If you've ever wanted to hit on (or punch) a Nashville Cream contributor, your odds were good Monday night, as the first installment of this year's Road to Bonnaroo series at Mercy Lounge was veritably crawling with "those snarky bloggers," as one observer described us (aw), apparently oblivious of the company we keep. You might have had a hard time picking us out of the crowd, though, as the place filled up fast — folks were already clutching their ballots and eyeing the stage expectantly as the trivia crowd mulled their final question: "Dead or Canadian?"
One twist on the RTB format this year is that the order of bands gets determined by lottery right before the show. Courtney Jaye drew the shortest straw and was tasked with trying to warm up the room with an earnest set of singer-songwriter-y melodiousness. There were some nice harmonies, for sure, and we hear she was playing through some real pain (and against doctor’s orders), but with the expectation of spectacle hanging over everything, it's just that much harder for a soft-spoken artist like Jaye to light up the stage.
As we hung out at the back of the room waiting for the liquor to kick in, we got into a convo about records and such with a friend who offered to introduce us to Nathan Followill. We looked at him, and he looked in our general direction, but we had bands to hear and to judge, after all, and hobnobbing with rock stars is hardly conduct becoming public servants charged with such important work. (We did it for you, Nashville!) Plus, ol' Na-Fo seemed to be having a jolly time without us. If we had money and weren't copping our buzz courtesy of complimentary drink tickets, we'd have wagered he was there to see The Kicks, who were definitely not soft-spoken and definitely imagine themselves being played loudly on the radios of multitudinous bro-piloted SUVs as they're ripping tread-marks into this great land of ours. A Spin associate likened them to Nelson.
The night's award for "best use of the projection screen" goes to Heartbeater — they had the eerie/incendiary visuals on lock. But unfortunately for their Troo Music Lounge aspirations, they kind of shot themselves in the collective pedal board by opting for a set of slower, broodingly atmospheric songs. Don't get us wrong — we have nothing against slower, broodingly atmospheric songs, but in a popularity contest like RTB, flash trumps feeling most every time, and Heartbeater would have done better with a more up-tempo set. At least they've still got those celebrity endorsements.
We weren’t sure if being the only hip-hop act on the bill was going to help Chancellor Warhol or hurt him, but the instant he and his band took the stage, it was clear the crowd was feeling it. Hands went up! We’ve seen the whole MC-with-a-live-band thing misfire before (and let’s be honest, we’ve seen the whole “live band thing” misfire a lot, too), but Chance & Co. brought the noise with a tight, down-and-dirty set that got the boogie shoes in the house moving.
We've said before that we like Evan P. Donohue's style, and the swaying brass section he brought with him Monday night certainly didn't lose him any points with us. His sharp, poppy songs cut just right, and he easily took “best crowd-surfing” honors, since “best” in this case means “only.” For his finale, Donohue pulled off his guitar — nearly losing his glasses in the process — and dashed offstage, only to reappear atop the corner of the Mercy bar, holding a small amp and a microphone as he finished the song like a manic rock ’n’ roll evangelist.
Not to be shallow or anything, but we weren't the only ones who felt bereft by the absence of Majestico's beard. We always kind of thought that the “majestic” in “Majestico” was a reference to the beard's opulent fullness and life-giving power. But apparently we were wrong, because in spite of the follicle deficit — and lack of giant headdress, a feature of last year’s RTB showing — the band still managed to sound good and glammy.
In a nod to their intended destination, Kink Ador delivered the night's most overtly Bonnaroo moment, breaking down the middle of one song and going full-on drum circle, complete with congas and shit, whipping up a stage-wide hand-percussion jam worthy of much stronger substances than our malty libation. An energetic KA easily wrapped up the award for “best trumpet-playing bass player who sings.”
The remaining awards, for “most knocking down of stuff,” “most extremely cut-off Pink Floyd shirt” and “most high-pitched woos” all go to the night’s final act, Tyler Bryant, who can play a lot of notes very fast on his guitar. If you’ve ever wondered what Mike’s Pawn Shop would be like if they could shred like Jonny Lang, which you’ve never wondered, let’s just say that Bryant played like he was opening for Cheap Trick at Budokan, not closing out an 8 off 8th, and that was good enough to land him third in the voting. Just ahead of him, Evan P. Donohue nabbed the silver, and Chance Warhol punched his ticket to Coffee County.