In all honesty, The Spin was a bit intrigued by Monday night's Road to Bonnaroo lineup. Not necessarily excited, mind you, but curious to check out a bill of bands and artists who we were mostly unfamiliar with. Let's face it: Most of us who are given the task (privilege?) of judging a RTB show usually have a few preconceived opinions about which band might "deserve" the win. We've seen several of Nashville's flagship indie acts come away victorious thanks to votes that were likely based more on an overall body of work than a three-song performance on a Monday at Mercy. So what happens when you have absolutely no bias or allegiances influencing your vote? In our case, you walk away disappointed that a wider range of bands didn't sign up for the party.
OK, OK. So we have seen Courtney Jaye a time or two. But last time we saw her she was still proudly dedicated to a tropical-inspired sound that always struck us as beautiful and refreshingly unique, if a bit contrived. Now she's found the misfortune of opening an RTB show two years in a row. As the crowd burgeoned around us, we realized Courtney has dropped much of her signature Hawaiian accouterments, and is now just belting out solid, straightforward pop songs in a hearty contralto that reminded us of Stevie Nicks — or maybe it was her high-waisted jeans and Dazed and Confused hairdo. Regardless, It was a great start to the evening, and a reminder of how Nashville artists tend to be at their best when they keep things understated. In other words, Nashville's finest talents, like Ms. Jaye, let their songs and voices speak for themselves.
Would the ensuing artists follow Courtney Jaye's "take it or leave it" style? Nope. The next four bands pretty much blurred together. Ravello stuck out, mainly for being the most bombastic. These guys didn't have their sights set just on playing Bonnaroo ... they were gunning for a slot on the main stage, baby. This very-well-equipped quartet struck us as a throwback to the Movement Nashville days — what AutoVaughn would have sounded like if they had toted around 36-inch pedalboards and drug huge, rack-mounted amp heads and effects processors. Imagine kids with Belmont chops playing garden-variety modern arena rock and you get the picture. We spotted a clutch of smokin' hot blondes in designer dresses carrying huge Prada bags right in front of the stage as Ravello played. They were earnestly swaying in between sips of vodka tonics. So there ya go.
Oh No No, Sol Cat and The Electric Hearts followed in succession. We honestly can't remember much to distinguish the three. Oh No No took the stage to a corny canned sound collage that fell flat. Lead singer dude tried to get the crowd to clap along to some grooves, but the beer drinkers were having none of it. Then, with the closest attempt at a "gimmick" we saw all night, he tried to throw garbage bags full of balloons out to the crowd. They immediately fell to the ground, and we saw a handful of people in the crowd proceed to stomp on them. Yikes. But what about the music? By the third song it reminded us of Lenny Kravitz. It got a lukewarm response.
Sol Cat lost us at the name. There was a dude with a bandanna around his forehead singing. From the back of the room, he looked like Steven Tyler and sounded a bit like him too. By this time, the room was getting full, but most people seemed to be more interested in smoking on the deck than participating in the battle of the bands. The Electric Hearts followed with standard-fare classic riff rock fronted by a gal who was singing like she was at Madison Square Garden. By the end of their set, we dangerously close to being bored, and judging by the response, so was the crowd.
During the changeover, we figured it was definitely time for another drink. And a shot. We turned from the bar and saw what looked like Majestico setting up on stage. Turns out it was actually Cream/Scene favorites Fly Golden Eagle, an outfit that of course features some familiar characters in the Majestico commune. MC Drew Mischke introduced them as "the band that has recently been opening for The Alabama Shakes," and our spirits lifted as Fly Golden Eagle hammered straight into a groovin' soul number featuring some pretty out-there stuff by a cat on sax. The second song, a Spiritualized-inspired droney jam, was badass. We rejoiced in finally seeing a band kick out some rock 'n' roll that sounded like it had been brewed in a sweaty basement on the East Side rather than in a Belmont studio or a rehearsal space at S.I.R. And for the first time of the evening, the crowd actually came alive! Chants of "One More Song!" broke out while Fly Golden Eagle packed up their shit and got back to drinking.
So, turns out Captain Midnight Band is a jam band, but in all honesty, we haven't had so much fun watching a jam band in years. With a lead singer/guitarist wearing sunglasses with green glowing eyes and a conical Vietnamese hat, this was a band that was born to play Bonnaroo. And really, as jam bands go, it was pretty impressive. Captain Midnight already has a dedicated fan base, as we saw several folks in the audience sporting the Vietnamese-hat-and-glow-stick combo. Slappin' bass and Trey-inspired guitar solos ... if only there were passed out hippies on the floor and the smell of a nasty porta-potty, we would've felt like we actually were at the 'Roo.
Nashville veteran and renaissance man Tyler James had the unenviable task of closing the show with his new project, Escondido. They played to a backdrop of footage from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which may have been a choice that was a bit too obvious. Still, we are suckers for any kind of spaghetti Western-inspired tunes, and especially big tremolo guitars, which Escondido gave us a heavy dose of. James and the band, comprised of familiar Nashville pros, seemed content to play backup to a fresh-faced blond vocalist who sounded eerily similar to Nikki Lane. It's a shame they played at the end of the night, when most of the thinning crowd was ready to leave (including us). We would have loved to see a longer set of the desert rock. We made a note to keep an eye out for them on future bills.
So the night ended with us casting our votes (hint: we voted for the winner) and taking stock of "the state of the scene" as we walked back to our car. The veteran artists you would expect to do well did well. Still, we couldn't help but wish one of the Freakin' Weekend lineups had supplanted the forgettable acts of the evening, if for no other reason than the crowd would have had exponentially more fun. As it turned out, the band that is most associated (albeit loosely) with Nashville's now world-famous underground punk scene took home the victory. So at least we got a good night's sleep.