I could start this Bonnaroo recap off with some clichéd opener, along the lines of “Every year thousands descend upon lonely Manchester, TN.” But I won’t, because at this point, anyone reading this already has had an overzealous friend pour over every detail about Bonnaroo: the heat, the camping, the friendly camaraderie, the nearly universal drug usage and the endless supply of amazing music (Mac Miller excluded).
Last year Bonnaroo was a fiery inferno with 95 degree highs almost every day and almost no reprieve in the form of the annual rainstorms. In stark contrast stood this year, dropping temps by about 15 degrees or so, eliminating a large part of the survival aspect as it presented a much more relaxed feeling.
While Bonnaroo offers so much more than music, I even went to see a documentary on shriking glaciers called “Chasing Ice”, that is all I can ever really get excited about. So without further ado, a run down of the acts I caught at Bonnaroo.
The Other Tent
Thursday 4:15 PM
I believe the best way to describe EMA’s music is a mix of Britney Spears, Phish and Sonic Youth. Well not really, but someone in the crowd did (Ian Cohen of Pitchfork perhaps?). I caught EMA before at the 40 Watt before a crowd about 20, and while she fared better at Bonnaroo, I still wasn’t very impressed by what she brought to the table. This Pitchfork darling comes across to this humble reviewer as a disappointing side project of Kim Gordon, keeping the noise-y avant garde feel of the band while completely abandoning the energy in favor of an apathetic indifference. I respect what Erika M. Anderson does musically, but her art fails to connect with me on any level. The emotional cries for help feel empty to me and thus my impression of the concert is more comical than moving. If nothing else the concert was entertaining but not in the way Erika would have hoped, as I spent most of the concert thinking I would much rather appreciate an instrumental performance of her music sans her melodramatic lyrics.
The Other Tent
Thursday 5:45 PM
The Cave Singers are the musical equivalent of a modern day SNL skit. Take one good idea and drag it out for four or five minutes. A catchy guitar riff is the unchanging base of a Cave Singers song, and while this works in short doses, a concert full of songs with one idea are a bit hard to digest. While this formulaic song structure is a bit of a disappointment, the concert was still an enjoyable affair. The energetic spirit that pervades most of their songs is amplified in a live setting, as the up-beat tempos shine, establishing a light hearted mood that got most of the crowd moving. And the band reflected this enthusiasm, most apparent in Derek Fudesco’s strange collection of dance moves (a staccato shuffle coupled with some slow windmilling arms was a favorite). After a terrible Athens showing opening for the Cold War Kids back in 2011 (they were obviously far too high to play), The Cave Singers were due for a rebound and they certainly gained their respect back in my mind (because I know The Cave Singers live and die by my perceptions of their live shows).
The Other Tent
Thursday 7:15 PM
Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein, comprising the two juniors of the band, live to please and showed it with their crowd surfing (the only such instance I witnessed at Bonnaroo this year), spraying the crowd with dueling bubble machines, their giant light up J’s and R’s, hiding a bottle of Dom Perignon in a porta-potty for a lucky fan to find (I did not find it) and just being their wacky selves. And their every antic on stage is so genuine, flowing naturally from the trio’s exuberant smiles. The whole band feels like they were your friends in another life, just a bunch of guys that come across far less as musicians and far more as the cool guy that lived a couple of doors down from you in your Freshmen dorm. Their light-hearted personalities bleed into their music, showcasing an array of dancey, pop songs that carry with them such catchy melodies layered in dreamy, sugary arrangements. The band drew almost exclusively from their 2011 release It’s A Corporate World throwing in a new song, and covers from The Beach Boys and Whitney Houston, beating the geezers to the first play of “God Only Knows” at the festival and absolutely crushing the crowd with a “I Will Always Love You” interlude at the end of “If It Wasn’t You…”. Honestly I nearly let a tear slide down my cheek, it was so beautiful when I realized where the extended outro was heading. Each progressing song got the crowd more crazed, and a transformed, rocking version of “Nothing But Our Love” pushed the crowd over the edge. It was a thing of beauty.
The Other Tent
Thursday 8:45 PM
During the break between bands, I was surprised at the following White Denim had brought to the tent, not only in numbers but in the excitement that was slowly spreading over the tent. Giant cheers were let out when the band took to the stage and chants of “White Denim” were soon to follow. It was well deserved to say the least as White Denim delivered an incredible show. The band used their studio albums as a loose guide as they jammed the fuck out, stringing together intricate progressive rock pieces played at frenetic speeds. For me the star of the show was Joshua Block, as he drummed his way into my heart (too cheesy?). Traditional drum beats are thrown out the window as Block played such inventive and difficult polyrhythmic drum beats. But really I’m failing at describing what it was like, taking a visceral experience and trying to condense it into something scientific and professional. It was awesome display of technical ability, made that much sweeter by the little things; the secondary guitarists broad smile, the laps lead singer James Petralli ran around the stage and so much more. In comparison, it made every other band at the festival look a little musically shallow.
The Other Tent
Thursday 8:45 PM
Before the show, it was pretty clear Phantogram was the number one thing to see on Thursday, nearly everyone was talking about their show. And Phantogram pretty much delivered the concert everyone was expecting, a blaze of lights everywhere, cloaking the trip-hop-esque electronic rockers. Sarah Barthel was noticeably happy and her dance moves inspired most of the crowd to do the same. There really isn’t much else to say. Their music is excellent, and served as a great soundtrack to the massive dance party in the Other Tent. Josh Carter may have been a little flat, in voice and in emotion, but it did little to dampen the mood.
Friday 1:45 PM
Unbeknownst to me, tUnE-yArDs are no longer an indie darling. Instead, and Merril Garbus seemed just as surprised, they are the kind of group that makes you say “Holy Shit” when you look out at the masses that descended at This Tent. Everyone was talking about their set, even the dubstep crowd before Mimosa (his DJ set was terrible for the record). But after having my expectations built up by this fervor, I came away feeling a little disappointed. There was certainly nothing wrong with the concert per se, but just some little things messed it up for me. It would have been nice to see more from BiRd-BrAiNs, like my favorite Fiya, but instead the crowd was left with “Real Live Flesh” as the solo BiRd-BrAiNs track. I also didn’t really care for the myriad of beach balls that were tossed about the crowd throughout the concert, just a little distraction that can be amplified if you’re having to constantly bat them away from your head. Finally, the sound quality of the drums left a lot to be desired, as Merill’s built from the ground up beats sounded a bit tinny and lacked the ferocity that their recorded counterparts do. Nevertheless, I still had fun, entertained by the dueling saxophonists/percussionists and the primal vocals that Garbus brings to the table.
Friday 3:15 PM
If you have ever said to yourself, “Man it would be awesome if Merryl Streep and Conan O’Brien had a child” you are in luck at a TDCC concert. Well sort of, as lead singer Alex Trimble is probably the closest you are going to get to a child of those two. The haircut is what really does it. As for the concert, it was every bit the dance party you would expect from the UK rockers. The crowd seemed a bit tepid when it came to the lesser-known tracks from Tourist History, but when it came to “What You Know”, “I Can Talk” and “Something Good Can Work,” the crowd got on their awkward “I have absolutely no space to dance but I can sort of jump up and down.” It was hot, fun and sweaty. The band also showed off some new tracks from their upcoming album, which they said was all but done, a promising glimpse into the future. Certainly not a life-changing experience but it complimented the cheery summer day just about as well as any band could with their sugary, melodic guitar hooks.
Friday 5:00 PM
With a tent jam-packed with people waiting for Ludacris to take the stage, Little Dragon acted as Luda’s (can I call him that) opener, an unknown act that had people asking around “Have you heard of these guys?” That’s a tough spot for a band to be in, but boy did they deliver. Before the show, I heard someone ask if Little Dragon was good. After, he was exuberantly calling his friend, telling him “I JUST SAW LITTLE DRAGON!” as if him and his friends had been life-long fans of the Swedish group. Little Dragon dazzled up on the stage, throwing their every emotion behind their unique mix of genres, as they borrowed the thumping, dirty bass lines of nearly every late night act and combined that with the feel of live band and emerged with a LCD Soundsystem dance extravaganza of building songs brick by brick until they reach a climax. The description doesn’t really do the band justice, partly because their sound is original as any music can be this day. And the band loved every second in the spotlight, grinning at each other throughout the whole show, presenting themselves as a bunch of friends in a basement jamming out together. As their set winded down, time constraints became an issue, and the festival officials pretty much had to rip them from the stage, but not before they went over their time allotment with the first verse of their slow ballad “Twice.” I knew Little Dragon was going to be good but I had no idea. They blew Bonnaroo away, presented what I think was my favorite non-stage show and walked with an army of new fans.
Friday 6:15 PM
After pushing my way through the packed tent to escape Ludacris enormous audience (sorry, oh god I’m sorry, just trying to leave everyone), I made the short run across the field to get to Which Stage, just in time to see “A Commotion” mid-way through. Feist arguably had the most notable personality of Bonnaroo, interweaving narratives and commanding the crowd to become the world’s largest glee club with assigned notes to sing throughout her performance. And she needed it to connect with the sprawling Which Stage arena, a stage a little bit too big for her fanbase that was left a little empty as people flocked to conflicting set times and waited for Radiohead. In such an open space, your attention wanders and mine certainly did, the helicopter that kept circling over didn’t help (Leslie waved to it as it made one of its many fly overs). But I love Feist and I still had a great time, whether it was swaying with three strangers arm in arm during “Sealion” or enjoying the alternate, stripped down version of “Mushaboom.” I cap off this review imploring you to catch Feist in her younger days, licking a bicycle in the music video for a song called “Lovertits.” Check it out here.
Friday 10:00 PM
Radiohead was awesome as ever. And I feel silly even telling you what you probably already know. Giant moving screens, an incredibly deep catalog to choose from and the pony-tailed, fish out of water dancing Thom Yorke. Yorke has said before that their 2006 Bonnaroo showing was one of his favorite performances and he was noticeably more chipper and talkative during this show (compared to when I saw him in Atlanta earlier on their King of Limbs tour), as he told us about the England tradition to sleep face down in the mud, an expectation he had for the festival-goers to do that night as they went to sleep. The setlist was perfect, featuring Paranoid Android and Karma Police (I’m a sucker for anything on OK Computer) and a slew of other great songs, including a “True Love Waits” intro to “Everything In It’s Right Place.” Radiohead is beyond any lowly descriptions from WUOG bloggers so I end this here.
Saturday 2:00 PM
Preceding Das Racist was supposed to be Darondo. He didn’t show (the riot police did not have to make an appearance to quell the crowds). Das Racist did, in their coveralls and with their coffee filled thermoses (is that word?). As their music indicates they are a pretty fun group of guys and showed it during their set. Twice they made the crowd turn around and face away from the stage as they shouted “Don’t look at me, don’t look at me!” And while they didn’t dive into their most famous hit, “Combination…” they included my favorite “Rainbow In the Dark” and touched upon “You Ought To Know By Now.” Unfortunately this was all marred by the muddy mix which left the vocals as an unintelligible drone behind the thumping bass. If you were a true Das Racist fan, you probably knew the lyrics and could have just sung along and forgot about it (crowd singing was actually more intelligible than Das Racist themselves). On the other hand, a casual fan like myself and no way of knowing what they were saying most of the time. And that’s kind of important in a rap concert.
Saturday 3:30 PM
Battles has quite the folklore that surrounds them: a band that abandons their lead vocalist, features video screens as guest vocalists, showcases the raw emotion that is drummer John Stanier and has the cymbal that is hoisted way up in the air. The band took the stage with this baggage and was pretty much all business throughout the set, saying only about 3 words until the very last song. Their were minor hiccups, like the slightly delayed video monitors, but otherwise they put on a very solid performance, ripping through most of Gloss Drop with their ultra-talented trio. And boy was it loud, with the drums right on the edge of the stage and the keyboards high notes piercing your ear drums (far louder than Mogwai). They may have fallen a little short of contemporary White Denim but still emerged as a significant highlight from Bonnaroo.
Saturday 5:15 PM
It was a little strange seeing SBTRKT in the light of day, with the packed crowd questioning why Unchained: The Van Halen tribute band got a late night set instead of SBTRKT (one fan even had a conspiracy theory that Jack White was going to be in that set instead of the tribute band. When questioned, “well what about the people who actually want to see them” he replied with “that’s like 7 people dude, they’ll get over it”). SBTRKT duos live, SBTRKT, the producer and beat maker, and Samba, who supplies the vocals to the mix. And instead of appearing as two laptop commanders, the duo did their best to recreate every element of their music on the fly. Having live drums and an active process to creating your music goes a long way, making their other EDM contemporaries look a little stupid in comparsion. Instead of mindlessly egging on the crowd with “Everybody jump!” these guys were busy actually making the music. With Little Dragon at Bonnaroo, the rumors surrounding a live performance on “Wildfire” were like well, a wildfire I guess. Unfortunately, “Wildfire” came and went without a special guest vocalist appearance.
Saturday 7:00 PM
As the annoying camerawoman in the front kept reminding everyone, “Mogwai is going to be amazing.” And they were. It was an hour and fifteen minutes of post rock bliss, layering and layering till they reached a climax that just can’t be experienced to its full potential anywhere else. On the car ride home, I considered putting on Mogwai, but it just wouldn’t have been the same. No stereo system I own or will ever own will ever hold a candle to venue’s thousand dollar sound systems. And the setting was perfect for Mogwai, as the sun was just setting as the band took the stage, providing such a magical twilight atmosphere that “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” is made for. So I swayed eyes closed and just took in the completely visceral experience, an emotional presentation that cuts to the core.
Saturday 10:00 PM
RHCP was more of a nostalgia trip more than anything else, a fun little romp through my teenage years that lacked the feel of something important, and felt more like a giant party. I can’t really think of anyone who wouldn’t be interested in seeing at least a few RHCP songs (and to be honest, they didn’t have a choice, nothing else was going on during that time slot). The band paid lip service to their back catalog, playing the necessities like “Under the Bridge,” “Suck My Kiss,” and “Dani California.” Sure, the new stuff is questionable and they did dip heavily into “I’m With You.” And sure, new guitarist Josh Kilnghofer messed with Frusciante’s solos and introduced his odd, squeaky voice into the mix as he tried to tackle the high harmonies. But the concert was still great, something I’d been waiting for ever since I heard “Under the Bridge” on the radio, something I want to tell my grandchildren. Oh yeah, and before the show there was also a weird dog dancing thing. It was equal parts impressive and creepy. The dog did seem to be having fun though. Here is a video if you want to be in tune with some canine cha-cha.
Sunday 12:30 PM
It was a hard choice going to this instead Delta Spirit. Who knows if I made the right decision, but Fruit Bats was certainly a pleasant way to start the last day at Bonnaroo. Day four of Bonnaroo calls for a heavy dose of fatigue so laid-back harmonies and acoustic instrumentation was a welcome soundtrack. The set felt like it went by far to quickly for the Chicago-cool-cats, giving them enough time to barely scratch their deep catalog of songs. The band was riled up to be performing at the same tent as Danzig (and yes Danzig did try and fight a photographer for taking his picture). They did suffer from technical issues with the bass during the first two songs and had to replace some equipment on stage (you never want to see the bassist banging on something with fists of rage). As for the setlist, the band went heavy on The Ruminant Band (eight songs) while pushing Tripper to the side for the most part (this reviewer’s favorite album). Perhaps not as memorable as other shows, but a nice little outing that gave me my first reason to visit That Tent.
Sunday 3:00 PM
In the lead up to the concert, I tried to put in perspective the 50th anniversary tour that the Beach Boys were and currently are on. My parents were barely 5 years old. Pretty much every other band I saw had members that were 20 years away from being born. And yet, there they were up on the stage, surprisingly youthful and excited to be there (except for Brian Wilson, we will get there). I grew up on the Beach Boys and it was pretty much inconceivable I would see them live in any fashion, especially a live performance in support of a new album (yes, you read that right, the band’s 29th studio album). To say the least, I was giddy with excitement, a smile plastered across my face throughout their 90-minute, 31-song performance. The smile was part nostalgia, part love for the Beach Boys and part ironic humor. Seeing a bunch of old men singing “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man” and “California Girls” is far too funny to be taken seriously. The setlist had an interesting flow to it, starting up slowly with some lesser known hits and covers but then finishing stronger than any other band in history probably could, save the Beatles, as the band ripped through “Sloop John B,” Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” Good Vibrations,” “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Kokomo,” “Barabara Ann” and finally “Fun, Fun, Fun.” After every song, I thought, okay well what are they going to end on now? And after every song I thought about how each one would serve just as well if not better than any other band’s big hit set closer. All of this from a group of old men who knew their place as more of an entertainer than musician, playing only two songs from their new album, even going as far to have Mike Love malfunction like a robot, as he was frozen on his knees holding a single note until Al Jardine came over and saved him, picking him up as the speakers played a clip of a machine booting back into gear. Sure, they had about a whole other band supporting them on stage (14 people total), but they were so energetic and sounded so great despite all those years. Well, all of that applies except to Brian Wilson. The man is a shell of himself, practically comatose on stage, and clearly foreign to the idea of a showman persona the rest of the band adopted (he was about as far away from the cheesy, get up at the front of the stage sax solos that were occasionally trotted out). He did have some good moments, like on “Heroes and Villains” but really it was a bit sad to see Brian Wilson up on stage, reading from a teleprompter and awkwardly standing around as the rest of the band took their bows. But I blocked this out during the concert. It was about the “Fun, Fun, Fun,” not about the clouds that hung overhead, both literally (it was overcast and threatening rain for most of the day) and figuratively (with Wilson), but about how the sun came out at the end of the show. Yeah that last line was cheesy, but so was the whole concert, and that are what the Beach Boys are about now. And I loved it.
Sunday 5:30 PM
Easily the biggest disappointment of Bonnaroo for me. I even liked his most recent self-titled release, but I was just not feeling the presentation of his work at Bonnaroo. Every song and every added flourish felt so forced, often followed by a half-hearted jam out session by his massively overpopulated band (obviously Bon Iver needs two drummers), that were perceived as especially weak when stacked up against the likes of White Denim, Battles and Phish. The self-proclaimed number one Bon Iver fan behind me didn’t help either. His wonderful singing, which he felt needed to be as loud or louder than Vernon’s (it wasn’t wonderful), constant commentary to show his intellect and yelling got on my last nerve. Justin Vernon’s outfit wasn’t bad per se, but it was just a let down to see such impressive studio work fall short, paling in comparison to the competition at Bonnaroo.
Sunday 6:30 PM
After finishing up at Bonnaroo, I made the short jog over to The Shins. I came in about eight songs into a twenty song set (missing Kissing the Lipless, Caring Is Creepy, Simple Song, Australia, Bait and Switch and Phantom Limb, fuck me right?). Though I missed a good chunk of the setlist, what I did catch was a nice finale to Bonnaroo. While The Shins retained none of the supporting members surrounding Mercer from their previous albums, the band showed no signs of being worse for wear. As expected, they went pretty heavily on Port of Morrow, but also played the b-side waltz Sphagnum Esplanade. Seeing “New Slang” was a pretty religious moment for me, what may well be “the” indie rock song of my generation, more than making up for show closer One by One All Day that featured a droning, weak extended jam session at the end. Mercer also treated us to Fruit Bat’s Eric Johnson’s presence, who was briefly a member of the band from 2009-2011 (I’m not really sure what the band was doing at that point) . It was an nice thought, but Johnson seemed to feel a bit uncomfortable up on the stage, relegated to awkwardly playing the tambourine and the occasional supporting vocal that was drowned out by the rest of the band. Given Bon Iver’s rough performance, I would have much rather seen more of The Shins, but luckily I will have a chance to check out them again when they come to Atlanta.
So yeah, that was it for Bonnaroo. The tent was folded up and the car packed just as Phish was getting into their massive four hour set. The countdown for next year began immediately. And yes I mean immediately, I live for these best four days of the year and am getting sad just thinking about the 349 days and 6 hours separating me and my love.
Photo Credits go to Dafna Kaufman, Kelly Murray and Will Guerin.
Here are some additional photos for your enjoyment!
Article by Will Guerin
SBTRKT Made Fan Work