Bonnaroo Thursday isn't always an eventful day: Neither staff nor attendees seem particularly oriented, the 'Roo-mor Mill hasn't really started churning out anything worth paying attention to, and The Spin can never find an arepa stand. But before Day One of Bonnaroo 2013 was in the can, there had already been multiple lineup changes. Word came that Mumford & Sons canceled their Saturday night headlining spot due to bassist Ted Dwane’s recent brain surgery — the Mums are to be replaced by Jack Johnson, we would later discover — DIIV missed their Thursday performance due to a canceled flight, and Earl Sweatshirt dropped off of Friday due to illness. (DIIV will take over Sweatshirt’s slot Friday in The Other Tent.
Oh, but also, The Spin caught the entirety of Paul McCartney’s sound-check set at the closed-off What Stage. Sir Paul played to an empty field, and The Spin watched while hunkered in an otherwise empty catering tent. Thursday was an eventful day.
The Futurebirds were running right on time at This Tent with their urgent, up-tempo country rock. As we understand it, the Athens-based outfit has some Nashville connections, and they'll soon depart on tour with Music City's own Diarrhea Planet. Anyway, The Futurebirds' material landed somewhere near that of Phosphorescent, but with a punkish stage presence like that of Deer Tick.
There was some weirdness in the crowd before J.D. McPherson's set — a singalong to Santana and Rob Thomas' "Smooth" was not something we expected, and the guy trying to amp the crowd with beat-clapping had a hard time keeping his own tempo — but McPherson and band hit the ground running. Like any R&B band worth its salt, they hit the sweet spot between tight and loose, with producer/bassman Jimmy Sutler and their keyboard player making especially killer contributions. They played with the energy curve, rocketing from the high-gear to slow burn with nary a hiccup. Besides their own "Fire Bug" and "North Side Gal," their cool takes on Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley numbers reminded us why Marty McFly made a point to learn their songs.
You guys, Araabmuzik got shot in an armed robbery attempt six weeks ago, and he still brought it harder than 90 percent of the bands we’ll see this weekend — we’re looking at you, banjo players. There’s a certain degree of shooting fish in a barrel when it comes to being the first EDM show at Bonnaroo, but Abraham Orellana earned his waves of crowd-surfing mud people with a genre-bending set of live electronica that radically toyed with the crowd’s by-the-numbers expectations of dance music. When he led them toward a dubstep drop, he hit them with house beats. When those house beats worked toward a natural peak, he switched into hip-hop mode. AraabMuzik was busting out every electro trick he had up his sleeve, and the crowd loved it. We can’t speak for anyone else, but we personally hit peak AraabMuzik when he laid down his beat for French Montana’s strip club rager “Pop That” and sparked a frenzy of dancing we haven’t seen since ... well, the last time we were at Bonnaroo.
Solar Stage was a bit of a new thing for us. The place seemed cool, small and cozy with a lot of shade. The tech hobgoblins were out, however, and the whole stage was running about 15 minutes behind. The Chattanooga ensemble Ogya Afrobeat were definitely worth the wait, however. The well-oiled machine, a classic lineup with drums, horns, and keys in addition to bass and guitars, laid down not only a great Afrobeat groove, but delved into Middle Eastern funk and Soca as well, and everyone in our line of sight was up and moving. The groove was tight, the solos were ripping, but when we started seeing things — namely a guy dressed as an Australian flag — we moseyed on.
Ariel Pink should have played after sunset, really: It’s the perfect kind of music for cool, dark weather, alternately jazzy and bloopy, with enough bass to cave in your chest cavity. Clad in a striped black-and-white quasi-dress ensemble — and looking like Kurt Cobain in a $5 Beetlejuice costume — Pink kicked in with a note that we were watching "the only band worth seeing here." But don't worry: "That's not a diss. It's just a fact." Pink and his full band performed music that feels like theme songs to children’s shows in an alternate universe. The crowd of skinny greaseballs clad in day-denim didn’t seem to appreciate the festival vibe. From our vantage, there was a lone green balloon bopping around the crowd. May we suggest a late-night set next time?we caught at this year's SXSW. The L.A.-based sisters have honed their set over these past few months, and they blew through songs like "Forever," "Falling" and "Don't Save Me" with sisterly chemistry and world-class musicianship. Este Haim — who was making those monstrously entertaining bass faces of hers throughout the set — even snatched a headphone-wearing tot from the crowd at one point (with his mom's permission, of course), bringing him onstage to watch a song from the best seat in the house. "We're sisters from the Valley, and we made it to Bonnaroo!" cried frontlady Danielle at one point, the crowd eating from the palm of her hand. "Fuckin' crazy."
When we caught word that Macca himself was to play a sound-check set on What Stage, you'd better believe The Spin high-tailed it over there. We managed to find an access point behind some porta-potties that leads into the vendor camping area, and then we happened across an empty catering tent. From there — through a little sliver in the canvas of the tent — we watched Paul Goddamn McCartney play "Eight Days a Week," "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," "Penny Lane" (we may have shed a single tear, shut up), "Magical Mystery Tour," a boogie-woogie-ing cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," "Calico Skies," "Lovely Rita," "Bluebird," "Lady Madonna" and "Midnight Special." Sure, it was a bit of a spoiler for tomorrow night, hearing Sir Paul casually breeze through songs, checking various instruments and buzzing along on a jam with the lyric "Bonnaroo, whatcha gonna do?" But to hell with it, back-to-back nights of a Beatle works for us.
There's only so much homework you can do, and we came back to Solar Stage for The Flavor Savers' Beard and Mustache Contest expecting, well, a beard and mustache contest. Imagine our surprise when we found the stage occupied by an actual band from Chicago called The Flavor Savers. The phrase we coined in our notes to describe their performance was "The Sha-Na-Na of Booty Rap." They impressed us with their choreography, harmonies and Miami-style electro beats; if they ever get tired of sending folks on the ROFL-copter, we think they could make it as a serious band. Tech problems were still haunting the stage, and the overly loud keyboards and overly quiet vocals were getting to us, so we never found out whose beards and mustaches had the ultimate power. Book these guys in town with Fistikuffs and Hanzelle, however, and we'll stick around.
Thursday night was slowly becoming all right for dancing, or so we gathered rolling up on That Tent as Django Django had a few thousand bodies set in motion. The shimmery guitar pop of last year's self-titled recording kept an electronic thump under its thumb. Live, however, drum machines blazed, synthesizers rumbled and their three-minute numbers swelled into six-minute jams of psychedelic disco. It’s a sound that often called to mind the live recordings of the Happy Mondays — mind you, without the half-baked and cockeyed banter. Rather, these were well-oiled, tightly wound and well-rehearsed excursions.
In the annals of second winds, there are none more epic than the one we got while hurdling hippies and jumping over passed-out party people to the sounds of Japandroids' “Adrenaline Nightshift." There's nothing like anthemic punk to get the blood flowing and the heart pumping after a day in the sun, and by the time The Spin made to the front we were in full on fist-pump mode belting out every woah-oh and oh-oh-oh with the Canadian duo. Relying heavily on material from 2012's Celebration Rock — which a trusted source told us was partly written at a house in Inglewoood — Japandroids delivered a powerful set of high-energy rock 'n' roll just when we were starting to think we'd be drowned in a see of noodles. The timing was incredible. And if we weren't already in love with this band, we were ready to propose marriage when they closed their set with a cover of the Gun Club's blues punk classic “For the Love of Ivy” AND inserted about 16 bars of “The Garbageman” by The Cramps. The Cramps inside of Gun Club! It was like punk rock Inception, and we couldn't have been more stoked.
Flanked by a white tiger and twin disco balls, Father John Misty took the That Tent stage to the delight of a massive crowd. In stark contrast to his work as J. Tillman, which might have inspired that Onion article about a dude in the woods making the worst album ever, the new material finds him engaging the audience with a phenomenal stage presence. He sang his tunes about falling in love with a woman who'll kidnap him, and bros with matching friendship pentagram tattoos, with the utmost nonchalance, all the while dancing with his mic cable and playing his acoustic guitar behind his head like some kind of folk-rock Hendrix. He told us it was time to "Take my Jesco hat off and get on that unicycle," by which he meant there was a new song to lay down. We remember it was cool and moody, and gave us something to look forward to in his upcoming work.
The Spin had heard an awful lot of hype surrounding English indie-rock outfit ∆ — aka Alt-J. All descriptors we’d read and heard regarding allegedly innovative use of thumping beats, heavy synth riffs and spacy electronics forged into pop structures had our interest piqued. The mob of folks surrounding This Tent — including a few fans scaling the VIP fence for a better look — only strengthened our resolve. Four songs later we were still listening intently for some kind of confirmation. Hints of melodies popped up here and there, and might have passed us by if the crowd weren’t echoing the bands Though the Brits occasionally locked into an infectious groove, their clackity, stock midi drum sounds and keyboard presets sounded more like Coldplay’s Garageband demos than anything we’d even remotely call “innovative." Granted, we seemed to be the lone cynics in this ocean of hyped-up fans who hung on every stale and flimsy note, so maybe we’re the boring ones?
Unlike his compadres in OutKast, Killer Mike’s songs are defiantly lacking in hooks. He says it himself, rapping “this isn’t dance music, it’s R.A.P” in his album/set opening record “Big Beast.” Instead, Mike’s rhymes are challenging and intricate. He delivers them full-force to the back of the crowd and doesn’t let up for air. Sure, he let up from time to time to rock a verse from Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” and other affiliated jams, but even without those respites, Mike’s charisma is undeniable. But, as truly excellent as Killer Mike was, the real stars of the show were the ASL interpreters. We’ve never seen sign language look so gangsta. And with the sight of a woman signing every swear word Mike could come up with — the natural response to seeing someone sign everything you say — stuck in our brain, we stumbled off into the night.
Early morning festival wanderings (2 a.m.? 3 a.m.?) led us to the mushroom fountain in Centeroo — we heard Polyphonic Spree’s “Soldier Girl” playing in the general vicinity and assumed for a moment it was a karaoke stand for night owls. But no, it was actually a performance by the band, a nice and unexpected surprise from the group who had participated along with Rocky Horror Picture Show earlier in the day. Our vantage point wasn’t great, but it was still upbeat and fun, a small performance for both superfans and happy people who happened to be walking by. We understand there are going to be several late-night surprises at the Fountain Stage over the long weekend, so if you happen to be wandering about at 2 a.m.? 3 a.m.? stop by and check it out.