughed. I was in the media pit between the stage and the crowd, with a dozen other photographers and a video crew through the whole show, and it was really thrilling to be that close to so much energy.
Then there was a big backstage hang with lots of drinks afterward: Everybody was in a great mood and really friendly backstage because they knew they had just destroyed the place and the crowd loved them and the songs. Most times when an artist wants the crowd to wave their hands, they get maybe 30 to 50 percent: when Larry Graham did it, he got about 300 percent.
The band van wandered from musician’s place to musician’s place, dropping Bekka Bramlett at her converted school house in the country where she hugged everybody good bye. When Bekka Bramlett hugs, you stay hugged. We got back to Jim’s house on Nashville’s south side at 6 a.m., daylight was already poking around houses and across the neighborhood. I haven’t done a rock ‘n’ roll all-nighter in years and neither had Jim.
Chase this link to some video, backstage and onstage.