The more 'Roo changes, the more it stays the same. For all the new features this year — pathways made with sand rather than muddy gravel, RFID chips, artists' passes with holograms of a winking Bob Ross on them — Bonnaroo is still an overgrown, sun-scorched carnival midway crawling with freaks. And right out of the gate, we were able to mark a few items off of our Bonnaroo Bingo cards.
The Spin breezed into Centeroo for Uncle Skeleton's set at The On Tap Lounge — the first set of the entire festival. With roughly a dozen folks in their ranks, Uncle Skeleton's funk-fueled electro-pop served as a beacon for early-bird hippie types and familiar faces alike. Shirtless dancers peppered the hundreds-strong crowd that bunched near the tiny stage, and we overheard a particularly zealous listener describe the tunes as "baby-makin' music." There was a Talking Heads cover in there — "Crosseyed and Painless," if memory serves — and folks even called for an encore.
Later at The Other Tent came a set from Nashville's most high-profile, willowy redhead supermodel-turned-songstress, Karen Elson. While we were still orienting ourselves, the crowd erupted in a brief fit. Why? What could it be? Oh, Elson's old man Jack White was visible side-stage for a fleeting moment. (Little did any of us know that, the very next day, the two would host a party to celebrate their divorce at an undisclosed private location.) Elson's band was made up of the expected cast of Third Man all-stars, among them Greenhornes/Raconteurs bassist "Little" Jack Lawrence and the always stellar Patrick Keeler. Elson's spooky, gauzy Americana tunes were strong and spacious enough to leave her players room to show off their chops, and her voice was stronger than we anticipated.
Wavves' angular riffage, loopy melodies and psych-influenced-punk-influenced indie rock had the summer feeling in full force. They wound things down with a cover of Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown," but given the crowd's flatlined reaction, we may have been among the few who recognized it. We straggled over to The Other Tent to catch Wavves' better half Bethany Cosentino and her Best Coast — much in the same vein as Wavves, yet significantly different. Let's put it this way: We understand there's essentially two kinds of popular marijuana strands. Those heavy in THC provides your spacy head trips (talkin' bout Wavves), and those high in cannabinoids result in more of a body buzz (Hey! Best Coast!).
On we went to The Walkmen at That Tent. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser — probably just about the most dependable modern frontman there is, as far as we're concerned — was decked out in a classy summertime suit and sounding like the Rod Stewart of post-punky indie rock. The Walkmen have never once disappointed. All the crowd-pleasers were there — "The Rat," "In the New Year," so on — and Lisbon's "Juveniles" ... that shit's just straight-up life-affirming.
"I used to live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and I am not ashamed," said Sharon Van Etten as she introduced "Don't Do It" to a smattering of applause at Which Stage around noon. "This is a song about there." Van Etten's songs, introspective and raw, aren't exactly noodle-dancing material (though a few gave it a try), so the fact that she held a midday festival crowd rapt for an entire set — which included two songs performed with just guitar and voice — should tell you something.
Our own hometown champ Chancellor Warhol deeee-stroyed the On Tap Lounge shortly thereafter. But then again, Chance's mix of big beats, high energy and Southern charm is a pretty fair representation of what the festival itself is, so it wasn't a surprise when there were hundreds of people bouncing in unison, pumping their fists and generally treating Chance and his insanely tight band like headliners instead of way-way-openers.
One thing was clear during Justin Townes Earle's set at The Other Tent on Friday: JTE sculpts a narrative with his banter and set arrangement that's telling of his family ties and the tradition he was raised in. Aside from a couple of Ben Sollee pop-in contributions, Earle was armed with an all-female backing band, a killer Southern-boy smile and enough quick-lipped vaudevillian banter to feed a few ventriloquist dolls. Also, Earle admitted that he "likes drugs," but tries not to do them.
The crowd for rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson started to fill about the time her crack band The High Dollars introduced her with a delectably sleazy version of Link Wray's "Rumble." She launched into a furious "Riot in Cell Block #9," then surveyed her 50-plus year career, including selections off her Jack White-produced LP The Party Ain't Over. Indeed it ain't. Despite the heat and dust she lacked neither fire nor energy. And the band proved just as supple. A three-piece horn section offered just the right color for each song, while Nashville instrumental wonder Chris Scruggs used his lap steel to liven every tune with sonic hotfoots, stingers and squalls.
That night, stretching out before the group of scruffy Kentuckians known as My Morning Jacket was a crowd large enough to populate a midsized city. If the set that followed proved anything at all, it's that Jim James & Co. have arrived, primed to hoist that major tent-pole. Their latest album, Circuital, is tailor-made for epically massive festivals. It's the kind of rock nobody makes anymore, like the band is stepping back from that electronic ledge and rediscovering their bread and butter. They finished with Preservation Hall Jazz Band-backed "Dancefloors" and "One Big Holiday." Immediately after, paragliders swirled overhead, dusting the crowd with blue glitter like iridescent snow, and scores of glow sticks were hurled by the crowd in neon firecracker bursts.
It not only warmed our icy hearts simply to see JEFF the Brotherhood rocking The On Tap Lounge, but also the horde of Nashville locals who came out for the occasion. Their We Are the Champions (out this week) is a dirty, stoner-pop platter that sits lethargically betwixt the conjoined testicles of Weezer and Boris. And while it'd have warmed our hearts another degree or two — Celsius — to have seen them, say, at The Other Tent, The On Top Lounge gave us some of the much-needed intimacy a festival of this immensity often lacks. We heard later that JEFF's raucous crowd brought down the barricade in front of the stage ... we apparently didn't have our wits about us enough to notice.
The cinematically themed stage design for Arcade Fire's set at What Stage couldn't have been more appropriate, as the Canadian-slash-Texan superstars of wide-eyed suburban angst sang and played every note like it could be their last ever. Last time we caught Win Butler & Co. was at last year's Lollapalooza, and now they perform with the same gracious humility, but with the confidence of a band that ... well, was playing for tens of thousands of people, just won a fucking Grammy and can still get away with playing a hurdy-gurdy. After Butler climbed on the barricade beside us — we would've snapped a pic, but The Spin was too busy supporting the weight of his strapping Mormon-bred hock as he saturated us with Butlersweat — Arcade Fire unsurprisingly encored with "Wake Up" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)."
Big Boi's set at The Other Tent — holy shit, that was an incredible show. Don't be surprised if we see the OutKast founder taking on one of the big stages in years to come — between his small army of a band, his deep catalog of stone-cold classics and his full-on, no-holds-barred performance style (and small dancing child), he's got everything necessary to own the whole damn festival.
Lil Wayne on the Which Stage was the most underwhelming thing we saw all weekend. Yes, Weezy does have a ton of good-to-great music, but people forget that he releases almost twice as much mediocre-to-crappy material. We were expecting a hella party, and what we ended up with was, um, not so much.
Dennis Coffey on the What Stage first thing on Saturday afternoon: quite possibly the best set we have ever heard. Yeah, we said it. Coffey may have just released his first solo album in a couple of decades, but the dude is anything but rusty, dropping the heavy-heavy monster funk on that sun-scorched field. The man has the most blistering guitar tone you've ever heard. Sweet Lord, does he have a badass tone.
Bill Bailey and Donald Glover were our first Saturday comedy stops. Bailey, we're sad to say, didn't translate as well as we'd expected. His energetic performance with occasional bits of songs were enough to satisfy The Spin, but not, it seemed, the rest of the crowd. And as for super-kewt Donald Glover? We liked Glover's stand-up set a lot more than Childish Gambino — his hip-hop act, which we caught on Thursday night. Glover's just one of those people who possesses genuine charisma. His routine was basic in that it was about sex, dating, Community and race, but what can we say? He's just a naturally funny dude who found the exact correct career path.
We headed toward That Tent for a set from Tennessee-frequenting Rhode Islanders Deer Tick. While we missed the previous night's apparently badass Deervana set — that's what they call it when they play Nirvana covers ... duh — they did perform the second Replacements cover we got to hear in as many days. (DT played The Mats' "Waitress in the Sky," while Justin Townes Earle had done "Can't Hardly Wait" the previous day.)
Alison Krauss and Union Station dueled the devil with some deft finger-picking, jammy Appalachian bad-assery, and the singer's preternaturally true, melancholy voice. But one can only be so earnest in lethal heat, so we abandoned the sun-scorched Which Stage for That Tent, where we found iconic country standards sung by the aging progeny of a coal miner. The crowd fucking adored Loretta Lynn, and she was eager to please. "Anything y'all want to hear," she drawled, then proceeded to play the songs we all wanted to hear anyway: "Blue Kentucky Girl," "Fist City," "You Ain't Woman Enough (to Take My Man)" and a medley weaving Patsy Cline greats like "Walking After Midnight" and "I Fall to Pieces."
We probably would've been better off checking out Mumford and Sons at The Station Inn or that Nashville house show earlier this year, but really, music that relies on an audience clapping along to quarter notes — as the Mumfords' seems to — is best heard in the midst of thousands of people doing exactly that. Truth be told, during Mumfords' set we were really more enamored with watching the crowd. Onstage were a couple of pasty Brits with mandolins and other stringed cheese grinders. It's the crowd that really gave weight to the anthemic, well-written but ultimately pedantic plainsongs that the band were so passionately harmonizing over onstage.
Bootsy Collins was definitely, well, Bootsy Collins. There's no one like Bootsy, and there never will be — even if his set did start over an hour late. The Rust Belt funk legend and P-Funk bassist laid down some serious strangeness that was seriously fun, but we have to admit we didn't get too far into the crowd — there was some furious noodle dancing going on, and I didn't have the energy to noodle right back at 'em. We're just not noodle folks, even when the funk is that hot.
We swung around the bulky crowd at What Stage to watch Nashville's adopted sons, The Black Keys, as they played a sturdy, familiar set. It's familiar because the Keys are at the back end of their record cycle, and have honed their show into a brutish, pummeling skuzz-blooz jab. How wonderful is it to see Dan and Pat, the boys from up the street (whom you may catch on a given afternoon in Nashville's Brown's Diner), delighting tens of thousands? Even more wonderful when you see that the crowd is cheering and singing along to tunes from 2004's Rubber Factory just as heartily as to last year's Brothers.
Buffalo Springfield took the Which Stage at 9:30 and kicked into a decent rendition "On the Way Home," but it wasn't until the second song — the better known "Rock & Roll Woman" — that the familiar harmonies of frontmen Richie Furay, Stephen Stills and Neil Young really started to resonate. The Furay-fronted numbers were snoozers, but Stills was solid, and his guitar work got better as the night went on, and Young, as usual, was electrifying. Dude still sings as well as ever, and plays guitar like he's possessed by demons. The highlight was the encore, an incendiary "Rockin' in the Free World" (a song born 20 years after Buffalo Springfield broke up).
At the nearby On Tap Lounge was hometown sweetheart Tristen. Tristen has a whole bunch of rich and charming arrangements that fly around your head like little cartoon birds in a Don Knotts Disney film, and watching these Manchester-by-way-of-wherevers getting into it even more than we were assured us that Ms. T is way more than a Nashville phenomenon. As a brief, flashing and perfectly timed thunderstorm pushed dozens of folks to seek refuge near the stage, the crowd grew into a concentrated, teeming mass of friends, old fans and new fans alike. Even when the PA briefly went out, locals sang along with Tristen in a big "Fuck You" to nature's attempt at spoiling Nashville's fun. Special moment.
As soon as we set foot into the What Stage region, we heard the bowel-rumbling bass-drop of Eminem's opening "Won't Back Down," and caught a glimpse of the towering screens back-lighting the airborne hands of 80 or so thousand festivalgoers aggressively bopping up and down. Em's set — which was enhanced sonically by the stadium-rock dynamics of a killer backing band and aided by hype man Mr. Porter of D12 fame — was a showcase for the rapper's uncontainable fury, and watching it felt like enduring a two-hour tongue-lashing. Still, Em's performance was as fun as it was exhilarating to watch — true to his word, Slim Shady indeed fuckin' killed Bonnaroo.
Then came the incredible, unstoppable Dr. John. And while a Dr. John show is never anything less than pure funk perfection, the inclusion of The Original Meters and Allen Toussaint was almost too much for our little brains to handle. Oh, and then to top it all off, they were performing the Doctor's classic — and entirely appropriate — album Desitively Bonnaroo. Do the math. That shit was wild!
Girl Talk did exactly what one would expect Girl Talk to do on a stage with a few 1,000 people clustered in front of it. Gregg Gillis' multi-laptop jam-up skittered and scattered through the best and worst elements of hip-hop, classic rock, contemporary guilty pleasures and every pop under the sun to make a postmodern dance mix that easily had these folks workin' it till 4 a.m.
John Waters tore our shit up. In what was more of a comedic one-man show than traditional stand-up routine, he ran through stories about the making of some of his most famous films, and what would be suitable alternate careers for a man with his particular tastes and proclivities. This man knows his trash culture.
Waters ended just in time for us to trek through the 1930s Dust Bowl — I mean Centeroo — over to The Other Tent to see Robyn. We already know that, as a Swede, she's better than us. No need to rub it in our faces. Punching the air and spinning around like a sugar-rushed 7-year-old is oddly charming when done by a pop singer, and she's the only woman we've ever seen eat a banana onstage. Was it sexy? Nope! She tore into that thing like a lion eating a gazelle. Robyn rules.
Every year, festival organizers find a way to keep us there late on Sunday by scheduling bands like Phoenix and The White Stripes. This year it was The Strokes at Which Stage. Basically, if you've seen The Strokes once, you've seen them a hundred times. They're not a band that personalizes individual performances, and their live renditions of catalog cuts like "Last Nite," "Reptilia," "Hard to Explain" and "Take It or Leave It" are fiercely faithful to their studio arrangements — all the way down to the guitar tones and snare drum tuning.
Anyway, Bonnaroo, we know we act like we never want to see you again come Monday morning. And yes, you can be a salty mistress — turning our skin different colors and sending us on our way smelling like a garbage taco. But you know we love you. You could have anybody you want. Thanks for letting us enter you again and again. You rock us every time.
Was our Bonnaroo coverage as exhausting to read as it was to assemble? Wade through unabridged reviews and full photo slideshows at nashvillecream.com, and if you have any pointers for next year, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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