Thursday, June 27, 2024

Crying At The Music Festival - with Josiah & the Bonnevilles


Crying At The Music Festival

There’s just something about the Sunday sets at a multi-day summer music festival. 

For my previous years of regular Bonnaroo attendance (that have now faded into memory), the Sunday sets were punctuated by sun & exhaustion, by endorphins & endurance, by wildness & weariness, by the intense anticipation of sleeping in your own bed after showering in your own bathroom, contrasted with the emotional exhilaration of parting with the aura & aroma, feeling all the fading festival vibes for another year. 

Thus, under these conditions, the Sunday set can send the sensitive fan (like me) into fits of fierce reverie, often moistened, if not utterly soaked, by tears. Take Mavis Staples singing for Pops Staples on Fathers’ Day back in the 00s at a steamy Sunday tent show, singing for her recently released from this world father, me thinking of my Daddy, who I would only have a little bit longer. Or what about Allison Krauss & Robert Plant, on their first tour together, mixing their new folk blues with Led Zeppelin classics, while I just fell to pieces. Or there was Okkervil River in 2009, a band that I then barely knew, but they pierced my soul while we wailed “Unless It’s Kicks,” as I celebrated the last day of my first festival as a sober person. 

In 2019, Brandi Carlile gave an impassioned rap about what Father’s Day might mean to a family with two moms. I had only recently fallen fully into 2018’s heart-wrenching tear-drenching totality of a record “By The Way, I Forgive You,” & this show leveled me. I caught a second Brandi on a Sunday that same festival season at Moon River in Chattanooga. Then there was Wilco closing Moon River on Sunday with “California Stars” in 2021, one of our early post-Covid festivals. Yes, we were ready to sing along, all up in our feels, & our feels are having the feels. I think the prevailing “never miss a Sunday show” sentiment comes from Dead tour initially, but for me it is about the Sunday at a summer festie, when I am dragging & dirty, weepy & filled with wonder. 

This year I attended some of Sunday at the Green River Festival, under the cloud of a tornado watch. 24 hours earlier, our Saturday was interrupted by a torrential gullywasher of biblical rainfall. As we walked back to “shelter in your car” per the festival’s instructions, our shoes & clothes were soaked & what once was a grassy parking lot was a sloshy pond. I wish I had the spirit of the young child I saw playing in the mud, but instead, I was more consumed by frustration & anxiety, even as I tried to keep a good attitude nonetheless. Yet months of anticipation getting washed away was far from ideal. Will we even be allowed back? So that stinking “I’m never going to another music festival again” thinking might have creeped in beneath the surface.

While finishing our quesadillas at a restaurant in the nearby town of Greenfield, we got the notifications on the festival’s social media feeds. The weather has passed. The venue is reopening. The show must go on. We were jazzed, glad we hadn’t already found our seats at the nearby movie theater, that was our next-best option. Before long, we would be digging Bonny Light Horseman, Willi Carlisle, Mdou Moctar, & others. The rest of Saturday was exhilarating, & around the start of Fleet Foxes, we made our way to our car & the hour-plus drive back to my brother’s place nearby. 

I hate to admit that we are those older men who constantly check the weather radar on our phones. This only intensifies to a kind of mind sickness during a music festival with weather issues. Over the last couple decades of regular festival attendance, we have been too hot, too cold, too windy, too dry, & like the start of Saturday, too soaked to the bone. At least a couple of weather delays turned into cancellations. Some festivals never return. The fairgrounds at Green River had a small museum that boasted of this festival’s history, dating all the way back to 1986, & the many weather near-catastrophes they survived, including an ice storm, the one year they thought a fall festival might be fun. 

All that context to say that I did consider skipping Sunday when we learned the forecast & the threat of tornadoes. My brother was only in for Saturday, & after a short stint at this solo Sunday, I would begin the long drive back to Tennessee, to see a friend three hours south, to finish the journey on Monday. After some trepidation, I devoured the pancakes my brother prepared, packed my bags late Sunday morning, & headed back to Greenfield. I am so glad that I did! 

During the entrancing vibes of Dobet Gnahore’s set, I noticed the family nearby. Lots of people were swaying with the Ivory Coast singer to the infectious Afropop, us included. My eyes fixed on the father, or was it the grandfather, dancing with his adult son, or grandson, or maybe they were just friends. The young man is blind & smiling ear to ear. Their tenderness & grooviness instantly broke me. Trying not to cry was futile. It was joyful seeing them so into it, not unlike the first time I encountered deaf fans at a Dead show bonding with the sign language interpreter. Already all-up-in-my-feelings, I left Dobet to check out trans singer Izzy Heltai at another one of the side stages. This amazing set was no less emotional for me. Already floating in a cloud of music’s raw humanity & cosmic vulnerability, I finally made my way toward the main stage for my first time seeing Josiah & the Bonnevilles, the primary reason why I had purchased the Sunday ticket.

Josiah Leming’s lyrically honest & acoustically hazy East Tennessee folk unpacked me the first moment I heard it. At the time that I was first inspired by his infectious & immediate singing, I wasn’t aware that he was a recent TikTok sensation, also a 30-something bartender & Amazon warehouse worker & former American Idol performer with a few failed commercial music careers already under the bridge. I was this-past-Sunday-old when I realized that for this solo acoustic performer, there was no backing band called “the Bonnevilles,” but that we fans are the Bonnevilles. As Josiah began to narrate his entire life story in between songs, which included simmering covers of Chappel Roan & Elle King that had hundreds singing along, he increasingly held my heart in the palm of his hand.

Then, Josiah started telling us about his mother. He said her favorite song was “Fix You” by Coldplay, & that he always wanted to do for us Bonnevilles, what that song did for his mother. As someone who had screamed & cried along to that song on my soggy work commute back in the 00s, I found this comment all too relatable. Then, he relayed how he had lost her to cancer some time ago & missed her every day. This immediately sent me to thoughts about my late father, who I lost ten years ago this past May.  

Already mesmerized & in the palm of this performance, Josiah introduced his version of “Ghost,” a song attributed to Justin Bieber. The chorus summarizes grief so succinctly & gets locomotion from his haunting harmonica wails at the breaks, I am buckets & buckets of the tears that were mere moist mist back at the blind man dancing with his dad. I have listened to this track so many times since Sunday, to hear these words again: 

That if I can't be close to you

I'll settle for the ghost of you

I miss you more than life

And if you can't be next to me

Your memory is ecstasy

I miss you more than life

This kind of long-term grief for a loved-one like a Dad is not a bad thing. This grief is good, & this song unspooled yet more of it into cascading tears to soak this festival field like Saturday’s downpour.

I was still crying two songs later when Josiah ripped into “Another Day At The Factory” for his Dad, the opening track to his 2023 album “Endurance.” I actually knew the words to this one & started singing along & dancing & waving my arms, as we do. I think to myself at some point during this track, that Josiah is staring directly at me. He is singing this song for me, burrowing into the depths of my being, open heart surgery on the sabbath with everything broken yet good about me, suddenly exposed for the entire world to see. A perpetual rail-rider, I have had performers offer a wink or twinkle a smile at my old-dude dance moves before. But this is different. His eyes stay fixed on me for the entire song, & it’s a little freaky

After the track concludes, he stops the show & starts talking directly to me. He instructs the security guy in the pit to pass me a guitar pick. “You made me cry so hard so many times,” I shouted back. Then I noticed a camera on me. I guess my weepy-feelie-face is on the jumbotron now. 

The surreal shock to my system from all this is short, but still lingers like an incurable & inscrutable fever dream, several days later as I type this. Because this, yes this, this is why I drive almost 2000 miles round trip just for a show. Just this is why, as a recovering addict, live music is the full-blown religious feeling & replacement addiction that I just can’t shake, even as I hold the guitar pick in my hand. 

I relay the story to a dear friend who immediately describes the exchange that I just had with Josiah as sacramental. I make a post to the socials “Ain’t no cry like the Sunday afternoon festival set sad song ugly cry,” & at least one friend gets it, as he tracks back to another Bonnaroo Sunday moment, that time with Lionel Ritchie & Kenny Rogers. 

I literally crave the redemptive & purgative power "the sad music ugly cries" provide. But these can’t be too precious or predicted or staged but must surprise you & knock you over like a wave. I keep coming back at risk of getting caught in the kind of stormy weather that makes me question human existence itself, & I keep coming back in hope of being swept away by a storm of emotion that makes me savor the tragic beauty of all human experience. 

Josiah & the Bonnevilles

Sunday 230-330pm

Port Royal - new song 

In Dreams - new song

Story of the 6 Dollar Check

Stolen Love

Any Time or Place

Good Luck Babe - Chappell Roan cover

JERSEY GIANT - Elle King cover

Ghost - Justin Bieber cover

Just one break - with Mon Rovia

Another day at the factory 

Holy Place

Blood Moon

Basic Channels