by The Spin
This year’s second installment of Road to Bonnaroo began with the together-again Pink Spiders, who played three songs (none of which we know the names of), and for the last number brought out a five-piece Gentleman's Choir while Matt Friction sang from a platform at the back of the room. No one seemed to notice he was in the back of the room.
We thought rap-rock died out a while back, so we were surprised by Born Empty. Then we realized the bassist actually attended our alma mater, which reminded us to be thankful we went to college, lest we still be faux spiritually aggro-rocking to S.C.I.E.N.C.E. The BE guys owned their material with pride — the lead singer hung 10 on a wave of his own chutzpah, and they were definitely feeling their music. They performed like thespians as much as musicians, which is the major component of Road to Bonnaroo: embellishing the magnitude of your band. BE seemed to perceive that the audience was asking — to borrow a 1999 creed — can you take me higher?
Theater night intensified as Cheer Up Charlie Daniels took the stage dressed as Elton John, Macy Gray, and Kenny Powers — and that was before they all put on masks, at least one of which bore the face of a former governor of Alaska. A There Will Be Blood-esque old-timey religious sermon introduced their set, resembling a rehearsed high school forensics one-act and a second maneuver also made us nostalgic for secondary school days as CUCD showered the audience with vote-for-us candy. Theater and music had reached a healthy balance by the end, though, and CUCD displayed panache in the form of a fantastic ELO-inspired ditty that contained some serious guitar shredding.
Leroy Powell played next and took the night to a different level. Slightly older (dare we say getting up there), this three-piece treated the audience to a cohesive and suave performance of Texas blues-rock that gave the audience what they wanted, assuming they wanted to rock, further proof that everyone likes ZZ Top. They played their three songs ferociously, then bailed like they had somewhere to be. Competitors would do well to follow LP's lead.
Professionalism continued to escalate as Keegan DeWitt, who had just stepped off the van from SXSW and a New England tour before that, took the stage to perform the best song of the night, "Two Hearts," a friendly modern tune speckled with New Order riffs and washed well by keyboard, the mechanics of which solidly allow Dewitt to emote responsibly between verse and chorus. Dewitt's family then populated the stage as the band launched into the similarly catchy "Wishing Well," the title of which Dewitt repeats ad nauseam.
Captain Midnight Band dressed in arbitrarily ethnic garb. While the singer/guitarist balanced tenuously between Raiden and a glowy-eyed Jawa, the bassist donned a silk Oriental robe, huge elf hat and Jackie O. shades. Part jam band, part American rock band in the Bob Seger and Tom Petty tradition, the band definitely induced some — to fish out a 1990 phrase — bouncing around the room.
Due to "technical difficulties," as a Spin associate tells us, Brandon Jazz never got his backing track to start. But closing act Big Surr impressed the audience — now dwindled, definitely here to see Big Surr — with their frenetic take on punky indie pop. We dug them, not to mention the fact they wore their normal clothes. Dear lead, above-average height guitarist with square, brown frames: wailing out some Archers of Loaf riffage in J. Crew? The Spin likes this.
Despite, or maybe because of, their overwhelming campiness, Cheer Up Charlie Daniels (second-place finishers last year), took home the big prize, while Leroy Powell and Keegan Dewitt tied for runner-up and Big Surr placed third.