Thursdays at Bonnaroo are traditionally the chillest days of the fest — folks are settling in at their campsites, and with no acts taking the two biggest stages, fans are free to mill around between tent sets from indie-rock and on-the-rise pop acts alike. It just so happens that, this year, Thursday's festivities were all but dominated by Nashvillians — Bully kicked off the entire festival to great success, The Weeks packed a hip young crowd into the too-small-for-them Sonic Stage grounds, and EDM duo Cherub played to what may have been the biggest audience of the night. And The Spin was there for all of it, whether or not we dipped into any psychoactive substances ...
All week leading up to Bonnaroo 2014, The Spin fielded reports from agents on the ground suggesting we'd be spending the weekend wallowing in muck. It seems we timed our arrival perfectly: We set up camp after most of the mud dried (save a few patches we'll be keeping our eye on), and strolled up to the On Tap Lounge just as Bully launched into "Brainfreeze" — a great way to kick off an outdoor festival during summer in the Mid-South if ever there was one. Maybe frontwoman Alicia Bognanno and her bandmates had a few nerves, but they used them to fuel the fire under their ferocious playing. This time out, the ensemble included Echo Group's Ben Moore adding righteous skronks and taut solos on a second guitar, Reece Lazarus from William Tyler's band holding down the bottom end, and Stewart "not the guy from The Police but holy hell can he rip" Copeland on the drum throne. The festival opener gets a captive audience, but it warmed our hearts to see the crowd eating up Bully's whip-smart re-imagined grunge sound like a snow cone, bopping along with more enthusiasm than we can usually muster on a sticky afternoon to their latest single, "Milkman."
Cherub first played Bonnaroo in 2011 ... sort of. Not officially on the bill, powered by a generator, the duo played an after-hours DIY pop-up party set for a modest crowd of revelers huddled around an RV in Guest Camping. On Thursday night, a mere three years later — and now a major-label entity with a Top 40 single and touting an epilepsy-inducing laser-light show — Jordan Kelley and Jason Huber played for 10,000 (at least!) glow stick-weilding kids at That Tent. The kids sang and danced along to smooth, sweaty, drippy, neo-Nile Rogers jams like "Disco Shit," "Doses and Mimosas" and, for good measure, a Pepsi Challenge-worthy (save for Huber's Andre 3000-like delivery) cover of Calvin Harris' "Feel So Close." PDA was rampant among lovey-dovey festivalgoers during the latter.
In case you didn't already know, Cherub is a big band. Like, a fucking big band. And Kelley and Huber were rock stars last night, taking the That Tent stage at prime time, 9 p.m., for the first post-sundown party set of the fest. Dressed in stylish black and white, the duo hyped the crowd to deafening responses, whether it was when Kelley busted out Strat-y, smooth-jazz solos and Frampton-indebted talk-box vocals, or when the duo dropped into the pulsating banger "Monogamy" to a sea of flood-light-illuminated hands bringing the house down in unison.
"This song is about making bad decisions with really good friends," Kelley said as the duo took the stage, easing into an opening "Heartbreaker." For The Spin, taking mushrooms wasn't a bad decision at all. Ecstatic and mesmerized (fucking lasers, man!), we watched from a side-stage viewing area teeming with Nashvillians — the duo's friends and longtime local boosters — who basked in reflective glory, sharing a palpable sense of pride in these MTSU dropouts made good. Kelley and Huber were in good spirits as well, with the latter showering the front of the crowd with champagne at the finale of "Doses and Mimosas."
Earlier that day, we'd been lured to That Tent by the sounds of Allah Las’ “Tell Me (What's On Your Mind),” where the West Coasters — who look like Black Lips, sound like Brian Jonestown Massacre and had played Nashville’s own The High Watt the night before — set an easy, groovy tone with their laid-back, midtempo psych rock. The band featured a bongo-playing fifth member who was obscured by speakers from our vantage, but once we spotted him and kept an ear out, we appreciated his contributions here and there — a colleague joked that perhaps the bongoist was a contest winner. There was a cool, surfy, Ventures-y instrumental vamp midset that we were digging on, but not long after, a fella behind us against the barricade passed out — the first fallout we’d seen at the fest yet. Anyway, security folks got the guy some water, and he seemed to be making a recovery by the time we made our exit.
Clad in an oversized white T-shirt with "Prisoners' Right to Vote" written on it in Sharpie, Cass McCombs (dude believes in causes … maybe we should call him “Cause” McCombs) led his backing band into the cyclical drone groove of the aptly titled "Big Wheel." Knowing McCombs to be a little touchy about the press, it didn't surprise us that he never once turned in the direction of the media pit. McCombs' songs are insightful and incisive, and he and his band shifted shapes effortlessly between country shuffling and a hybrid of mid-'70s David Bowie and Pink Floyd, but he hasn't yet mastered the art of making an audience of several hundred feel like they're in a smoky basement with him. By the time the set closed with an extended version of "Dreams-Come-True Girl," originally a not-quite-duet with the late Karen Black from 2009's Catacombs, less than half the crowd remained.
If Bonnaroo couldn't bring us The Replacements, Cloud Nothings sure did their damnedest to bring The Replacements to us. The Cleveland-based power trio injected some well-needed punk-rock life into the early evening of Thursday, battering their way through a furious set of scream-along anthems from their most recent couple of records.
The crowd hit critical mass during the peaks and valleys of “Stay Useless,” the Nothings’ breakthrough single, and whirled into the biggest mosh pit we've ever seen, stretching well into the middle of the crowded tent. That's the kind of thing we like to see at Bonnaroo — not self-serious hula-hoopers and dopes with LED gloves, but people having a real, visceral reaction to the band onstage. Cloud Nothings hit a sweet spot with their jangly, ’80s college rock -inspired tunes, setting a high bar for the rest of the weekend.
Seriously though, could wide-open, jangly college rock be making a comeback? What about guitar-centric indie rock? Do today's kids get that shit? The warm response Bully got from a cold crowd earlier in the afternoon gave us hope that it is. And an early-evening set from New Jersey slacker-core faces Real Estate reinforced our optimism. We weaved our way to the front of the stage as the band played arguably its best song, "It's Real." What we'd once heard as a peppy indie-pop toe-tapper with an airy hum-along melody and an insatiable descending guitar line came off as an anthem fit for Wembley Stadium with thousands of revved-up kids singing its catchy "oh oh-ohs" in unison. Looking like gawky nerds from a mid-'80s AV club, the band — now augmented by a keyboard player, making their sunny wah-wah swells, singable guitar melodies and sunny songs all the more lush — garnered such a response even though they were only rocking so hard, opting for chillaxed pop psychedelia, skewing the set list toward cuts from their latest, mellower effort Atlas.
Oh if you could’ve only seen The Spin moving, ducking and weaving like a Bonnaroovian gladiator through a minefield of swaying bodies, twirling LED-laced hoola hoops and flashing, blinking trinkets bouncing every which way to reach The Other Tent for Break Science. We'd heard passages of their stock EDM sounds before, but we were impressed to find they'd broken the guy-with-a-laptop mold with a two-piece keyboard-and-live-drums setup. The drums did indeed lend a jam-tronic energy to the mix, but the squelching, wobbly bass and regularly scheduled drops revealed there was very little jam and plenty of 'tronic.
Having little knowledge of Omar Soleyman, The Spin went into That Tent fresh without much of an idea as to what to expect. A quick Google search revealed the Syrian-based singer-songwriter is also a farmer and professional wedding singer who's been performing traditional Middle Eastern jams since the mid-‘90s. Performing to a hype-as-ever evening Bonnaroo crowd, disco drum loops and acid bass pumped relentlessly as the 48-year-old Soleyman chimed in occasionally to sing a monophonic chant in his native tongue.
Banks shared her first song with the World Wide Web just last year, but her following seems to have already reached fever pitch. As we waded into a body-crushing melee of flower children, she materialized from a cloud of fog in a black cape, and from the first few syllables of the introspective R&B outpouring "Before I Ever Met You," she had us in the palm of her hand. For someone relatively new to performing for huge crowds — even for someone who's an old hand at it, really — Banks has it on lock. When she broke character to holler "Lemme hear you, Bonnaroo!" the roaring response made us realize just how mesmerized the crowd was. Her two-man band wove a seamless hybrid of loops, live percussion, ringing guitars, and deep synth bass, providing perfectly kinetic accompaniment to her gospel-inspired vocals. Numbers from last year's "London" EP and her upcoming full-length debut, Godess, filled out the set. Before she left, she offered a dynamite take on Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody," bringing the whole range of her influences into focus.
While Poliça may not have dropped an Aaliyah cover on our heads like Banks did, their upgraded brand of '90s R&B left no questions about their roots. Singer Channy Leaneagh took on the Sarah Barthel role from last year's Phantogram performance — a sultry, synth-laden pop performance that held onto the Banks overflow with a steady futuristic groove. Sure, they may have started as a Gayngs side-project, but this band is unquestionably Leaneagh's and she showed it on stage.
White Denim started their set five minutes early, swiftly tearing into that prog-indie-classic-rock hybrid that they love to screw up with virtuosic time-signature shifts. The Austinites aren’t exactly “jam” in the traditional sense, but they stretch out on grooves in a way jam fans can certainly dig — and dig they did, cheering along wildly at the busiest portions of White Denim’s up-tempo songs. One would-be stage-diver couldn’t seem to shit or get off the pot, milling around on the stage between the band members. After frontman James Petralli — who sounds to The Spin’s ear a little like Dan Auerbach with a wider vocal range — hollered something in the trespasser’s ear, security appeared and dragged the doofus off in a headlock. Anyway, White Denim’s intensely complicated parts and melodic complexities that wind around each other might lose some folks after a jammy stretch or two, but not us.
This was far from The Spin's first Ty Segall experience, but with most past encounters being in rooms no bigger than Nashville's Exit/In, this festival-grade production was definitely something new. Within the first two songs, the band and their auxiliary entourage (including D. Watusi's Dillon Watson) easily broke Bonnaroo's stage-diving record — no easy feat considering the fest's beefy security. Segall & Co. also brought with them a punishing volume that tingled the tiny hairs in our ears, and not always in a good way. The deep, dirty, throbbing, fuzzed-out bass (provided by frequent collaborator Mikal Cronin) was enough to satisfy any open-minded EDM fan as the band ripped through blistering renditions of faves like the title track to last year's Slaughterhouse and Melted's "Imaginary Person." Mid-set, we finally got a taste of Ty's recently announced Manipulator, and from what we could tell, the record will be yet another fuzzy blast of psychedelic grunge pop. Having become an integral part of one another's sound (Cronin is of course an acclaimed singer-songwriter in his own right), Cronin and Segall's harmonies were front, center and a downright divine compliment to this ear-punishing flower-child stomp.