I would like to apologize to the kid who passed out before my mosh pit neighbors' feet at the sound of my scream. It was at that point in the early morning, somewhere between midnight and dawn, when the thick voodoo pierced my soul sacrificing my voice to the hottest, heaviest, dirtiest jam I have witnessed in my short thirty years on this planet. The victim can take solace in the fact that four nights later my voice has yet to return. Yet he was hardly the only person whose knees buckled at the sounds emanating from the stage.
After initially being ignored by American radio, the Delta Blues made a ghostly return at Bonnaroo 2007 not far from its birthplace in the form of one of its original 1960's English torchbearers. "The Mighty" John Paul Jones and his electric bass teamed with two of America's potential legends, lap steel guitarist Ben Harper and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. With no rehearsal and corresponding solely by e-mail before Jones met his new jam buddies for the first time the day of their show, the three-piece leaned heavily on Jones' extensive Led Zeppelin repertoire and only needed to communicate in their well practiced, universal language of the blues.
The size of The Other Tent could not contain the vast interest this one-time-only lineup attracted. Fans and zombies alike frantically swarmed the fields surrounding the fifth largest stage at the festival, blindly stomping on blankets, people, anything in their way. Many views were obstructed and some of the acoustics were muffled in the distance. Lesser men used these excuses to retreat to a more "comfortable" festival locale. Those lucky enough to get a good place to stand were rewarded tenfold and the slow filtering out of the claustrophobic allowed room for the avid fans to squeeze to the front. If one wanted the vibe enough, it was there for the taking.
At the very beginning there was a point when many others were tempted to leave. A young, bald stand-in for Jones caught the die hard off guard, played the beginning notes of an opening tune before the band revealed the joke to the naïve. After Jones finally took his usual place stage right, it was good times…more specifically, Good Times, Bad Times. Lift off. Jones looked, sounded and moved like the youthful soul whose sly contributions helped establish Led Zeppelin as one of the time's most influential bands.
Both Harper with The Innocent Criminals and ?uestlove with The Roots have earned a reputation for writing emotionally charged songs. Given the frustration of two specific issues here in the U.S. it's really no surprise two following selections carried timely, pissed off, yet heartfelt, genuine undertones. Jones punchy bass on Zeppelin's Immigrant Song tease and deep groove of When the Levee Breaks provided the platform for his temporary band mates to vent. Harper's screams carried the tortured spirits of blues past, while ?uestlove hit his drums with the vengeance of the collective oppressed. Playing with a man carrying so much history and tradition brought out notes and beats impossible to rehearse, let alone repeat elsewhere.
By now the band is locked in and the casual spectators off to another show, leaving the most passionate fans and a more confident, loose power trio. Arguably, the most familiar Led Zeppelin bass line followed, introducing the former band's most jam-friendly composition. Looks of amazement covered the sweaty faces of those nestled close to the stage as the Super Jam eased into Dazed and Confused. Those looks of amazement transformed into electricity as Harper did his best Jimmy Page impression translated on his lap steel. What followed next was total disbelief as fans looked around for confirmation that what they were witnessing was really happening. The vibe was the thickest it had been all night now that the band was familiar with each other's musical personalities. Space was created for each member to take the lead and the others in turn to accent. Not even the musicians on stage knew where things were leading. Fans were dropping like flies under the increased intensity. It was at this point my voice was muted by powers beyond my control (and the aforementioned kid hit the floor). I happily accept that price in order to numb my body and soul with that ancient vibe passed down and energized from generation to generation to generation. A half hour later the band began a rock star ending that would make The Who jealous. Refusing to let the song end, Jones repeatedly faced ?uestlove and locked eyes to drag out the inevitable. The band took their bows leaving their audience stunned in disbelief.
After a brief absence from the stage, the Super Jam returned and the lucky crowd was in for one final treat. Joined by Captain Kirk, ?uestlove's guitarist in The Roots, the foursome bounced into Stevie Wonder's Superstition for one last taste of raw, sweaty, rock 'n roll voodoo bliss. Being struck by lightning never felt so ridiculous.