Not to be a complete wristband diva, but landing artist credentials via a pal really does afford you a lot of Bonnaroo opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise. Like, for instance, watching The Roots’ What Stage performance at sundown from the stage-right scaffolding. Or watching The Beach Boys the next day from the very same spot. Or standing onstage with Skrillex as his spaceship took off. Which also happened.
Editing our slew of coverage Saturday — and writing a bit of my own — kept me in the press trailer for a few hours longer than I would have liked, but most of my stress dissipated once I reached Battles’ set at This Tent. I hadn’t seen Battles' mathy strain of experimental rock since the departure of founding member Tyondai Braxton, and on Saturday they replaced Braxton’s pitch-shifted vocals on tunes like the undeniable “Atlas” with tracks. Anyway, hula-hoopers, flag-fliers and hipsters alike were bobbing along to Battles' pulsing electronic grooves, and I was invigorated. I was ready — or so I thought, anyway — for any surprises that might come my way. But, again, this was before Skrillex's spaceship had taken off.
As I strolled past Which Stage after Battles' set, an afternoon Dust Bowl billowed through Centeroo as if called up by the dexterous, old-time roots tunes of The Punch Brothers. There were clap-alongs to virtuosic fiddling, sawing and strumming, but a dusty ol’ picking party in a field makes for about as subdued an atmosphere as you’ll find at the ‘Roo.
Shortly thereafter, the aforementioned credentials swap occurred, allowing me to slip into the photo pit amongst the shutterbugs at the start of The Roots’ What Stage set. Black Thought dedicated the set to departed funk guitarist Chuck Brown as well as The Beastie Boys’ MCA, launching into a verse from “Paul Revere.” After three songs amid the photogs, I was shuffled out of the pit, but I found that I was allowed to climb into the side-stage observation area as The Roots burned through tunes like their “Jungle Boogie”-cribbing “Don’t Feel Right” and every rendition of “Apache” that has ever been released.
It was all smooth transitions and nonstop head-bob material, though it seemed like a sizable portion of the crowd was there due primarily to The Roots’ Fallon gig, not to mention Questlove’s status as Undisputed King of Twitter. But hey, The Roots' 9-to-5 simply proves their work ethic, which was on display as they nailed originals and covers — like a rapid rendition of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” — and as Questlove served as both mascot and band-leader, barking back-ups into one mic and cues into another.
I ceded coverage of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ headlining set to one of my colleagues (stay tuned), opting instead to grab a few beers and make conversation with folks like PUJOL’s Daniel Pujol and The Clutters’ Doug Lehmann in the artist area. But once it was finally time for legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper’s midnight set, I squeezed in among my fellow members of the media for the most literally spectacular performance I’d seen yet. As Cooper entered on a gliding staircase — holding sparklers and wearing a jacket adorned with dangling spider arms — I began contemplating the similarities between the performer and my own father: They’re both in their mid-60s, they’re both Christian Republicans, and they’re both pretty sharp, charismatic dudes. It’s just that one happens to make his living by breezing through iconic hard rock tunes with names like “Black Widow” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” while the other works in … I think it’s HR, basically? I should call my dad.
Regardless, as he brandished a plethora of props — including a crutch (for some reason), several canes that he tossed into the crowd with remarkable indifference (he must have a cane sponsor of some sort) and an actual living snake — I found myself as pleased as I could ever be to hear mindless guitarmonied rock-alongs and campy, corpse-riddled spectacle. Cooper even left the stage for a moment, returning in a jacket with the words “NEW SONG” stenciled across the back as his band (most of them likely around half his age) started into a ... wait for it ... new song. He shed the jacket to reveal a shirt labeled “I’ll Bite Your Face Off,” which was of course the name of the new song. Hilarious and absolutely enrapturing performance.
Drifting aimlessly back toward my camp, I bumped into a horde of familiar-faced Nashvillians en route to Skrillex. Feeling game enough to at least satisfy my professional curiosity, I followed the pack through a barricade and up to the backstage area at Which. Before I quite knew what was happening, I was being asked if I was with Jeremy Todd — the Nashville DJ also known by his handle, Coach — and when I answered in the affirmative (thanks, Jeremy, hope that's cool), I was permitted side stage, finding myself standing before Sonny Moore. Skrillex himself. Surreality bonus points. Turns out that Skrillex has Nashville connections via his tour management.he and Skrills are apparently old pals — seemed to find particularly incredible.
Throughout the performance, I received a crash course on the finer points of DJ sets courtesy of Mercy Lounge’s Drew Mischke and Jensen Sportag’s Austin Sportag. They explained to me the differences between house and dubstep, and that Skrillex is actually quite talented at cutting and scribbling. I’ve seen people scratch, and the guy was scratching, whipping the teeming crowd into a frenzy and earning his paycheck with the hyperactive antics of a kid playing an arcade game on a nine-hour soda bender. Just at the moment Mischke, who’d sworn at some point that the spaceship would take off — seemed to give up hope, his prediction came true: The silver contraption lifted off, its various hinges unfolding, raising Skrillex 20 feet in the air on a concealed platform, where he remained for the rest of the set. Drew was elated. "This is active rock for people on ecstasy." The man wasn't wrong.
I had nothing left in me for Saturday night, so I entered the fray again Sunday at noon for locals Fly Golden Eagle’s set under gray skies at the Great Taste Lounge. They were joined onstage by Square People’s Chris Murray, who provided some jazzy, psychedelic sax over sexy, side-winding grooves. Alabama Shakes frotwoman and FGE pal Brittany Howard watched from side stage throughout songs like the excellent garage-dance sing-along “Psyche’s Dagger” and the new “Double Vision.” Smooth keys and tight, on-top-of-beat grooves have upgraded these dudes from something of a well-kept secret to deservingly beloved locals. Great set.
I reconvened with fellow Creamster Adam Gold to catch The Beach Boys at What Stage. Watching from the observation area above Brian Wilson — where the teleprompter and keyboard placed inside the body of his piano were plainly visible — we had a clear view of the band of ringers that played in a row behind the OG Beach Boys. Though brand-new tunes from their latest, That's Why God Made the Radio, were sprinkled throughout the set, Wilson, Love, Jardine, Marks and Johnston played nearly every hit imaginable: "Don't Worry Baby," "I Get Around," "God Only Knows, "Little Deuce Coupe," "Sloop John B," "409," "Little Surfer Girl." Though Wilson, as expected, didn't do a whole lot of singing, he shared the lead a bit on God Made Radio's titular tune and shined on the classic "Heroes and Villains," his unmistakable tenor as pure as ever. Yes, it was a troupe of super-old, boat-shoe-and-khaki-adorned SoCal rich dudes who moved very little, and Mike Love's inherent smarminess shines through no matter what. But it was moving to hear the spot-on vocal harmonies still coming across spot-on. I was moved.
Sounds of the excellent "Jesus Fever" guided me to That Tent, where Kurt Vile was singing, as predicted, from behind his hair, playing his hypnotizing, spacy, echo-laden bedroom-grunge songs. Good stuff, even if it drags a bit mid-set and is about as far from a spectacle as you'll see at the 'Roo.
The Shins, of course, sounded excellent at Which Stage, but I spent most of my night editing and contributing to our exhausting slew of coverage — Do you feel dirty just from reading it? — before calling it a night. There was the post-apocalyptic party wasteland that remained once I stumbled out of the press trailer — crawfish being sucked at sloppily in the artists' area, dance parties in mud puddles, photogs bragging inanely about their exploits — but I was done. Having left Phish to Jack (although I was happy to hear that Uncle Kenny had a cameo) and the parties to people with fuel left in their reserves, I decided I was done violating and being violated by Bonnaroo 2012. Salty mistress, I'll see you next year.