Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival | 06.07-10.12

Want to spend all of your money on Amish donuts? No one will judge you; many will envy you.

 

 

Photo: Blake Alexander
 

#FirstWorldProblems could very well be the official hash tag of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival yearly. From being awakened by Fat Albert playing loudly from the clock tower, to choosing between great acts, to stepping in mudholes, possibility exists around every corner to ruin a weekend for the glass-half-empty types of the world.

This year, however, many fewer of these problems existed, as the festival and state of Tennessee both seemed better prepared for Manchester, Tenn.’s annual jump to the sixth largest city in the state. Past years’ three- to five-hour wait to enter seemed nonexistent, the Bermuda grass planted last year was thicker than ever, and water seemed more readily available than in any previous year.

Mother Nature also seemed prepared to offer Bonnaroovians a break from past years’ sweltering 100-plus-degree heat indices. Though blowing your nose still produced black clumps of dust, even that seemed to be tempered. All of these factors produced more energetic crowds, as well as artists.

Thursday

Bonnaroo Thursday began the fest much in form with past years, featuring artists on the rise in all genres. The Dirty Guv’nahs may have been a late addition to the festival, but the band came no less prepared to welcome the crowd with a rambunctious rock ’n’ roll-filled set that quickly got the crowd drinking and in the mood for the rest of the evening. Mariachi El Bronx played through their straightforward mariachi tunes that provided a fun set that lacked only tequila and showcased all of the band members’ talents.

As the sun began to fall and temperatures brought out a large number of long-sleeve shirts and hoodies, Yelawolf heated up This Tent with his Southern-influenced rap. His set would also include a brief portion dedicated to the late Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys, as well a cover of “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, which brought out a sea of lighters. A trip to the comedy tent for a round of laughs brought goosebump-inducing temperatures that had some hiding from the blasts of air pumping through the air conditioning and had many asking, “Is this Bonnaroo?”

This year’s comedy lineup was as powerful as ever, with Comedy Central once again a large presence. A large selection of the funniest touring standup comics right now would come to the stage over the weekend, including Aziz Ansari, Judah Friedlander, Brian Posehn, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Rhys Darby, Steven Wright, and Reggie Watts.

The biggest conflict of Thursday came between up-and-coming acts that would have been large draws on any day of the weekend, let alone the first. Alabama Shakes and Big Gigantic’s diverse styles split the crowd up well, and both brought special suprises as the Shakes ended their set with the addition of the horn portions of the Soul Rebels leading the band out into Centeroo. Big Gigantic began their set by tossing out hundreds of inflatable saxophones into the crowd.

Friday

Friday kicked off with the endless choices that come with a festival of this magnitude. The Avett Bros. would face off against Trampled by Turtles, Fitz and the Tantrums, and Little Dragon. Indie darling St. Vincent would battle for a crowd with Dawes, and Rodrigo y Gabriela, and oddly placed Ludacris, and let’s face it…showing up to get a spot for Radiohead.

There are quite literally thousands of specific ways to enjoy your own personalized Bonnaroo experience, though if you are only seeing bands, you are missing out on many great experiences. Friday featured one of the festival’s biggest fans, Aziz Ansari, in the comedy tent, as well as Buster Keaton silent short films with a soundtrack provided live by Tune-Yards. Kristin Bell and Dax Shepard were doing press and screening their new film, Hit and Run, which Shepard warned should be completely avoided if you hate laughing and fast cars.

The focus, however, is still on the music side of things, and Friday was a very solid day of great music in every genre. Trampled by Turtles played a relatively intimate set in comparison to the crowd watching the Avett Brothers. Feist came out ready to rock the Which Stage to a rather unimpressive crowd that seemed to be about half filled out by a younger crowd waiting on Foster the People. It did not slow her down, though, as she immediately jumped into “When I Was a Young Girl,” showing off guitars skills of her own with three female backup singers filling in a massive sound.

Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A. came on stage, aware that most of the crowd was simply in wait mode. If there was any doubt of how incredible of a set it would be, it was quickly wiped out when the band emerged on stage playing to the song that was broadcast over the What Stage speakers, Tool’s “The Pot.” The last time they graced the stages of Bonnaroo, RyG played an enthralling set featuring just the two of them, so the inclusion of the very talented C.U.B.A. brought an entirely new light to older tunes, and showcased new ones like “Santo Domingo” and “Diablo Rojo.”

Radiohead could never match the levels of anticipation that had built up after their now legendary 2006 set that ushered Bonnaroo into a new light around the world, one that was widely regarded as one of the best of their career. With that said, the band played a damned good set. Will people still be talking about it five years from now? Most likely not. It was, however, the buzz of the entire weekend. “I Might Be Wrong” threw a major kink in the set and brought the crowd back after a stretch off songs ending with “The Daily Mail” that had the crowd as quiet as they were the entire weekend.

Lead singer Thom Yorke seemed in as good of mood as physically possible, once asking the crowd where they slept, and offering up, “In a field, face down in the mud? That’s what we do in Britain. It’s a British tradition.” He also briefly spoke with a German accent, and hinted at a collaboration with Jack White, though he left it very unclear when the results would be available, only saying, “You’ll know soon enough.” The band ended each portion of their set in perfect form, with “Idioteque,” “Everything in Its Right Place,” and evening-closer “Paranoid Android.”

Heading to the late-night spectacles in a post-Radiohead daze, crowds had to choose between the jammy-goodness of The Word (feat. Robert Randolph, John Medeski, and North Mississippi Allstars), the insane dance party of Major Lazer, or the old-schoool Brooklyn hip-hop of Black Star (aka Talib Kweli) and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def). With no bad choice to be made, splitting the acts up seemed most sensible, and as Black Star arrived nearly 20 minutes late, starting with Major Lazer was a great was to reacclimatize to the madness of preparing to stay up until sunrise.

After the initial offering, Big Freedia taught the Farm how to truly get “Azz Everywhere!” while Umphrey’s McGee added some saxophone midway through their sunrise set by featuring Big Gigantic. Flying Lotus may have had the largest late-night draw of Friday. His normally sporadic tunes were replaced with a party-friendly vibe that had the entire crowd jumping as he dropped “Intergalactic” by the Beastie Boys, and doing their best to keep up with a sped-up Lil Wayne on “A Milli.”

Saturday

After an incredible Friday night, Saturday would prove to be a new day full of conflict—and curiosity, the latter mostly stemming from That Tent’s metal lineup. Would Danzig show up or turn into a Kanye West-style Bonnaroo fiasco? Would they really book a Van Halen cover band to fill a prime time late-night slot? Also, who would turn out for ?uestloves much anticipated Superjam? The answers would be: eh, yes, and we will get there.

Before the interesting late night would go into effect, Flogging Molly would rule the day, with the crowd dancing jigs and clapping for nearly the entire set. The group’s Celtic punk would come to a feverish ending with “Seven Deadly Sins,” which felt perfect in the decadence and warm summer sun on Bonnaroo.

Puscifer took to the stage next, albeit 25 minutes late. Though this would not normally be an issue, in a time slot that also featured Santigold and SBTRKT, this was 25 minutes spent not dancing. Those who stuck around, however, were treated to a heavy set filled with oddity, peanuts, and crunching guitars on top of trance-like tunes. Singers Maynard James Keenan and Carina Round frequently took to the front of the stage in full-on airlines garb, about which Keenan later remarked that polyester may not have been the best choice.

The Roots had one of the busiest days at the fest, with many members of the legendary hip-hop band practicing for the Superjam throughout the day, playing their own set, then taking a brief break before heading over to the actual Superjam. Despite the distraction, the band was incredibly tight and focused during its hour-and-a-half time slot. Everyone in the band rightfully had their moment to shine, and took full advantage. Black Thought got the crowd incredibly fired up right away with a touching tribute to Adam Yauch. Captain Kirk Douglas did his best to turn the set into a face-melting trip back to Woodstock as he did everything but set his guitar on fire, and on percussion, ?uestlove and F. Knuckles were the solid foundation that everyone else played around.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers walked into Bonnaroo with as much—or more—to prove than anyone. The one thing no one questions is that Flea and Chad Smith hold the love rollercoaster together. Since guitarist John Frusciante walked away, there has been a slight sense of doubt and cynicism surrounding the band. Once the lights kicked on and the bass kicked in on “Monarchy of Roses,” though, no one in the crowd seemed to have any sort of bad feelings. Ladies still swoon over Anthony Kiedis—and on this night at least he didn’t quite live up to his recent “zombie Kiedis” nickname, though Flea did handle most of the interaction with the crowd. Anyway, who doesn’t want to participate in a sing-along of “Under the Bridge” at some point in their life?

If you were looking for a party, Saturday most likely paled in comparison to Friday. Of course Skrillex showed up and…was Skrillex. Before he would get the chance to be Skrillex, ?uestlove got the chance to say what he had been waiting 12 years to say: “Ladies and gentlemen, D’Angelo.” The pair, along with an all-star cast of musicians, placed the crowd in a time-machine, much like ?uestlove does during his DJ sets. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles were all touched upon, and when the tunes ran out and the crowd demanded more, well, there simply wasn’t any. With so much effort required in putting something like this together, there is just a simple lack of time to actual practice songs.

Maybe it was morbid curiosity, maybe hope, and just maybe for a few pure love of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, but several hundred people gathered around That Tent at 2 a.m. for whatever it was that was coming. Ninety percent of them would walk away disappointed, as it did not turn out to be Jack White, or Phish, or whatever other fanatical rumor had been whispered throughout the day. It was just a Van Halen cover band. They may have been better than the actual Van Halen at this point, but there was still a sour taste left in many a mouth. Luckily, it’s Bonnaroo, so most just laughed and walked away instead of rioting.

Sunday

Sunday would overflow with musical goodness, from the earliest moments of the day being filled with Belgium’s finest, Black Box Revelation, to the very end, which would find Kenny Rogers joining Phish on stage before the festival grounds closed down. Walking in to Centeroo Sunday morning, one might have thought they were in Manchester, U.K., instead of Tennessee. The overcast skies and cool breeze truly brought a taste of Glastonbury to our little runaway colony.

Gary Clark Jr. kicked off the What Stage with a raucous set perfect for getting stagnant limbs moving after three hard days. The 28-year-old blues savant played his heart out, just a year after opening one of the festival’s smaller tents. The next few hours would be more ready for a sandy beach with happy tunes than a wet farm in the middle of Tennessee. Grouplove took to the stage after a massive year that saw them in television commercials, as well as opening a sold-out tour for Young the Giant. The combination of Christian Zucconi and Hannah Hooper had the beach balls and crowd bouncing the entirety of their set.

The reformation of the Beach Boys with Brian Wilson is a wonderful thing, to say the least. There were many a good vibration over the What Stage grounds as they played through a set filled with classic songs as well as new tunes that were rather difficult to tell from each other. Mike Love handled the majority of the lead singer duties, pacing the front of the stage, saying clichéd things, and doing everything you would expect of a septuagenarian singing cool California tunes to 30,000 people.

Outside of the weather, there was actually a taste of England on the farm: It came in the rather wonderful form of The Joy Formidable. As soon as the band hit the stage, a wall of sound caused anyone in close proximity to the stage to double check their hearts to make sure they were still pumping. The lead singer may come in a bite-sized package, but behind the alternative stylings of the band, the heart of a punk beats through. By the end of the set, Bryan and bassist Rhydian Dafydd had torn the band’s equipment to pieces in what appeared to be true anger—until they both lit up in a smile before exiting the stage.

For those wanting a less Phish-y end to their personalized Bonnaroo, there were still many wonderful choices right up until Trey Anastasio & Co. took over. The Shins, fun., and Young the Giant split the crowd up, though it’s hard to see how, with the massive amounts of people who showed up for fun. The band may have gotten huge upon the release of Some Nights, but fun. has a long history with the festival through Jack Antonoff’s previous band, Steel Train. Lead singer Nate Ruess said he was attempting to wipe the huge smile off his face during the band’s set, but it seemed like a impossible goal.

Though the band may have a huge hit now, it’s not due to them changing their sound by any means. The song is a summation of everything the band do well, from an infectious chorus that caused involuntary singalongs, to the fun.’s impressive synchronized vocals. It seems a fairly safe bet that the next time these guys take the stage in Manchester, they are fairly assured a leap of time slot—similar to that of Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, Phoenix, or Mumford & Sons—to a much larger stage and time slot.

After four long days, it’s easy to see why many opt to head home to a clean shower followed shortly by a warm bed instead of sticking around for a few more bands. Honestly, there is no wrong way to “do” Bonnaroo. Want to spend the entire weekend in the Comedy Tent? Bet you laugh your ass off. Want to lay in the shade and listen to tunes all day in front of the Which Stage? That sounds like an incredible vacation. Want to spend all of your money on Amish donuts? No one will judge you; many will envy you. With all of the improvements to infrastructure, as well as the (mostly) incredible weather, this was the best Bonnaroo to date, and most left wondering what was in store for next year.| Bruce Matlock

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