We were among the lucky 300 or so humans to witness Conan O'Brien's surprise stopover in Nashville last Thursday night at Third Man Records. Within moments of the doors closing, Jack White appeared onstage as emcee, and the tiny area filled quickly with Conan's Legally Prohibited Band. The pompadoured one bounded out, wielding a guitar, and immediately tore into "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "On the Road Again," where he took the liberty of altering some lyrics to reflect his plight as a traveling comedian. Conan played with the swagger of a seasoned performer and was clearly feeding off the manic energy of the crowd.
The highlights were his impromptu cover of Radiohead's "Creep," sung in the style of a Cockney chimney sweep, and a rendition of "Polk Salad Annie" wherein Conan waxed facetious by talking about his incredibly difficult upbringing in an upper-middle-class suburb of Boston. With a nod to the surroundings, the band broke into an instrumental cover of "Seven Nation Army," and then White reappeared for Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" followed by Ronnie Hawkins' "Forty Days." The only break in the evening was mandatory, and occurred when the tape for the reel-to-reel recorder needed to be changed.
The entire night was a raucous, surreal event we'll never forget (and, thanks to the recording, it will live on for posterity). Seeing a performer some might call iconic, coupled with the feverish hum of genuine excitement and awe, is something we rarely get to witness in our jaded little industry town.
If you brought an iPhone to Bonnaroo, you would have been better off with a pencil and a pigeon Thursday night, because anything with a 3G-spot was completely useless when we pulled into Manchester. Good thing there was wi-fi in the press tent ... or not. Or sometimes, but then not really. Fuck.
So we went and saw some bands. We found Neon Indian's introductory sequenced bleeps and bloops emanating from That Tent. We'd seen them a few months back in Austin, and though the set was nearly identical, but there was a stark contrast in energy levels. Maybe that's just something that happens when a couple thousand more people are there. But despite rolling off their trademark waves of chillness, both the crowd and the band were anything but.
From what we've heard, we really, really enjoyed DC-based rapper Wale — we don't remember the specifics, but allegedly we spent most of late night Thursday/early Friday morning lecturing the rest of the crew about how huge he'll eventually be. We thought Attention Deficit was a great pop record, Wale is a really great writer, and he's got a really tight band. Sure, it could maybe use more polish in the live arena, but sooner or later that dude is gonna have the kind of radio hit that'll send dude's great-great-grandkids to college.
If you can imagine a bunch of shirtless dudes somehow fist-pumping while listening to The Cure's Disintegration really loud, you have an idea what it was like watching young Brits The xx run through a set of droning, minimalist songs that stayed largely in the same echoing, gloomy zone where manic depression is a sexually frustrated mess. We kinda dug it, but the crowd vibes were weird. We retired at an entirely reasonable hour, oddly enough.
Trombone Shorty broke a funky-ass bottle of champagne over the Which Stage, inaugurating the almost-main stage with a set juggling Orleans jazz standards, original tunes and an increasingly bizarre series of pop covers. Of course he played "When the Saints Go Marching In" (how could he not?), but he also threw in covers of "American Woman," "Seven Nation Army" and the only performance of Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get It Started" that didn't send us into a blind rage.
We missed the Nas portion of the Damian Marley & Nas set because we were way, way too captivated with their Distant Relatives' tour mate, German-based/Nigerian born singer Nneka. Combining afrobeat, dub, R&B and hip-hop, Nneka creates a sound that is simultaneously familiar and totally foreign – like, distant-planets "foreign" more than distant-nations "foreign." Nneka was so good, and should have played for more people in a place where she wouldn't be drowned out by the other tents. Damian Marley was OK, and just that — he might be the most talented of all the currently performing Marleys, but he still has to rest on his father's legacy and songs to keep a crowd interested.
Walking. So much walking. We saw comedian Jeffrey Ross in the press tent, where he referred to Bonnaroo as "Woodstock without the burden of legends." OK, fine, we laughed. But we'd like to know where he ranks Sha Na Na in relation to Jay-Z. More walking.
It sure wasn't our first rodeo with Dr. Dog, but they never fail to nail their vocal harmonies, guitar solos and tight, bubbling presentation. It was particularly brutal standing amid some strangers (who were apparently marketing people), one of whom actually described Dr. Dog as "The Beatles, but funkier!" Anyway, they're eternally solid, and they played tunes from three different records, by our count.
We later trekked to Which Stage with Mercy Lounge's John Bruton — he was adorned in some sort of angel/butterfly wings get-up that a kindly stranger had given him — and The National kicked off with the sun at its most unrelenting. Frontman Matt Berninger stalked the stage like a brainy, post-punk guru as his band — horns and all — burned through the best material from Alligator, Boxer and High Violet. Despite his glassful of white wine and his brooding, literate lyrics, Berninger didn't let anyone forget they were at a rock show. He climbed atop some folks' shoulders during the "carried in the arms of cheerleaders" part of "Mr. November," moved about the crowd with surprising stealth and continuously batted his mic stand to the ground in fits just to set it up neatly again afterward.
You may have noticed there are no pictures of Kings of Leon on this page, and that's because we were not graced with a photo pass. Mind you, it was a select group of magazines, newspapers and blogs that were given such access: A mere 81 outlets made the cut. Enjoy the photos, Southern Living readers! Anyway, when they played "Charmer," a friend of The Spin giggled, "Hey, I love the Pixies!" That was sort of funny, but then the Kings followed it up with an actual Pixies song. Their cover of "Where Is My Mind" was incredibly faithful to the original — almost too faithful, really, right down to those high-pitched "ooh-oohs" in the background, which seemed to be emanating from some kind of backing track. (Unless Matthew or Jared has gained a couple octaves in range and voice-throwing abilities while we weren't paying attention.) They played some new songs, none of which seemed as beachy as we were expecting, and they played the incendiary genitalia song, which even they seem sick of at this point. People sang along to "Use Somebody."
Wait, what were we talking about?
Like any good gaggle of 'Rooers, we decided on mushrooms as a pizza topping for our dinner slices before heading over to the Which Stage at midnight to catch The Flaming Lips — along with heirs Stardeath and White Dwarfs — take our collective state of mind to the dark side of the moon with their adaptation of Pink Floyd's legendary LP of the same name. It was easily one of the most anticipated shows of the entire festival.
The way to see a Lips show is you've gotta be up in the shit. You've gotta have a moving mosaic of balloons and confetti raining down on you like thundershowers of joy and positivity. Unfortunately, the band's uplifting message was no match for the wandering mind of one person in our party who, as the band began their take on Floyd's Dark Side, went to a dark side all his own and started whispering morbid non sequiturs to strangers before fleeing the crowd in a panic, forcing us to follow and try to guide him out to more manageable territories — which was utterly impossible considering that Centeroo at 1 a.m. is a terrifying mélange of moving bodies, flashing lights, clashing sounds and muddy puke-laden sinkholes. Suffice it to say, we weren't able to commit our undivided attention to the more notable second half of the Lips' set.
A hot kilometer away, Daryl Hall & Chromeo were one of the highlights of the festival, for sure. The combo just worked. Do you have any idea how much more awesome Hall & Oates songs sound when they sound as if they were written by Chromeo? A lot better, that's how much. Hall's hair was blowing in a fan like he was some kind of magnificent god, and we consider the pairing something we would actually pay to see again.
By the time we made it backstage to get ready for the LCD Soundsystem show, it was 2 a.m. We had been up since dawn. We had drunk, eaten and otherwise assimilated many, many things, and had walked approximately many, many miles. Our nether regions felt like a cross between the Dagobah System and a piece of corned beef that had been left on the grill too long, then left in the rain, then chewed on by hyenas, spit out and stuffed into a pair of pants. Why were we wearing pants? It had been 100 degrees all day! Where were we? Who were we? We almost started to cry, but then we ran into photog Johnny Kingsbury and crew. We realized we hadn't, uh, taken enough Advil, but we knew we were about to have a great time. And we did. We stood side-stage as James Murphy & Co. came out to "Us v Them," which hit like a shockwave of good vibes that radiated out into a humid night just hours from turning into another brutally hot morning. And it only got better from there. "Drunk Girls," a song we don't really love, felt perfect for that moment, at that tent (This Tent, actually). They could have stopped the show after "All My Friends," and we probably would have been OK with that. "And if it's crowded, then all the better," Murphy sang into the side of his square microphone, as thousands of us bobbed and danced and caromed off each other, " 'Cause we know we're gonna be up late." We were drunk, and the kids looked impossibly tan! A song about getting old made us forget we were getting old! Fuck yeah, Bonnaroo!
"Shit, the tent's on fire!" Oh, that's just the sun roasting our faces off. Good morning, Bonnaroo. We felt old again, but we were about to get lucky (and not with Molly). After taking in a strange but fun Mexican Institute of Sound, we had the good fortune of running into Grimey and Geoff Donovan, who somehow convinced us to join them at the tiny Sonic Stage instead of going off to mix more cocktails. It's a pretty good thing we did, since seeing Bomba Estereo only changed our life. Their chemistry was unreal, bordering on telepathic. One of the best bands we have ever seen. Period.
Jimmy Cliff's set was one of those moments that made us too happy for words. We had never set foot in the pit in front of the What Stage — we're pretty strict about standing at the back of the crowd with arms crossed looking jaded and cursing the wretched humanity in front of us — but we quickly tossed any pretense as Cliff kicked into his version of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" — it's a great song regardless of who sings it, but when you add Jimmy Cliff's astounding voice and a veritable phalanx of top notch musicians, it's enough to put some gravy on your grundle biscuits.
He also performed "Vietnam" off the excellent-yet-overlooked Beautiful World, Beautiful People, updating the lyrics to the reflect the military boondoggle in Afghanistan. He played a bunch of classic ska tunes that we're pretty sure were from the early Prince Buster and Duke Reid catalogs, but we were too busy skanking to take notes.
Next up on the main stage were The Dead Weather, who drew a big crowd into the abusive heat. The Dee-Dub were highfalutin and bluesy, bombastic and high-strung. In many ways it was like a highly magnified version of the set we caught at War Memorial last year, but with a deeper catalog of songs. Or at least a deeper catalog of swagger-jam templates. The band is at their best when Alison Mosshart is out in front of the mix and Jack White is cracking ferociously away on his kit — speaking of which, J.W. seems to have added a lot of stick-twirling moves to his repertoire since we saw him last. A lot. Not that he's ready to challenge Steve Moore (of Rick K and The Allnighters) in the flair department any time soon, but not many are.
Speaking of the weather, we like to think it's no coincidence the clouds gathered and the skies started to rain right as the Melvins, the world's best-known sludge-core outfit, provided the thunder that shook down those refreshing tears from the heavens. They played a few new cuts, which even include — gasp — a ballad that, even in its soft and sludgeless tone, was still pretty goddamn amazing. They did tease with a few minutes of what we thought/hoped/prayed was the opening riff to Bullhead's "Boris." It wasn't, but that's cool, 'cause we had to bail anyway to see Aziz Ansari. Shit was hilarious.
Immediately upon our exit from the Comedy Tent, our fears concerning the Weezer set were slightly alleviated. We could already hear the chorus from "Surf Wax America" blaring from Which Stage. The set was a cherry-picked "best of" culled from the band's entire catalog, using only the most tolerable of their latest material. But the transformation that displeases so many long-time Weezer fans isn't just a sonic one — Weezer is the new Journey. They're a live-action Rock-afire Explosion. Where once Rivers Cuomo trumped his own geekdom from behind his squealing axe, he now often ditches the guitar in favor of dance moves like your dad when he's imitating the rappers you like.
We got bogged down in gridlock, and missed Stevie Wonder's incredible keytar-driven stage entrance. We heard it, though. Wonder himself would probably tell us that music is not about what you see, but what you hear. We're ashamed to admit it, but we were a bit skeptical about how this was gonna go. It can be easy for an icon of Stevie's stature (and age) to disappoint when held to their mythic standards. We were fools.
We found ourselves involuntarily dancing and singing along to a spot-on set brimming with a host of the greatest and most sonically influential pop hits ever committed to the American songbook. Watching Stevie — via giant video screen — sing in fine voice and command the crowd through call-and-response while leading the tightest backing band we've ever heard was the kind of joyous moment that makes dealing with all of Bonnaroo's bullshit worth it.
Stevie Wonder was going to be hard to top, but Jay-Z destroyed it something vicious. While it was pretty much the same exact show that we saw back in November — which incidentally was one of the best shows we've ever seen — when scaled up from a few thousand fans to tens and tens of thousand of fans, that show went from great to monumental. Jay-Z has a shit-ton of songs that even the least rap-savvy folks can sing along to and enjoy. Watching our rocker friends pump their fist to "99 Problems" like it was a Bruce Springsteen song after so much resistance to the idea that Jay-Z could pull off a headlining slot at Bonnaroo was super-duper satisfying. When usually well-behaved, respectable music critics (not us, obvs) start taking off their clothes and screaming during a set, you know you're on to something. We've said it before and we'll say it again: Jay-Z is the single greatest performer of our generation. It was a jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, face-melting spectacle just like you want and need out of a giant show.
We never thought the denouement of our day would ever include watching Gwar, but hey.
The day. We hit. The. Wall. Caitlin Rose's show at the Troo Music Lounge on Sunday was among the best performances we've ever seen from her. Behind the curtain of self-deprecating stage banter was a set of seriously legit country songs, played by a stellar crew of musicians. For this gig, Caitlin was backed by Jordan Caress, Ben Martin, Skylar Wilson, Luke Schneider and Jeremy Fetzer, which is roughly the same band that has been playing with her since last year's Next Big Nashville show. We've still got fond memories of Caitlin's days minus the Blue Ribbon Boyfriends or whatever they're calling themselves these days, but they lend a kind of nuance to her songs that improves on an already good thing.
We saw Phoenix, too, later on, and it was good. We think? We may or may not have been a Bonnaroo Bingo square at some point. Please delete any photos.
You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, but we may have forgotten how to read. Thanks, Bonnaroo.
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