Bo Koster at 2015 Newport Folk Festival (Josh Antonuccio/WOUB)
My Morning Jacket’s Bo Koster performs at the 2015 Newport Folk Festival. Koster, a 1996 graduate of Ohio University, backed up Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters during the festival. (Josh Antonuccio/WOUB)

Great Gig in the Sky: OU Alum Joins Roger Waters for Historic Newport Set

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Last weekend, the Newport Folk Festival celebrated the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s legendary electric performance in 1965. To commemorate this historic moment, organizer Jay Sweet put together a weekend of music featuring legends, mainstays and up-and-coming artists from the folk and rock genres.

The event included a star-studded tribute to Bob Dylan (including Dawes, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Robyn Hitchcock and Al Kooper), an unannounced set by James Taylor and performances from The Decemberists, Courtney Barnett, Sufjan Stevens, First Aid Kit, Hozier and many others.

However, one of the most magical moments took place on Friday night. The evening started with a surprise set by My Morning Jacket, who remained on stage to join the headliner: Roger Waters.

Up to that point, Roger Waters was billed as having a surprise backing band who, to the crowd’s amazement, ended up being My Morning Jacket. Waters walked out at the end of their set and launched into the debut of a new solo song (accompanying himself on piano, a first for the former Pink Floyd bassist/singer). The remainder of his set consisted of Floyd favorites, solo material and choice covers by John Prine and Bob Dylan. Longtime Waters guitarist G.E. Smith was also on hand, along with other guests, including Lucius, Sara Watkins and Amy Helm.

On stage with Waters was a former Ohio University student, Bo Koster, the long-standing keyboardist for My Morning Jacket. Ohio University School of Media Arts & Studies instructor Josh Antonuccio witnessed the electrifying set and later talked with Bo about his journey from the uptown Athens bars to the Newport Folk Festival stage.

Josh Antonuccio: You attended Ohio University and graduated with a degree in political science. When you left OU, what made you want to pursue a career in music?

Bo Koster: Well, it had been a dream of mine all along.  At the end of my time at Ohio University, my pursuit of music was reinvigorated. I certainly wasn’t interested in getting a job in politics, as fascinating as it was to study it. Initially, I went to the Berklee School of Music right out of high school. Looking back, I probably wasn’t ready, mentally or emotionally. So, for my first few years at OU, I was a bit aimless and discouraged, but I was always obsessed with music and driven to learn. I spent most of my last couple of years sneaking into the music building, and another building that had a concert grand piano. At that point I started researching CalArts which had an interesting music program headed by Charlie Haden. At the time, you could kind of create your own curriculum, so my plan was to go out there and study. Charlie accepted me to the grad school portion straight away. The career part of it all came much later.

JA: Could you describe your post-Athens musical journey?

BK: Well, once I got to California I realized it was next to impossible for me to afford CalArts, which was another stumbling block, so at that point I just had to get a job. I worked as a valet, and then spent a few years working for a documentary television company. For the next couple of years I basically just played by myself at home, and got stuck in a bit of a rut, not really knowing what to do. But there was always this itch, or voice in my head, that wouldn’t let me give up. Eventually, I started getting out there, playing with whoever I could find. I started taking lessons with anyone I could find who inspired me and played in a lot of different bands, all different styles.

JA: How did you get connected with My Morning Jacket? What was that process like?

BK: I had been working as a so-called professional musician for a couple of years. Music was my sole source of income, but at that point, I was a bit uninspired. I missed playing in bands just for the pure creativity of it, versus trying to pay the bills. Luckily, I had a friendship with someone who had a connection to My Morning Jacket, and after a drunken rant to him about my desire to do something more fulfilling and creative with music, I eventually got called to audition. He said, “I think I found the perfect thing for you,” and he was right. He’s still a great friend and works with the band to this day.

JA: What happened from there?

BK: Once I had the audition, I basically holed up in my apartment and practiced the songs all day, every day. Wake up, eat, then practice until I was starving. Eat dinner, then practice until I was exhausted. Rinse, repeat. I really felt connected to the music and wanted to be as prepared as possible, and not leave anything on the table. Luckily it worked out.

JA: You’ve been with the band more than 10 years now and are touring behind your newest album, The Waterfall. What have been some of your standout performances this year? Many people I’ve talked with said your set at this year’s Bonnaroo was incredible and one of the festival’s best.

BK: Yeah, its still fairly early in the record cycle, but I think we’ve had some really great, memorable shows so far. It felt like we were in the zone and firing on all cylinders for the Governor’s Ball set. Bonnaroo was really great as well. The Hangout Festival was really special with the sun going down, and playing the new record for the first time in that setting. The new songs have felt great right out of the gate. It’s nice to be able to play a lot of the new stuff every night and feel like it’s going over really well at this point in our career. We’re lucky in that way.

JA: So how did My Morning Jacket come to play with Roger Waters?

BK: We played a song with him at a Love for Levon Helm benefit a few years ago, and that was really special for us. We did “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band. We have a real special connection to Levon and his music, and it was a beautiful thing to get to share that with Roger.

JA: How did the Newport set come together?

BK: I’m not sure exactly, but I think Roger was originally just going to do it acoustic. Then the parties involved found out that we were going to be a surprise guest this year. I think everyone made the connection and proposed the idea that we do something together again. I definitely know that Jay Sweet, the organizer of Newport, deserves some major credit for some of the major string-pulling on that one. Luckily, Roger went for it. To say we were over the moon about the possibility would be an understatement.

Roger Waters at 2015 Newport Folk Festival (Josh Antonuccio/WOUB)
Roger Waters performs his new song “Crystal Clear Brooks” at the 2015 Newport Folk Festival. (Josh Antonuccio/WOUB)

JA: Did he send you songs to learn? When did you know what the set would be and how long did you have to prepare?

BK: Jim and Roger had been emailing back and forth for a couple of months, discussing what songs to do. I think Roger had an idea about what core songs he wanted to do, then he and Jim batted some ideas around for covers. For example, both Jim and Roger have a love for John Prine, so the choice of doing “Hello In There” was great, and ended up being one of the more powerful moments, I think. Roger also sent us a demo of him at the piano playing one his new songs called “Crystal Clear Brooks.” When we all heard it, we were blown away. It was truly an honor for the band to be a part of that song being played live for the first time. A week or so before Newport, we got an email from Roger about doing “Brain Damage/Eclipse” and there was a bit of euphoric freak-out over about that, as you can imagine. As I stood on the side of the stage watching Roger play the piano live for the first time in his career (“Crystal Clear Brooks”), I couldn’t help but get overwhelmed by emotion. The tears were welling up big time.

JA: The band performed “Mother,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Brain Damage/Eclipse.” How did it feel to play those classic songs?

BK: It’s honestly hard to describe it with words. The best word to describe it is “spiritual.” Just hearing him sing the lyrics to “Mother” in that setting at Newport, with the way the weather was behaving…phew. The energy during the whole set was something I’ve never felt before. Just to play that little synth keyboard part on “Wish You Were Here,” a part I’d heard thousands of times, felt so surreal. And also, to have the four other guys in my band playing their respective parts and Roger there commanding and conducting it all…it really reminded me of that feeling when you experience a joyful, amazing dream. Except this time, I never woke up.

JA: What did Pink Floyd’s music mean to you during your formative years?

BK: When music speaks to you in a profound way–at an age when you’re developing your sense of self and you’re one of those people that feels a little different, or alienated, or more dialed in to certain things–it becomes a part of who you are, in a way. It becomes a branch of your own personal DNA. It’s a signpost. A reminder that we aren’t alone, and that there’s someone else out there with the ability to express some very complex, confusing feelings you may have, through their art. That’s what Pink Floyd meant to me. There are so many elements to the music that speak to me. The grandiosity of the arrangements, the poetic-ism, the visual elements…it really is art hitting on multiple levels–emotionally, intellectually, mysteriously, making you feel connected to something bigger. It sticks to you and lives in you, in a way that a lot of music or art never does. Not to mention Rick Wright and I probably had very similar influences, so to dig into his parts and really get into the details of how he voiced things, and where he put things, was a real pleasure. I was smiling a lot while learning those parts.

JA: My Morning Jacket was also joined by Lucius, as well as Sara Watkins and Amy Helm, Levon Helm’s daughter. How did these other guest musicians come on board for this set?

BK: Well, Amy has been a friend for a long time, from the relationship we had with Levon and the studio he had there at his house, where we played a Midnight Ramble. She became instant family–kindred spirits. Lucius is the same way. We’ve known them for a while through various friendships and so forth, and we just struck up a friendship with them. Again, a sort of instant kindred spirit-type of thing. I think Jim reached out to them once he found out we’d be doing some songs that needed background singers. And once we knew we’d be doing a song that Levon recorded, I think Jim reached out to Amy to come and sing on that. It meant a lot to have her there. On that same song, we needed a fiddle player and Sara came to mind immediately. She played so beautifully. We were all so happy to have her there for those moments.

JA: What were rehearsals like? How long did it take to put all this together?

BK: For us, we started practicing the songs at sound checks during our tour in June. Then we all had a couple weeks off before Newport, so we all went home and studied. That’s usually how we work. Often we don’t have the time to do a lot of rehearsal, so we’ve got in the habit of doing a ton of preparation on our own before we get together. Roger gave us some recordings to reference how he had been playing some of the songs. Once we got together with Roger, he was inspired to do a lot of different arrangement changes, not to mention some chord changes. We only had one day of rehearsal with him before the show. As we played through the songs, you could see his head spinning with different ideas, so it was really fascinating to see that part of his creative process. It also put us on our toes. I think that’s part of what made the set feel so immediate and exciting.

JA: What was the first song you rehearsed with Roger?

BK: I think we did “Wish You Were Here” first, and it was definitely a “goose bump moment.” It was fun and fascinating to dig into the details and look behind the curtain a bit; to see how all that magic was put together in the first place. It made me fall in love all over again, really. And it gave me an even greater appreciation for Roger’s particular contribution to the band. Playing those songs with him, it felt like the past, present and future were all happening at the same time.

JA: Along with Roger Waters’ solo material and Pink Floyd songs, you also performed some stellar covers, including “Hello in There” by John Prine and a rousing rendition of “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan. Given the 50th anniversary of Dylan “going electric,” what significance did this show have for you as a musician?

BK: Again, it’s hard to describe with words. I guess it’s like the ultimate feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself. Just a huge feeling of love and humility. Trying to tap into that energy, or jump on board, and be a small part of that continuum and history of some of the greatest songwriters, artists and musicians to ever live. Then feeling it come through you and all these people on stage who you have so much love and reverence for. It’s powerful stuff. Not to mention, hearing Roger sing the lyrics to “Hello In There” was so beautiful and poignant for the setting and time. Such a perfect choice. And really, looking around the festival, you get the sense that Dylan’s work is finally done now. Those doors and walls he knocked down with his legendary performance really facilitated the beginning of change and propelled the festival to finally become something truly great. It’s no longer hindered by the negative forces that were holding back the freedom of expression so long ago. It took a while, but it feels like the work is finally done now. Roger had very specific things that he wanted to say and ideas he wanted to get across, and he tailored those songs for this particular moment and setting.

JA: Thinking back now to when you were a freshman at Ohio University, playing in bands and listening to Pink Floyd with your friends, could you have ever imagined that this opportunity would have happened?

BK: Only in my wildest dreams. We often talk about our 14-year-old selves, and that no matter how many great things we get to do, we always have that 14-year-old version of ourselves inside of us, freaking out. Playing with Roger was basically “the ultimate” of that feeling for me. Except that my current self was right next to my 14-year-old self, freaking out just as much.