After last month's installment of Road to Bonnaroo turned into a jam-packed hotbox that pushed our tolerance for humanity to its limits, we were prepared for another night of standing uncomfortably close to bros using the word “vibing” entirely too much and fighting off the urge to sleep on a pool table during the singer-songwriters' sets. (We get it! You have feelings!) And yet, shockingly, what we pegged early on as the best Road to Bonnaroo lineup of 2013 was woefully underpopulated — or at least it was as far as Roads to Bonnaroo are concerned. So much so that a party bus full of Bowling Greeners nearly stole the whole thing out from under us. More on that later.
The Wans, a power-trio from Germantown by way of Northern Ireland, drew unlucky and kicked off the night with a shitload of power chords. Singer Simon Kerr professed to being already drunk before launching into a set of post-grunge-y rock 'n' roll that we found to be reminiscent of a better Stone Temple Pilots record — others compared it to “Queens of the Stone Age, but in a good way.” You could tell they liked to party, because they wrote a song called “I Like to Party.” Lyricism! That song about partying ev-er-y day rounded out the band's no-frills set.
Bowling Green's Billy Swayze took a more polished approach at highly marketable pop-rock, playing a style of music that occupies a space in between Huey Lewis songs about Marty McFly and bluesy dad rock. They're the kind of band where a man in a fedora plays the harmonica, if that tells you anything. But if nothing else, the huge caravan of Kentuckians who traveled down for this show ate up Swazye's hunched-over radio rock — a big enough crowd to net him nearly a quarter of the audience vote once the dust settled.
Things took a weird turn after the second song, when Swayze-dog flopped to the ground in an apparent James Brown feint. As he played sick, one of his band members called for a doctor — calls that were met by a leggy brunette in a mini-skirt, who straddled Swayze and fed him what looked like a shot from a pill bottle. We get that it was supposed to be a big rock star moment, but it just came off as gross and exploitative to us.
All that cock-rockery was finally disrupted when Ponychase, the first seed and arguable favorite of the night, ushered in a long line of familiar faces with their more nuanced, reverb-heavy style of synth-pop. If this night was to be decided on raw emotion alone, Ponychase would've blown the rest of the competition out of the water. They stood out from the crowd, not just stylistically (literally nothing else on the bill sounded anything like them) but technically. Though Ponychase fell short of taking the ring, we wouldn't be surprised to see them at The Big Show somewhere down the line.
Bonnaroo veteran Richie Kirkpatrick, who played a tent stage in 2011 as Jessica Lea Mayfield's sideman, called in ringers like fellow 'Roo vet Tristen for some anthemic songs about carnival rides. You know how The Wans sang about partying all the time? Well, Richie (and Ri¢hie) makes you believe it. The double-drummer set-up gives crazy weight to these songs, letting Kirkpatrick and the rest of the band cut loose and get weird. The best compliment we can give about Ri¢hie — and the two bands that followed them — is that they're clearly having fun. The songs may be goofy, but his party-hardy spirit is infectious. As much as we miss Kirkpatrick's defunct band Ghostfinger, we can't argue against Ri¢hie's full-force rock tornado.
If there was a wild card of the night, it was going to be Meth Dad. Tyler Walker, an MTSU grad who founded the 'Boro-based Tour de Fun bicycle fest, is a crowd-participation madman. His party started early in the afternoon, when he opened up his East Nashville home to his Murfreesboro buds so that they could all descend upon Mercy Lounge en masse. It was a clever idea, because Meth Dad only works if enough people are on board. Channeling the power of positive partying, Meth Dad's laptop jams are gimmicky but fun, edging toward the simple style that Andrew WK pioneered — except with dance music. His three-song set featured inflatable hands, a snake of people wearing Christmas lights tromping through the audience and “the biggest game of Red Rover Mercy Lounge has ever seen,” which we think is technically any game of Red Rover. If you were in the thick of it, it was hard not to get caught up in the fun of the moment. The people in the back seemed mostly confused, but we welcomed the return of elaborate Road to Bonnaroo antics.
By the time Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders went onstage, the crowd had thinned significantly — the Bowling Greeners and Murfreeboroans long gone or camped out on the smoking deck — but if Cy cared, he sure as hell didn't show it. His set was a tad less “Oi! Oi! Oi!” than we saw back at Freakin' Weekend, but it was righteous, loud and over in minutes. You've got to respect Barkley & Co.'s uncompromising punk spirit. If nothing else, we would've loved to see Cy pull out a win, just so Bonnaroo would have at least one damn punk band on the bill (aside from Billy Idol, that is).
And then there was Jacob Jones, ringleader of The 5 Spot's Monday night dance party and the unfortunate closer of the night. Jones deftly channels that Motown soul style into his own more Americana-leaning sensibility, backed up by an awesome horn section, but it was clearly not to be. A bummer, to be sure, but Jones seemed to take bad luck placement in stride.
By the end of the night, the votes were cast and even the full might of Bowling Green wasn't quite enough to topple Ri¢hie, who claimed victory in the final Road to Bonnaroo of the season. Good job, Ri¢hie! Now, let's talk about you putting Ghostfinger's “Aminal Eye” back in the rotation.