Whereas Bonnaroo Friday felt strangely dark — metal bands, mud puddles, skronking EDM and people chanting "Fuck Kanye!" turned it into a Freaky Friday of sorts — Saturday felt like ... well, it felt like Bonnaroo. Lionel Richie and Damon Albarn blessed the festival grounds with pop of both the Brit and American varieties, a Superjam winded through the night with myriad surprises, and (who else?!) The Flaming Lips showered attendees with confetti and psychedelic energy.
Saturday dawned cool and gorgeous. It was almost enough to turn us into outdoorsy people! El El's multi-layered big-band pop sound was just the thing to ease us into our day, starting off with gentle neoclassical pop and ramping up to full-throttle rock. The electro-Afro-beat sound that first drew our attention to them has shifted toward the background a little, but their ability to assimilate new sounds, from cool jazz to indie pop, continues to impress us. The crowd, though not as wacky as the one that turned up for Orwells Friday, dug it too — especially the highly danceable "40 Watt."
After having watched the sun rise what seemed like just hours earlier, The Spin would have never guessed the cure for our Bonnaroovian ailments was a little hair of the dog in the form of neo-psych soul revue King Kahn and the Shrines. Sporting a nine-piece band, the Berlin-based Kahn came strutting out in a purple sequin shirt and a headdress tall with feathered plumage. Judging strictly by appearances, one could easily mistake the man for a mild-mannered small business owner or an insurance salesman (sans the flashy garb, obvs). It's when his throat opens and emits an inimitable scratchy howl that the charisma starts to ooze. The band ripped and roared through a number of dirty, punked-up, horn-blasted numbers before getting slow and low with some gritty, old school R&B. Throw in some equally entertaining crowd participation and we were ready to get cracking on tomorrow's hangover.
The Allman Brothers Band retiring after its fall tour may weigh a little heavy on our hearts (after all, it's not often a band's second act is as compelling as its first), but Derek Trucks being able to commit to his solo band and this one, which he co-fronts with wife Susan Tedeschi, isn't a bad thing at all. With a double-drum rhythm section, a suite of horns and backing vocalists and a monster keyboardist to complement Tedeschi and Trucks' own guitar prowess, they have all the tools they need to be a phenomenon. Right now, they have a hard time standing out from the crowd of capable soul-blues bands; the set's high points all revolved around Trucks' fire-breathing solos, with slide work that reached sacred steel levels of ecstasy. It came close to taking off when Tedeschi and Trucks began to duel, but they gave each other a look that said "We'll finish this later" and turned back to the band.
It was a little disappointing to see Bobby Womack doing a '90s-style club set complete with schlocky hand-clapping exercises instead of new progressive work along the lines of The Bravest Man in the Universe. But even though it started almost half an hour late, it was the best damn cruise-ship dinner show show we're likely to ever see, a premium soul orchestra experience with the full force of Womack's refined vocal talents and showmanship to back it up. The highlight of the set was a rendition of "A Change Is Gonna Come," the Civil Rights anthem written and originally recorded by Womack's mentor Sam Cooke 50 years ago; whatever else Womack may do to entertain, that came straight out of his heart.
In spite of the fact that he appeared to think Bonnaroo was occurring in North Carolina, Damon Albarn at the What Stage in late afternoon was an absolute delight. He threw his whole body into the show, creepy-crawling around, pulling silly faces, and just being into performing in a way that’s needed at a festival. He stated that Bonnaroo has a “Glastonbury vibe,” in fact. The hands-down highlights were two Gorillaz songs: “Feel Good, Inc.,” during which he brought out surprise guests De La Soul (the crowd LOST IT) and “Clint Eastwood,” when he brought out surprise guest Del tha Funkee Homosapien (the crowd LOST IT AGAIN).
The progression Cage the Elephant has seen in just a few short years from semi-local college-rock band to internationally famous entertainers is still tough to grasp having only seen it from a Nashville perspective. It's not until you see them play for an adoring Bonnaroo crowd of thousands that it settles just how huge they've become and why. The band only touched on the singles from their Southern-fried, groove-heavy, bluesy debut. They've since matured into a well-rounded alt-rock ensemble with instantly memorable hooks and a live show energetic enough to push them over the top. Frontman Matt Schultz takes stage-diving and crowd-surfing to new extremes, rolling over almost the entire length of the audience, flipping, rolling and sometimes standing over super-psyched crowd more than happy to support him.
Phosphorescent started their set rocking dark and deep, and if you weren't already into Matthew Houck's introspective songs, this performance probably wasn't going to win you over. An hour and 15 minutes in, the group paused and fired up the drum machines to dig into more dance-oriented cuts from last year's Muchacho, and as soon as the beat locked in, the crowd roared to life. It's to Phosphorescent's credit that, even as they play to a broader crowd that might care about raising the roof more than strains of Neil Young or Tom Petty, they remain intensely song-driven, with lyrics like "Take your greedy hands, honey / Lay 'em on me" from "Ride On/Right On" matching the best in Houck's catalog. And they sound just as great howled across a field at dusk.
Yesterday evening gave fans of adult-contemporary, Reagan-era pop and Nile Rogers- and Ray Parker Jr.-inspired electrofunk a wrenching decision to make: Catch Canada's Chromeo on the Which Stage, or sing along to the classic American songbook of Lionel Richie, who went on at the What Stage only a half-hour later. We opted for a little bit of both, and holy shit did the sets pair well together, and about as close as we'd get to reliving Chromeo's 2010 Bonnaroo appearance, when the duo joined forces with Daryl Hall — one of the most memorable sets in the festival's history.
Yesterday's Chromeo set was pretty good, too. "It's always a special time on the farm," the duo's David "Dave 1" Macklovitch told the crowd of uninhibited rug-cutters. "We bona fide love you guys." Naturally, Macklovitch and talk-box-wielding partner in Chrome Patrick "P-Thugg" Gemayel kicked the dance party in progress up another notch, launching into shred-heavy smooth jam "Bonafied Lovin'." 'That, along with a clap-along-augmented "Mama's Boy," were two of a half-dozen seductive gems we saw the duo — who appeared behind matching keyboards held up by high-up mannequin legs on an everything-looked-shiny-and-chic stage — drop before The Spin set off to say "hello" to Chromeo forefather Lionel Richie, already well into his main-stage sunset serenade-and-hit fest.
Whether it was while playing piano and singing those love songs, shuffling across the stage with funky Commodores classics like an everybody-lost-their-shit "Brick House" and pop gold like "All Night Long" and "Dancing on the Ceiling" (which included a snippet of Van Halen's "Jump"), Lionel fucking KILLED. Seeing a millennial-heavy crowd get down to outright adult contemporary only shows just how far American youth culture has come since Bonnaroo's 2002 inception. The set was pure joy — except for when the singer made a cruel joke, faking out the crowd by saying Diana Ross was going to make a surprise appearance to duet on "Endless Love." We've got "30,000 Diana Rosses here," Richie said, cuing the crowd to take Diana's parts. Naturally, they did.
After seeing Aussie electro-poppers Cut Copy turn a small afternoon mob of day-drinkers into a raging dance party at SXSW in 2007, we could only imagine the frenzy they could inflict on an early evening of anxious Bonnaroosters. The energy that comes from Cut Copy's particular style of poppy, synth-heavy disco is the five-piece band performing it. What could easily be replaced with a laptop and a dude or two to sing on top thankfully isn't, matching the spirit and live energy of obvious influences like Happy Mondays and Primal Scream. It was a hit-heavy set, running the gamut of the band's four-album catalog. While they've dabbled a great deal in dreamier, trippier and more temperate territory, there were to be no slow jams this night. The bangers were unrelenting from start to finish, leaving this sweaty crowd to finish themselves off elsewhere.
Amid scheduling confusion and unfounded rumors of cancellation, the only thing we could hope for when we wandered over to The Other Tent to catch Lauryn Hill (Ms. Lauryn Hill, if you're nasty) is that she’d actually appear on stage. It may have taken her a minute — 27 minutes past the scheduled start time, to be exact — but it happened. Hill appeared onstage in an Aretha Franklin safari hat, as her backing band played out a cover of Bob Marley's “Soul Rebel.”
In some alternative universe, Hill has Beyoncé status — freed from the personal and professional troubles that have consumed her career since 1998's instant classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. And for all our concerns, she proved that she's still the astonishing performer who deserves the accolades from more than 15 years ago. But the weird choices — turning “Killing Me Softly” into a reggae jam and “Everything Is Everything” into a disco tune, for example — threw us off our game. Nevertheless, hearing Hill perform these songs as ably as she did gives us hope for a real Miseducation follow-up. One day.
It's likely the dance-crazy overflow of Cut Copy migrated over to Which Stage for EDM champ Zedd, but given this crowd was three or four times the CC size, there was something much more universally adored at work here. It's the primal, no-bullshit, hardcore dance revolution that's requisite for any superstar DJ these days. Zedd's take varies only slightly from contemporaries like, say, last night's dance attraction Skrillex. While the rumble is no less essential, Zedd's creative touch lies in the higher register. Clackity blips and heavily syncopated electronic percussion dot his tracks into an extreme middle ground of trap and world music. Blistering layers of shimmery synths and the sound of what very well could be angry robots stabbing each other to death build up, drop out and occasionally wind down into an ambient bliss (mind you, never for very long).
Wait a minute. Did Skrillex just sing "Hakuna Matata" to us? And wasn't he playing a guitar a minute ago, trading solos with Robbie Krieger from The Doors? This has to be a dream. Or there was something funny about that granola bar. We'll put it this way: the EDM figurehead didn't waste his opportunity to curate this Superjam set. It was his desert-island jukebox, brought to life by a massive cast featuring some of the best performers on the planet.
The set started 40 minutes late, fueling our speculation that it was going to be some kind of middling attempt to make EDM-enhanced versions of signature songs by each artist on the bill, and that the parties involved were literally sitting around a table, earnestly discussing when the bass would drop. The set began with club bangers, which got lots and lots of hands in the air, looking a lot like that alien-welcoming scene from Independence Day. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart popped in, banging out a world beat underneath a spaced-out club version of "Fire on the Mountain," enhanced by Big Giantic's harmony singers. Then, Mystikal appeared and tore up a medley of hits; by the end, he had a pretty good idea of what we were working with.
A little later, Janelle Monáe channeled MJ on "Gotta Be Startin' Somethin'," got kids crowd-surfing to James Brown's "I Feel Good" and virtually tore down the house on her way out the door with her own "Tightrope." Then, A$AP Ferg took the mic, and ZEDD sat in on drums. Robby Krieger came out, and we thought he might be done after burning through his solo on "Breakin' a Sweat," since having one of The Doors as a guest is a sword that cuts both ways; you're damned if you cover a song from The Doors' iconic catalog poorly, but you're also damned if you don't at least give it a try. "Break on Through," featuring Matt Shultz from Cage the Elephant on vocals. Doing more than just standing in for Jim Morrison is hard to do, but from where we were standing, he passed the test with flying colors. Somewhere around 3 a.m., after Damian Marley set in, a plug got pulled somewhere in the light rig. We were done for by the time the lights came back on, but we wouldn't be surprised if they kept this up til dawn.
As Jack White continued to blues-rock all over everybody's faces on the What Stage, we headed into the scheduling conflicts of all scheduling conflicts as The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Frank Ocean faced off against each other in a grueling death match. Or a mildly inconvenient walk between the three. One or the other.
We chose Frank Ocean — at least, initially — and walked up on the man serenading The Other Stage with “Thinking Bout You” from his breakout Channel Orange. Or was it the crowd that was serenading Ocean? As the Odd Future affiliate slow-jammed his way through songs off Channel Orange and Nostalgia, Ultra, “Lost” and “Novacane” among others, the masses sang along to every single word. Verses and all. It was amazing to see one guy with zero production — he was singing to backing tracks and had no support onstage — make such a quick connection with his fans. Even when he used Kanye-referencing material like his “New Slaves” verse as connective tissue between songs, he never lost one person to the creeping chant of “Fuck Kanye.” That's basically a Bonnaroo miracle.
Like a sandwich without a Vlasic or a sea without salt, can you even legally have a festival without The Flaming Lips? Earlier in the day, we stopped by the Solar Stage, where frontman Wayne Coyne was billed by himself. We showed up to find it was just a really crowded Q&A. Any casual Lips fan should be plenty familiar with Coyne's all-encompassing embrace of the good, the bad and the ugliness of life, so there wasn't a hell of a lot of insight to report on there.
However, somewhere around 12:30 a.m. at Which Stage, Coyne & Co. came out brandishing all the bells and whistles that have kept his band a festival fave throughout their career's second act. With three or four 20-foot-tall anthropomorphic mushrooms beside them, spiraling rainbows on the screen behind and a dazzling array of lighting effects shimmering from all sides, The Flaming Lips managed to surprise us right off the bat. While cartoonish psychedelia is always par for their course, we'd never have guessed they'd open with "The Abandoned Hospital Ship" from 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic. Save for their ‘90s novelty hit "She Don't Use Jelly,” the band never dips further back than 1999's The Soft Bulletin, nor would they again this night.
The band continued with a slew of familiar, life-affirming psych-pop sing-alongs — mostly from '02s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots before getting dark and heavy with material from their last two albums. For the longest, The Spin didn't care much for the Lips' live sound. Relying mostly on backing tracks and cheap stage gimmicks, it always seemed to lack a certain energy and spontaneity. These days, the band is a well-oiled machine, and while Saturday’s show never quite matched the lushness of their recordings, these more organic interpretations of older favorites had a much fresher flavor. The band was billed to play until 3 a.m., but clocked out somewhere around 2, closing with recent Miley Cyrus collab, their cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" — unfortunately without MiCy's help this time.
The offensively wack turnout for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 12:30 a.m. That Tent show (we're talking, like, less than a thousand people) provided an interesting case study in festival demographics. Sure, Cave's a bigger legend than the Flaming Lips, Frank Ocean or Skrillex, all of whom he was going head-to-head-to-head with in his time slot, but how many 35- to 50-year-old Nick Cave fans go to Bonnaroo? Seriously, we've seen Van Halen cover bands draw better. But Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds aren't exactly a party band. They do, however, make great music for a bad trip. Under-lit by flood lights, Cave's preying, wiry shadow projected on the tent roof was utterly terrifying. Undaunted by the turn out, Cave & Co., as expected, shocked, inspired, scared and scarred the captivated handful that watched the show. Some watched in stunned shock, a vice grip on their brains, as Cave spit out the obscenities of "Stagger Lee.” Others outstretched their arms as Cave grabbed onto them for dear life while bellowing about the horrors of "The Mercy Seat."
Last year, Darkside took Daft Punk's Random Access Memories and turned it into a sparse, moody affair that dismantled its bright hooks and left them scattered in an industrial-tinged funk. That's kinda how their late-night gig at That Tent went. While mainstream DJs like Kaskade and The Glitch Mob fed builds and drops to the crowd with a spoon, Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington stuttered into psychedelic, experimental darkwave electronica. Cool and creepy, Darkside threw out the EDM playbook to perform to a small but intrigued crowd of sleep-deprived Bonna-zombies. As the clock ticked toward 4 a.m., we bailed, favoring our tent over challenging electronic music — but only slightly.