Byrne, Costello, Van Zandt discuss unique perspectives on Bonnaroo

Thursday, May 14, 2009 at 12:28pm
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ELVIS COSTELLO

Idiomatic diversity is both the lure and challenge of the annual Bonnaroo music festival. This year's event, which takes place June 11-14 in Manchester, Tenn., offers some intriguing lineup experiments. These include David Byrne headlining and also assembling the first-ever artist curated stage and the great singer/songwriter Elvis Costello performing solo.

Byrne and Costello offered perspectives on their upcoming appearances, along with longtime member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band Little Steven Van Zandt during an extensive telepress conference Wednesday. The press conference attracted representatives from such outlets as Billboard, VH1 radio, The Los Angeles Times, Atlanta-Journal-Constitution and many others.

Byrne was particularly complimentary of Bonnaroo's continuing quest to expand its scope and programming.

"I've noticed in the programming over the years that the lineup of performers continues to be wider," Byrne said. "In the beginning it was viewed as a jam band festival, and for a while that seemed to be the dominant sound. That's definitely not what you see today. There's everything there, from singer/songwriters to groups and all types of styles and artists."

The Katzenjammers, an all-female multi-instrumental band from Norway, St. Vincent, Ani DiFranco and Santigold are among the performers who will be appearing on Byrne's artist-curated state.

"When (promoter and co-founder) Ashley (Capps) asked me about doing this I wanted to be very sure about the types of performers that I utilized," Byrne said. "You have to think about the fact that you're playing in the summer in Tennessee and there may be some performers that I'd personally enjoy, but wouldn't necessarily want to see playing out in that particular environment."

Byrne said that he had chosen performers whose music he enjoyed and also had seen perform at some point. He cited Jenny Lewis and TV On The Radio among acts that he would like to see perform, and said that the notion of his former iconic group Talking Heads having influenced many other bands was something that he really didn't think about that much, and instead simply preferred to continue trying to do new and interesting things musically.

Costello said that there may actually be a surprise or two during his set.

"When I was at the Beale Street Festival I had so much fun sitting in with different acts like Hubert Sumlin and Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor," Costello said. "I really wanted to do this set with the Sugarcubes, but the dates didn't work out. But there are so many of my friends who are playing at this festival, and I just found out that (pianist/bandleader and songwriter) Allen (Toussaint, whom he toured and recorded with last year) is playing here, so who knows what might happen."

"The great thing about playing at this type of event is that there will be a lot of people who wouldn't ordinarily be in your audience," Costello continued. "I think you have the opportunity to reach some new folks, and also do some things that you might not be able to do in a smaller setting."

Costello talked about his forthcoming new CD Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, which is slated for release June 2. It was recorded over a three-day period at Nashville's Sound Emporium Studio, and matches Costello with a stellar lineup of great players including Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Jeff Taylor on accordion and Dennis Crouch on bass, with Jim Lauderdale and Emmylou Harris doing background vocals. It is produced by T-Bone Burnett (who also plays guitar on some songs).

The disc not only marks Costello's return to the acoustic-dominated sound of 1986's King of America, it renews a long tradition of him recording in Nashville that began with a 1979 session pairing Costello with George Jones, and also includes the spectacular Almost Blue, a set of classic country covers in 1981.

"I wanted to do an acoustic album, but this isn't really a bluegrass or country album, though we have that type of instrumentation," Costello said in discussing the new CD. "Some of these songs I've already been playing when I was out on the road with Bob Dylan. There were some others where I wanted to invoke a feeling of the 19th century, and write a different way in talking about (author) Hans Christian Anderson and his unrequited love for singer Jenny Lind."

Some songs touch on the famous Lind tour promoted by P.T. Barnum, while others are more straightforward country-flavored pieces.

When the festival lineup was initially announced Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band were among the first headliners cited. Little Steven Van Zandt said that the group is looking forward to Bonnaroo, and after all these years they still savor live performances.

"We can't really change things all that much in terms of what we do by now," Van Zandt said. "But one thing that is different night to night concerns the ratio of covers to originals, and the types of things that we cover. There have been some nights here recently where we've done Clash covers, Ramones, Tommy James, even the Troggs' ‘Wild Things’ and that's fun. We do a lot of songs from the new disc, then it's kind of a toss up as to where we go in the shows."

"One thing that we've discovered over the years is that the audience really tends to love and request a lot of our more obscure songs, and it's always kind of fun to see where playing those will take the show," Van Zandt concluded. "The people really seem to love both our doing some different songs and those unusual covers, and they really add something to the shows."