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June 17, 2014 | Music Notes Blog

Why We Listen

It’s 7am to the locals here in Manchester, Tennessee and the dashed white lines of I-55 East are splitting the windshield – perfectly in time with the kick drum from ‘Love Like a Sunset Part I.’ Each little farm we roll past leaves the soft ground of our temporary 10’x30’ Bonnaroo home fading in the rearview mirror. To my right, the morning sun still hasn’t caught the Western face of the mountains running parallel to us, revealing what appears to be a dark sound wave from a song that fits the mood of the valley below. When the windows are down you can sense an invisible energy in the shadows, a deep and lasting reverb that can only come from the warm resonation of a guitar’s last note.

I travel here with seasoned vets by the names of Jared, Chad, Johnny, and Hook. To say these guys have perfected our yearly journey would be to lie – but there honestly isn’t much this festival can do to surprise us. So when we queue up the 72 hour customized playlist, point our rental van West, and say our final prayer to the Shuffle Gods (both new and old) – we all know we did it for one reason. Music.

I get the same question all the time – “Why do you like music so much?” It’s a question I am never prepared to answer, as simple as it may seem. My response is usually a lame combination of existential buzz words with an open ended statement or two. This is very frustrating and served as my motivation for this festival. I was finally going to get to the bottom of this conundrum. My plan was to soak in as much music as possible and dissect my love for these songs. What I learned was a little surprising.

Over these past six days, after 24+ hours spent crammed into a minivan and 45+ hours on my feet next to 80,000 strangers watching artists coming from Muscle Shoals, Nashville, England, and really every other corner of the world – I learned that there is no singular answer to this question. I was able to give 27 bands my undivided attention and found that I had a different reason to listen to each one.

I listened to St. Paul and the Broken Bones because Paul Janeway was in my shoes at that very same stage two years ago. Two notes into a song I had never heard, I began to listen to the Naked and Famous because everyone under the tent was already celebrating their favorite song. I didn’t want to listen to Vampire Weekend because I had already made up my mind about them – but the 6’5” Paul Bunyan lookalike and petite Hispanic lady, standing as strangers beside each other in the pit, locked arms and screamed “Feel It In My Bones!” at each other. ‘Step’ is now looping on my playlist. I didn’t know Damon Albarn could be humbled by anything at this point of his career, so I listened – especially when he brought out De La Soul. I listened to Seasick Steve because vanity was as far from his mind as was the realization that he was on stage with John Paul Jones – he knew he belonged. I listened to the Carolina Chocolate Drops because they reminded us that even the worst moments of our history brought about beautiful things. I listened to James Blake because after a weekend of music, an eager crowd joined in singing Smash Mouth as the stage hands brought out his synths (I guess his Bill Withers cover wasn’t bad either). I certainly didn’t plan on looking for love in Tennessee but the ladies of Lake Street Dive had other plans. And finally, Jack White reminded us that having something “better to do” is a dangerous thing and Elton John sent us home screaming “ROCKET MAN!”

Once I was able to take a step back from the excitement all these moments brought me, I realized that every time I listen to a song it’s for a different reason. I’ve seen some of these bands many times over my concert-going life and have never once had the same experience. It’s hard not to get romantic about the songs you love and while I stood on the Farm watching John Paul Jones playing some sort of lap guitar, I thought to myself “Damn, I wish I had been around for the festivals that shaped this one.” But then it dawned on me – as amazing as it would have been to be a part of the original Woodstock or witness the music of that era, I am very lucky to live in this moment. The tools our generation has at our fingertips to consume music is mind-blowing and we take it for granted. Rewind 15 years and we would have needed to rent a second van just to hold the number of CDs needed to make the pocket playlist that we enjoyed all weekend. I probably would have never discovered Sam Smith’s acoustic version of ‘Nirvana’ before the show and may have decided to forego his early set and miss one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard.

I’ve given up on trying to answer the question of why I like music so much. No matter how much effort I put into trying to figure it out – I will always fall short. Everyone reading this will have a different relationship with music, some need it more than I do and some may enjoy it passively. But I dare you to find someone who doesn’t know it at all. Even though I didn’t answer the question I came in trying to understand – I left Tennessee reaffirmed that music isn’t going anywhere and it may be better than ever. Let’s make sure we support music in every corner of our lives. If your favorite playlist starts to get stale – hit the reset button, whether that’s going to a festival or just giving a new artist four minutes of your time on a new song. It’s a great time to be a fan of music and if you need any evidence – I’d be willing to bet you read this with your ear buds in.

Now if you will excuse me, I am going to start stretching – I’ve got a date with Dave Grohl on Friday and I don’t want to cramp up during ‘Hey, Johnny Park!’

Matt Bass
Strategic Data Analysis Associate