Last weekend was the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival's 12th year, and The Spin was there with bells — and little else — on. We're getting pretty damn good at this thing, if we do say so ourselves. For our full, extensive coverage and slideshows, visit NashvilleCream.com. See our highlights below.THURSDAY
Our tent freshly pitched early Thursday afternoon, we were just able to get to the On Tap Lounge in time to see Ri¢hie kick off the whole shebang. We've enjoyed watching Richie Kirkpatrick's band grow, and their recently expanded lineup repped Nashville right on this steamy afternoon. Featuring Matt "Mr. Jimmy" Rowland on keys and Tristen's Tristen and Birdcloud's Jasmin Kaset and Makenzie Green on the BGVs, the outfit was resembling the superstar rock bands of the '70s, Concert for Bangladesh style.
Thursday nights at Bonnaroo traditionally don't have a headliner, but can we just go ahead and say Killer Mike headlined the shit out of Thursday? Because that's exactly what he did. Mike's been lurking around the Atlanta scene for more than a decade now, partnering up with OutKast and the rest of the Dungeon Family for a minute, but he's really hit his stride lately with his collaborations with backpack rapper El-P. Although El-P wasn't down on the farm — and thus, not available to rip through some of their new Run the Jewels collaboration — Mike leaned on cuts from his most recent El-P-produced record, RAP Music, with jams like "Big Beast," "Go" and "Reagan."FRIDAY
You can't really ask for more from a Bonnaroo Friday than a perfect, cloudless day and some scorching local soul. Road to Bonnaroo winners Alanna Royale were the perfect aperitif, kicking things off with a blazing set of rock 'n' soul that, given the gorgeous weather, felt like a burlier cousin to classic Carolina beach music.
Soon after, Mr. Jonny Fritz and his A-list cast of Nashville sidemen were filling Centeroo with the sweet strains of mirthful country music from the Sonic Stage. Ever the sight-gagster, Fritz was sporting a neck brace and a nose bandage seemingly for no reason in particular. Between his good-natured banter, Dad Country standout "Ain't It Your Birthday" and British steel master Spencer Cullum Jr. contributing talk box on songs like "Night Rider," Fritz & Co.'s set was a hit for the familiar faces and Dad Country newcomers alike.
The opening notes of "Poor Places" rang from What Stage as virtuosic Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche clicked, shook and rattled sundry percussion implements. The band only had to get two songs in (to "Art of Almost," specifically) before Nels Cline burst into his flurry of effects-laden, maddened guitar solo wildness. A big chunk of the first half-hour featured an awful lot of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot material, which we certainly won't complain about, even if the crowd largely seemed to seethe with folks coming and going to and from other stages. Understated frontman Jeff Tweedy and his band are sort of the Coca-Cola of dad rock: They're consistent, they're American, they're refreshing in that eternally familiar sort of way, and they're never quite as remarkable as the first time you experienced them. Still, "California Stars" from Mermaid Avenue sounded especially lush thanks to contributions from special guests Calexico — on two accordions and two horns, the Calexters bolstered an already pleasant folk anthem.
But Wu-Tang Clan was bringing the motherfucking ruckus at Which Stage, and so we moseyed. We've been waiting 20 damn years to see this show, and it was exactly the payoff we were hoping for — posse cuts for days! There is no greater weapon in all the hip-hop arsenal than a posse cut — it's what the genre is founded on, obvs — and Wu-Tang was straight dropping bombs. While the Wu has a massive catalog, the set was primarily built around their debut Enter the Wu-Tang 36th Chamber and the slew of singles and solo records that surrounded it; basically all the hits and some deep cuts for the Wu nerds in the crowd. (There were a lot of Wu nerds in the crowd.) We'd wondered exactly how they would address the whole "ODB is dead, and it's too early to hologram" problem, but the Clan went all in, with the whole gang jumping and swapping bars over classics like "Shimmy Shimmy Ya." And while we were a little disappointed by the lack solo singles — we had to wait until that night's Superjam to see Ghostface rip "Daytona 500" — the crowd's energy and the group's ferocity combined to overcome what ever nerdly gripes we had.
Seeing as how Paul McCartney is just about the biggest name to play Bonnaroo's What Stage in the festival's 12 years of existence, The Spin wasn't too surprised when we encountered countless bottlenecks and cattle-herding-type scenarios as the Beatle and his four-piece backing band ripped through an opening trifecta of "Eight Days a Week," "Junior's Farm" and "All My Loving." But once we made it into the couple-thousand-ish-capacity barricaded-off bubble down in front, McCartney was taking a moment to "drink this all in" for himself, scanning the crowd with a pleased grin. Then it was back to ripping effortlessly through lithe bass lines on that iconic Hofner of his, pointing his headstock skyward ... well, iconically. That's the thing about being an icon — everything you do is, by default, pretty much iconic.
The entirety of the set was peppered with Paul's wonderfully casual bits of banter: clowning on one fan's overly verbose sign, noting that he smelled some "pretty good weed out there" and telling a particularly gob-smacking story about Jimi Hendrix. After playing an instrumental snippet of "Foxy Lady," he informed us that Hendrix learned and played "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" only two days after the album of the same name was released. Paul, in most understated fashion, told us that was a pretty cool memory for him personally.
There were the poignant moments, like when Macca played his Linda-inspired "Maybe I'm Amazed," or when he dedicated "My Valentine" from last year's Kisses on the Bottom to his current wife Nancy — although, seeing the gigantic faces of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman (the two actors were in the "Valentine" music video) onscreen was a little disorienting. Most heartrending, though, were McCartney's solo performances of "Blackbird" and the Lennon-inspired 1982 memorial tune "Here Today" — both of which were played to a strikingly quiet audience as Paul climbed into the sky on an LED-illuminated platform, all while paper lanterns floated from the crowd and off into the night. Also goosebump-inducing were Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and a ukulele-centric version of Harrison's "Something."
The main set ended with a solid one-two: an overwhelming assault of pyro and fireworks during "Live and Let Die" — the fiery blasts from the lip of the stage warming our faces in quick flashes — before the sing-along to end all sing-alongs, "Hey Jude." Paul returned to the stage waving a Tennessee flag for the first of three encores, going on to tell us, "You are something, Bonnaroo" before hammering through "Day Tripper," "Get Back," "Helter Skelter" and more and sealing the deal with the Abbey Road medley of "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight" and "The End."SATURDAY
As we found a spot in What's stage-right scaffolding just before 7 p.m., The Spin spotted one young lady holding a sign that read "Björk, I've waited 21 years for this moment" and weeping uncontrollably. Indeed, the godmother of modern art-pop has that kind of effect on some people, and when she took the stage — on the heels of her 14-piece mostly blonde female choir and two-piece band — we were delighted (but absolutely not surprised) at the tiny Icelander's outlandish wardrobe selections. Clad in a silver dress covered in bulbous little lumps and wearing a mask of sparkling crystal spires that surrounded her entire head, Björk galloped and scooted across the stage, interpretive-dancing her way through songs with absolute purpose. Her choir, wearing brass-and-blue tunic-like dresses, bobbed and bounced like a rogue box of Christmas ornaments during the gorgeous "Crystalline," and their pitch-perfect harmonies bolstered the sheer sonic splendor of "Bachelorette." Also on point was Björk's percussionist Manu Delago, who played with astounding precision a pair of what's known as Hangs — pan drums that are played with the bare hands — during "One Day." The explosive electro-punk rave-up "Declare Independence" was a cathartic end-of-set moment, with Björk demanding that we raise our flag higher and higher.
Our feelings toward the Saturday night main stage headliner had ridden the roller-coaster from "meh," to "whoa, hope that dude's OK," when we heard about Mumford & Sons bassist Ted Duane's surgery to treat a brain aneurysm last week and the band's subsequent cancellation, to "please let the replacement be Brian Eno doing Here Come the Warm Jets, pretty please" and back to "meh" when Jack Johnson was announced as the pinch-hitter on Friday. On tired and dingy Bonnaroo Day Three feet, we shuffled to What Stage, where the savior of the day, who was already in the Midstate this weekend for a private gig at Third Man Records, appeared promptly at 9:30 p.m. with his backing trio. They suffused the teeming masses with beachy good vibes, causing not a few of them to simply drop where they stood, which created a minefield of partied-out Bonnaroovians. For every napper, there was at least one true fan who knew every word of every song, from hits like "Still Wishing, Still Dreaming" to a cut from the Curious George soundtrack; showing how well he knows his audience, an "aww"-inspiring Johnson mentioned he was making sure to play that tune before the parents out there had to put the kiddos to bed. Two new songs were debuted, including one written about the whole experience of covering for the Mumfords. The other was a work in progress, and exemplified why Jack Johnson just isn't in our wheelhouse. Not everything has to be as challenging as, say, Björk or Albert Ayler, but if you're going to write a happy love song, it's got to have some meat to keep us engaged.
Little Nashville had once again gathered at the crowded On Tap Lounge, this time for the stylings of homegrown guitar whiz William Tyler. For much of his set, he was joined by a three-piece backing band: Luke Schneider on steel, Reece Lazarus on bass, and Jamin Orrall on drums. Songs from Tyler's Merge debut Impossible Truth retained their brain-burrowing hypnotism, but with the added dimensions of a strong rhythm-section backbone and sweeping steel melodies, the tunes were as transfixing as ever we've heard them.
If nothing else, R. Kelly sure as hell knows how to make an entrance. At the strike of 11:30 p.m., Kells appeared above the Which Stage, riding in the bucket of a fully extended cherry picker, hovering above the stage's giant spinning question mark for about half of "Ignition (Remix)." And then, somewhere around the line "It's the freakin' weekend, baby, I'm about to have me some fun," R. Kelly got stuck. Or at least that's the best guess we have for what happened. Suddenly, the lights cut and the music dropped out. With no explanation, the stage was dark for a good five or six minutes, the truck slowly lowering R. Kelly to ground level. Here's how good a performer R. Kelly is — we honestly weren't sure if this was part of the show or not. And once he finally got to solid ground and finished what he started, we had basically already forgotten that somebody nearly needed to call the fire department to get R. Kelly out of a tree. Undeterred, he hit the stage running with a medley of jams like "Bump N' Grind," "Sex in the Kitchen," "I'm a Flirt" and his remix of Kanye West's "Flashing Lights." The only thing missing was a spotlight shooting out of his crotch, as described by Aziz Ansari in his first comedy special. But, we guess the swarm of white balloons released after "I Believe I Can Fly" will just have to do.SUNDAY
Oh, how they grow up. It seems like just yesterday that JEFF the Brotherhood was playing for a rowdy crowd at the On Tap stage during Arcade Fire's headlining set — now they've got a tent all to themselves. The Bogus Bros seem to have found a happy medium between their gruesome twosome shows and the tunes with a filled-out band — first playing their straightforward psych-punk jams as a duo ("Shredder" and "Bummer," which they dedicated to their dad for Father's Day, come to mind) and then shifting into psych mode with Christina Norwood and Karl Bergman appearing on Hypnotic Nights cuts and wonkier jams. Also making an appearance? Two of those inflatable waving tube guys from outside car dealerships. Showmanship!
Normally, The Spin tends to take movie-star music projects with a grain or 50 of salt, so the prospect of Ed Helms' Bluegrass Situation Superjam sounded only slightly more promising than, oh, Tyler Perry's Def Polka Party. But Helms is all business when it comes to bluegrass — his ma's a Nashville native, he informed the crowd — with credible banjo and vocal chops, and he may be the only person who could wear a cap that calls to mind a Depression brakeman and look less nerdy. Helms did just fine with his Lonesome Trio of buddies Ian Riggs and Jason Tilove, but the show took off once the special guests started lining up across the That Tent stage: Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and Bryan Sutton playing head to head on Doc Watson's "Lay Down My Old Guitar," vocalist Aoifa O'Donovan nailing Emmylou Harris' "Boulder to Birmingham," former SteelDriver Chris Stapleton standing the audience's hair on end with his rugged-but-right vocals, and a climactic summit gathering Dan Tyminski, Sam Bush (who managed to slip in a few bars of "Mannish Boy") and the eternal Del McCoury, boasting a meringue of perfectly sculpted white hair.
Alas, the first victim of the new Bonnaroo performance benchmark set by McCartney might have been the festival's closer: a somewhat oddly chosen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who opened with The Byrds' "So You Want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" just as the skies literally threw cold water on the party. (The rain stirred the crowd a few songs later to a defiant sing-along with "I Won't Back Down.") As if aware they were filling a slot occupied in the past by a closing-night jam, Petty and his bandmates stretched out on extended versions of "A Woman in Love (It's Not Me)" and his Traveling Wilburys' Springsteen goof "Tweeter and the Monkey Man"; hell, he even tossed the jam base a bone with a nifty cover of "Friend of the Devil."
But as McCartney showed, it takes more than a big back catalog of hits to make a legendary Bonnaroo main-stage performance. It requires a grand vision as well as the boldness to play the crowd of 90,000 like an instrument — not just to move them, but to be moved by them. By contrast, this performance was business as usual: a perfectly fine theater show, but somewhat underwhelming as Bonnaroo 2013's main-stage finale. Petty, perhaps the only performer alive capable of looking simultaneously haggard and chill, was very nearly upstaged by his longtime lead guitarist and ally Mike Campbell, whose air-raid solos on the sidewinding blues "Good Enough," "Runnin' Down a Dream" and an epic "It's Good to Be King" were never less than spellbinding. Meanwhile, keyboard wizard Benmont Tench supplied gorgeous sonic shading throughout, with the piano on "Friend of the Devil" a particular standout. A mid-set "Free Fallin' " was disappointingly abrupt, and we're still waiting for "The Waiting." But with "American Girl" as the anthemic closer, Petty made good on his benediction, "We're gonna leave you where it all started" — with ears ringing, and yet hungry for more music.
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