Well, The Spin survived once more, by God. From the opening strains of Ri¢hie to the final notes of Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers shutting it down with "American Girl," we entered the trenches for the 12th annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and came out with another fresh set of battle scars. Now, for the final round of this year's war stories ...
Playing to a bunch of bleary-eyed, hangover-nursing 'Roosters first thing on Sunday isn't the easiest task in the world, but Kacey Musgraves powered through it in style. As noted by contributor Jewly Hight in her June 6 cover story, Musgraves' writing is informed by a cut-the-shit attitude, which carries over into her stage presence: warm and engaging, but don't think for a second she's here to goof off. Recalling that the last time she was at Bonnaroo she was sneaking in to see Nine Inch Nails, she and her crack band tore through cuts from her debut album, broke into an old-school horseshoe configuration for a great rendition of "Act Naturally," and dropped Weezer's "Island in the Sun" and Marley's "Three Little Birds" for the bros and bro-ettes — the "ugh" factor of which was remedied by the gritty edge on "Stupid." This kind of made us wonder when we might see a country artist cutting PUJOL songs; if anyone does and doesn't make it terrible, our money's on Musgraves. She closed out with "Follow Your Arrow," a tune that's stirring up a little controversy for not treating homosexuality as a controversial thing. We left considering that if folks like Musgraves become the new face of pop country, we might be spending more time downtown.
Bonnaroo: It's the only time we are ever awake and in public by noon on a Sunday. But then again, there aren't many places where you are guaranteed piping-hot (secular) soul show on the Sabbath. Lee Fields and the Expressions managed to resuscitate the crowd from their rough morning, digging deep into grooves from his latest, the wonderful Faithful Man, and 2009's My World. The band was deep in the pocket and the crowd was enraptured — or zoned out anyway, as it's tough to tell by Sunday — as Fields belted from the bottom of his heart and managed to get even The Spin's worn-out butt off the ground and shakin'.
And then we were late to Action Bronson — The Spin had to stop for food, because you can't listen to gourmet rap on an empty stomach — and arrived just in time to watch things get seriously crazy. Like, "Oh hey look, Action Bronson is rapping by the porta potties and the entire crowd is rushing to see him" crazy. Like, "Oh fuck, are we going to get crushed by these people" crazy and "Did Action Bronson just give us the head nod?" crazy. Security guards just shrugged in defeat as Bronson's ravenous fan base tried to get within dap distance of their hero. By the time he got to the stage again — and we realized we weren't going to get crushed — and ripped into the end of his set, the kids had flipped their wigs. Bronson not only has dope beats and tight rhymes, but also an insane amount of energy — after the what-should-have-been-exhausting show, we got to see him climb the artist-area fence to slap fives with his fans. We were exhausted just watching the dude.
While boasting one of its better lineups in years, Bonnaroo 2013 was severely deficient in terms of heavy bands. While AraabMuzik and Death Grips held down the more abrasive side of electronica, traditional punk and metal were relegated almost entirely to the Baroness performance on Sunday (and of course the brutally acerbic set by Swans following, but we'll get to that). Less than a year ago, Baroness was involved in a near-fatal bus crash on a tour through Europe, eventually resulting in half of the group resigning. Aside from the aforementioned tragedy, the Savanna, Ga., band is historically best known for playing swampy sludge prone to proggy interludes. However, this set, much like their latest album Yellow and Green, sprawled into quite possibly one of the scariest realms a metal band can go: pop. Rich in guitar-driven harmonies, minor-chord melodies and backed by plenty of pummeling power, Baroness creates something that’s dark, brutal, beautiful and inviting all at the same time.
As Swans geared up in This Tent, we wondered for a minute if we'd walked in on some sort of ancient ritual. Shirtless and dripping sweat, multi-instrumentalists/drummers Thor Harris and Phil Puleo appeared like temple guards, keeping watch over a beautiful, unearthly drone emanating from the stacks of amplifiers. Leader Michael Gira and company pulled cosmic threads to the surface and let them dissipate, painting a sonic landscape that seemed to zoom inward for miles. Gira began to sing in a voice that was half yelp, half Islamic call to prayer, about "millions of stars in your eyes"; we learned later this song was "To Be Kind," an as-yet-unrecorded piece the band has been working up on the spring tour. After 10 minutes or more of building up, finally the crash came — waves of discordance, lumbering along like angry giants, destroying everything in their path. Through three false endings, the song died a slow and violent death. And how do you follow that? Gira politely acknowledged the applause — with jazz hands.
Bonnaroo is good for many things, and one is illustrating an artist’s popularity outside of reviews and Facebook likes. We were well aware Kendrick Lamar’s album was one of last year’s most critically lauded, and his self-coined phrase “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” was quoted through social media ad nauseum. But crowded under the sun with thousands of stoked fans who could (and almost did) collectively perform the set for him ... well, that painted a picture you just don’t see on paper. Backed only by a DJ, the 26-year-old Lamar took the stage solo, sauntering from one end to the other while belting out hits from his major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, the beat dropping out almost every eight bars to let the crowd fill in the blanks. It was a much higher-energy set than the one we caught at this year's SXSW — a bigger crowd meant a bigger level of commitment from the MC — and he incessantly encouraged the crowd to participate, throw up their hands and fill in the blanks for him. It was a good set, but truly, we could have stood to hear more of him and less of our fellow audience members.
After watching Action Bronson parade through the crowd like some kind of rap prophet, feeling Swans liquify our organs with brutal volume and hearing Kendrick hold his audience in the palm of his hand, Wild Nothing's set of chilled-out indie-pop seemed almost boring by comparison. But for real though? By Sunday at Bonnaroo, shenanigans and antics can be too much for The Spin's old bones, so Wild Nothing was exactly what we were looking for. Leading off with “Shadow,” the first track off last year's excellent Nocturne, the band didn't stray far from the path on their reverb-y pop songs. More Slowdive than My Bloody Valentine, Wild Nothing's dreamy pop music is as catchy and melodic live as it is on the record.
The National's stop at the Ryman on Sept. 8 has already sold out, so we set out to answer the question: should you kick yourself if you didn't get in on that? In short, if you're into this group, the current show is top-shelf, and you'll probably want to watch your friendly neighborhood alt-weekly music blog for a caption contest closer to the show (wink, lens flare). The group pairs angst with the wistful and anthemic, in more interesting ways than most things that we'd lump into the "emo" category. Sonically, it's complex layers of throaty guitar sounds, live brass, and pulse-racing percussion, with an overall experimental bent that recalls Summerteeth-era Wilco. Singer Matt Berninger carries himself like the lovechild of Kenneth Branagh and Robin Williams, delivering his emotional distress with a minimum of wallowing. Is it fair to call him a less truculent Morrissey? Looking like Kim Gordon, with a shock of bleached-blonde hair setting off dark eyebrows, Annie Clark of St. Vincent stopped to harmonize on "This Is the Last Time" before she had to run to her set with David Byrne. This was great, but we'd have dug it if they'd rearranged the set to get her vocal on "Humiliation," the cut she actually sings on Trouble Will Find Me, and to us, the cathartic highlight of the show.
Poor Divine Fits. We've been waiting to catch them since the good ship SoundLand hit an iceberg last year and cancelled their headlining set along with the rest of the mini-festival, but they had some tough competition on Sunday evening. With Tame Impala, Edward Sharpe and The National splitting the indie kid crowd, the super-group featuring Spoon's Britt Daniel and Handsome Furs' Dan Boeckner spent most of their time playing for a half-full tent (and also David Cross). Y'all missed out though: Divine Fits are even better live than they are on the record, especially the songs led by Boeckner. Something about the way the keyboards were pushed all the way forward in the mix really hooked us in, not to mention the combined excellent stage presence of Boeckner, Daniel and keyboardist Alex Fischel. Folks looking for Spoon songs were out of luck, but they did put their own spin on Frank Ocean's “Lost,” which was pretty rad too.
Normally, The Spin tends to take movie-star music projects with a grain or 50 of salt, so the prospect of Ed Helms’ Bluegrass Situation Superjam sounded only slightly more promising than, oh, Tyler Perry’s Def Polka Party. But Helms is all business when it comes to bluegrass — his ma’s a Nashville native, he informed the crowd — with credible banjo and vocal chops, and he may be the only person who could wear a cap that calls to mind a Depression brakeman and look less nerdy. Helms did just fine with his Lonesome Trio of buddies Ian Riggs and Jason Tilove, but the show took off once the special guests started lining up across the That Tent stage: Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and Bryan Sutton playing head to head on Doc Watson’s “Lay Down My Old Guitar,” vocalist Aoifa O’Donovan nailing Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham,” former SteelDriver Chris Stapleton standing the audience’s hair on end with his rugged-but-right vocals, and a climactic summit gathering Dan Tyminski, Sam Bush (who managed to slip in a few bars of “Mannish Boy”) and the eternal Del McCoury, boasting a meringue of perfectly sculpted white hair. Too bad they couldn’t see the half-naked hippie hoedown going down in the muddy midway off to the side. These bluegrass fans might’ve been high, but they certainly weren’t lonesome.
We somehow managed to catch a golf-cart ride over to Which Stage for David Byrne and Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), who were kicking off their set with the excellent "Who" from last year's Love This Giant. Clark did that tippy-toeing ballerina-guitarist move of hers to and from the microphone as Byrne — sporting a little headset mic — locked into his curious but thoroughly entertaining choreography. The dynamic duo's extravagant horn section moved in and out of formation, each song getting its own blocking like some sort of presentational theater piece. Both Byrne and Vincent use their talents well on Love This Giant's songs, and any project that allows us to see Byrne perform Talking Heads classics like "This Must Be the Place," "Burning Down the House" and "Road to Nowhere" is just fine with The Spin.
Can we all agree that the Cafe Where — the tented “cafe stage” on the opposite end of the What Stage's festival grounds — is pretty much the worst? That's all we could think as we wandered over to catch White Lung, Bonnaroo's sole punk offering (JEFF and Billy Idol notwithstanding) of the weekend. We arrived on time to join all of about six other people and a very sad looking band of Canadians, patiently waiting for The National to wrap it up so they could start raging. By about 8 p.m., they could finally take stage. And by 8:20 p.m., they had already wrecked their 11-song set. Truly, White Lung is one of our favorite discoveries from Bonnaroo — a shredaholic foursome led by singer Mish Way's awesome snarl. They're like what would happen if Jemina Pearl (Be Your Own Pet, Ultras S/C) started a band with Diarrhea Planet. You could tell that they weren't super stoked about playing Bonnaroo's most unloved stage (at one point Way asked, somewhat incredulously, if we really were enjoying this festival thing), but after four days of wonky jams, blink-and-it's-over punk songs were exactly what we wanted.
A$AP Rocky and fans were busy hot-boxing The Other Tent and making things nice and purple when we squeezed our way through the throng covering the lawn as far as the eye could see. Whatever insights are in his flow, Rocky laid it on the line early that this is a damn party: "I want y'all to go nuts — I need to see crowd surfing and titties." The crowd complied eagerly; there was at least as much surfing as at a JEFF show. Not to be left out, Rocky himself took to surfing while rhyming several times. Folks even climbed up into the support rigging under the roof before security got wind. Conscientious about his fans passing out from the body heat, A$AP chucked bottles of water into the crowd. Running from Long Live A$AP to the "old school" of 2011's LiveLoveA$AP, the set closed with Rocky climbing the light rigging to express his gratitude, and call close to two dozen topless ladies to the stage to help him finish "Work (Remix)."
By 8 o'clock on Sunday — an hour before Tom Petty took the stage — just about the only things that could hold our attention were chicken on a stick (you know that's right!) and the massive prog-metal sounds of Atlanta's Royal Thunder. Mlny Parsonz's gorgeous, soaring vocals and slippery, expressive bass playing was enough to snap us out of our fog while the guitar and drums actually revived our brain and rallied our excitement to the point where you almost wouldn't have known that we'd been party for four days straight. Adhering mostly to tracks from the stellar CVI album, Royal Thunder was the perfect final push before we ended our marathon weekend of music.