The Science of Superjam
Since 2002, almost every year of Bonnaroo has featured a spectacular anomaly in the lineup—an off-kilter and supremely funky collaborative jam session. There is no way to fully account for the composition of each Superjam performance; all we can do is highlight the interplay of artists who help create one of the best and most unpredictable nights in music each year.
Musical titans, consummate stage performers, creative virtuosos—they’re are all labels that apply to past participants, including such alums as Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Trey Anastasio, Questlove, Dr. John, and Ben Harper. The group that gathers on stage creates a one-night-only experience, in which the band gets no second chance to do it right. Only the best in the business can live up to the mantle.The rep will grows bigger this summer as Bonnaroo will grow the franchise to include even more Superjams on-site.
This week, we’re looking at the history and future of Superjam, but first we need to consider the session’s essential components. We polled the behind-the-scenes engineers of the annual get-down, to figure out their methods of concocting perfectly strange and stupendous ensembles.
Step 1: Build around a key existing musical relationship
The architects of Superjam, the producers of Bonnaroo, look for some of the most compelling and eccentric musical relationships possible to build once in a lifetime live shows. That relationship could be based on earlier collaboration (co-members of a band, say Phish) or synergy that has yet to be fully realized (Dan Auerbach and Dr. John, pre-Locked Down). Once this backbone is in place, it becomes possible to add the more experimental collaborators, and to imagine show and prove for their peers.
Sometimes it just comes down to understanding the shoes you’re stepping into. Three-time Superjam participant Questlove remarked of his 2007 stage session with Jones and Ben Harper,”We were doing Zeppelin songs, and there’s such a pressure of living up to the legacy of John Bonham’s. I had to prove that the myth was true, that I was worthy.”
Step 2: Get managers and agents on the phone
Think about explaining to an artist and their team the logistics of playing Superjam: Take a week out of your summer touring or recording schedule. Step outside of your comfort zone, away from your own band, production team, light show, or whatever other factors are tailored for your road show. Join a band you’ve only dreamed of joining, and only practiced with once or twice before. Then step out on stage, in front of tens of thousands, and also online, to be documented and delivered on-demand for the rest of your career. That’s how the conversation begins. “We’re building a band from scratch,” says Superfly’s Paul Peck. “Every element in the process is incredibly difficult. I’m asking a musician to do something that’s incredibly risky.” Artists up to the challenge, though, can handle the pressure, and see the opportunity in letting go.
Step 3: Begin work on the set list
Even improvised stage shows need to have a structure. The set list gives a launching pad. They are developed not merely based on genre or region, but crafted by the ensemble’s vision. This determines who fills out the band, too. Sometimes the song selection skews honorific to a legend on stage; other times they take the crowd on a journey away from the proscribed limits of genre and create something entirely fresh. The set list is the blueprint for a wild ride.
2012 setlist: Questlove’s Bonnaroo Superjam featuring D’Angelo & The Soulquarians
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) [Jimi Hendrix] (including Go Back 2 The Thing & Superman Lover [Johnny Guitar Watson] teases) >
Pride And Vanity [Ohio Players] >
Players Balling (Players Doin’ Their Own Thing) [Ohio Players] >
Funky Dollar Bill [Funkadelic] >
Hit It And Quit It [Funkadelic] >
What Is And What Should Never Be [Led Zeppelin]
Babies Making Babies [Sly & The Family Stone] >
Hollywood Squares [Bootsy Collins] >
Mother’s Son [Curtis Mayfield] (including Chicken Grease tease)
Power of Soul [Band of Gypsys]
She Came In Through The Bathroom Window [The Beatles]
My Summertime Thang [The Time] >
Jam (including Fire [Ohio Players] & other teases)
Full Audio Download Here: http://funkit.virose.net/?p=2561
Step 4: Start rehearsing – days before the festival
The general rule is that a few days before the festival, the entire band gathers near Bonnaroo for several intensive rehearsals. These are not run-throughs per se, but instead meant to build familiarity and flow. But even as they prep, by the end of the rehearsal much of the main stage gear will already have left town, en route to being set up on-site for the actual show. By the end, the players in the band will rock through with bare-bones equipment. If necessary, as with last year’s D’Angelo apperance, missed flights and crossed signals mean the run-through may occur at the festival itself, just minutes before the band goes on.
Step 5: Showtime
Once scheduled, the crowd knows only the basics about the show—mostly. They get the gist of who the key players are, where to go, and when to show up. Of course, major surprise guests and unforeseen song choices are a built-in feature of Superjams. The band will step out on stage and immediately begin feeding off the crowd. At this point, planning and preparation cannot anticipate what will unfold—the band truly launches, the crowd feels and fuels the energy, and the guest players hop on stage. As the session builds, the night takes over and the legacy of Bonnaroo’s Superjam grows. We can try to explain how this all these steps add up to something spectacular each year. But science cannot fully account for the magic of the moment.
What’s your favorite Superjam moment of all-time?