Dodging derelict heaps left behind by the less sure-footed, The Spin scaled Cannery Row’s icy peak and hitched our tauntaun to the rail. We expected the crowd would be modest, but shut the front door (seriously, it’s cold in here, shut the damn front door), there were already quite a few adventurous souls meandering through the massive cloud of fog that filled Mercy Lounge. The time was upon us for 10 bands to battle for their chance to perform in a tent mere hundreds of feet from where Lionel Richie will be napping in an air-conditioned bus. Only one could claim victory — and, spoiler alert, it was El El. It was time for Road to Bonnaroo 2014, Round Two.
Pairing Echo and the Bunnymen’s dark melodic sense and Depeche Mode’s electronic grooves in one compact package, Future Unlimited opened the festivities, taking full advantage of the synchronized light show. If darkwave synth pop is your thing, and you weren’t around for 101, you won’t be at all disappointed in this band. We’re not sure about watching them at noon in a field, but their powerhouse set convinced us that they should definitely open for Gary Numan when he comes through in a couple of weeks.
The Young International has never struck us as a potential favorite band. Their indie rock with its touch of emo wistfulness always felt competent and thoughtful, but never outstanding, and we weren’t too surprised when last year’s bid fell short of glory. This time around, a new harder edge to their sound caught our attention — maybe it’s always been there and we’re just noticing it, but they sounded more comfortable than the last time we saw them, more relaxed but more in command. It was a compelling performance, but it still doesn’t improve the lyrics to that song about vampires, though; sorry guys, “when the moon turns red, you’re as good as dead” just sounds silly to The Spin's ears.
Scale Model puts together a lot of things we enjoy: upbeat New Wave dance tunes, space dresses, guitars and keytars that light up, and our trusty photographer Steve Cross on drums. With a forthcoming full-length mixed by local pop wizard Matt Mahaffey, they’re sitting pretty close to the top of the world. Their first two songs felt like they were holding a little something back, but on their final number, they cut loose on a structured jam that filled the pit with dancing.
MC Jung Youth is a rare though not unprecedented hip-hop entry in the proceedings. He brought a top-shelf band, with guitar, keys, drums, and keytar bass, who frankly outclassed him. He’s got a solid sense of humor and has no problem going after a crowd but his rhymes are not up to the bar set by other locals yet, and you can feel him putting his delivery together. There’s a natural flow that Jung Youth is just getting a handle on, but there’s good raw material here, and we don’t expect he’ll have any problem opening for Mobb Deep at Exit/In on May 1.
Common Tiger was our biggest surprise of the night. Through their first song, we were bracing ourselves for a trip to Hoogie-Boogie Land courtesy of dudes who play way too well to be stuck in a Desert Storm bar band. They snapped into color for us on their second tune — it wasn’t radically different from the first, but iridescent flakes of spooky rock 'n’ roll à la Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse knocked us off balance in a good way. We would absolutely wake and bake to this, and we made it a point to snag their free CD from the merch table.
Repeat Repeat (who technically style their name as "*repeat repeat," much to our proofreader's chagrin) featured Jared and Kristyn Corder, the swell folks who bust their asses to put on the quarterly East Nashville Underground festival. We heard way more dance-oriented post-punk in their makeup than the surf that everyone talks about, though Jared’s guitar tones are definitely surf-oriented. The texture could be a little thicker for our part — Kristyn’s voice higher in the mix would help — but they brought their angsty A-game and earned some thunderous applause.
Backed by live video of themselves onstage, with the picture signal feeding back into itself, the cosmic Charlies of Music Band thundered through their set with house-show intensity. Recent tourmates of Those Darlins, Music Band nails the nifty trick of sounding loose as hell while playing extremely tight. We expected them to make a strong showing when all the ballots were counted, and we weren’t at all surprised when they landed in the Top 3 at the end of the night.
We’d have given Rebecca Rubion high marks just for delivering the easygoing, laid-back set our ears craved, but we got a lot more than we bargained for. Her voice is has an interesting bluesy lilt that isn’t forced, her songs are engaging and not at all precious, and her band is sharp. We were startled to realize we’d already been through three songs, and left looking forward to seeing what other tricks she and her band might have up their collective sleeve.
Justin Kalk delivered his promised Orchestra, an eight-piece outfit with strings, keys, backup singers and a couple of stuffed giraffes thrown in for good measure. Kalk’s stage presence has more than a little Jack White in it, and his guitar skills lie somewhere between White and Frank Zappa, which is to say, “Holy shit can that guy play guitar.” His bombastic performance, coupled with cool arrangements expertly performed and very vocal audience support, led us to believe he would at least place, if not carry the vote.
We sincerely hoped the tall guy we’d noticed wandering around in the colorful Afrika Bambaataa space Zulu outfit was either a judge or a member of electro-Afro-Cuban big band El El, but he vanished long before their closing set, so we guessed he was neither. We were also expecting some major stage antics from these guys, as they included two former members of Heypenny, who famously won RTB with marching-band panache back in '09. Though we didn’t get that either, we did get an outstanding set that threw a ton of elements into the mix — guitar, bass, synthesizers, drums, percussion and horns — and kept them all balanced with style and grace. “Nailed it,” we thought as we slipped out, and we were right: The final tally, combining fans’ and judges’ votes, put El El on top. Well deserved, lady and gents — we’ll see you at the ‘Roo.