by The Spin
As far as The Spin was concerned, all of Bonnaroo Friday was just a pre-party for Sir Paul (words on that coming shortly). A pre-party with an exceptional lineup, sure, but a pre-party nonetheless. Unlike Thursday, Day Two featured no major lineup shifts or secret sound-checks to speak of, but Wilco and the Wu both ping our Stoked Meter (on opposite ends, obviously), and some Saharan blues and British bubblegum filled in the space between rather nicely.
You can't really ask for more from a Bonnaroo Friday than a perfect, cloudless day and some scorching local soul. Road to Bonnaroo winners Alanna Royale were the perfect aperitif, kicking things off with a blazing set of rock 'n' soul that, given the gorgeous weather, felt like a burlier cousin to classic Carolina Beach music. Our one complaint? Alanna claiming it was hot outside as the intro to the fiery “Tennesee Heat." We get it, you're working the crowd and working on a theme, but you've been here for a year — we know that you know this weather ain't hot, comparatively speaking.
Mr. Jonny Fritz and his A-list cast of Nashville sidemen were filling Centeroo with the sweet strains of mirthful country music shortly after noon on the Sonic Stage. (By the way, how long do we have to keep noting that he was once known as "Jonny Corndawg"? Everyone's caught up now, yes?) Ever the sight-gagster, Fritz was sporting a neck brace and a nose bandage seemingly for no reason in particular. Between his good-natured banter, Dad Country standout "Ain't It Your Birthday" and British steel master Spencer Cullum Jr. contributing talk box on songs like "Night Rider," Fritz & Co.'s set was a hit for the familiar faces and Dad Country newcomers alike.
What a difference a year makes! Last summer we caught Bombino in a sweaty, poorly ventilated garage with a couple hundred people, and this summer he's destroying That Tent — with, we might add, attendees shouting "Bombino-Roo!" all the while. It probably helps that Dan Auerbach produced his latest record, but it pretty much confirms our theory that the Tuareg guitarist is the baddest dude on the planet. It was either the hot licks or the purple outfit, but Bombino came off this Friday afternoon like the heavenly spawn of Prince and Dick Dale — the man is a guitar god, plain and simple. And if there's one thing a Bonnaroo crowd loves, it's someone who can shred the six-string. There were bros freaking out, chicks flipping their wigdomes, and all sorts of cats zoned way, way out on the hypnotic sounds of sub-Saharan blues. It was an intensely engrossing set that left us tingling from head to toe, drenched in sweat and totally stoked.
Jason Isbell recently expressed to NPR's Melissa Block some concerns about whether fighting off his alcoholism would take anything away from his abilities to write and perform. Isbell's set at Which Stage on this gorgeous afternoon, with wife Amanda Shires and the rest of The 400 Unit backing him up, should hopefully remove all doubt. Sounding like they were moonlighting from a Crazy Horse set somewhere, the group delivered tunes from early Drive-By Truckers releases to cuts from Isbell's latest, Southeastern. The band was top-notch as usual, but Isbell's song craft stands on its own; whether he's lived the story or not (and so often, the best songs are partly true and partly enhanced by a master storyteller), every song has that lived-in feeling.
We only caught the last 30 minutes of Calexico due to some logistical delays, but it was a glorious half-hour indeed. Early afternoon has never been our favorite time to see live music, but something about Calexico's trumpet-laced Tex-Mex vibe felt perfect as the sun baked the dusty Bonnaroo grounds. You could almost see Clint Eastwood approaching on horseback on the horizon. Shortly after our arrival the band launched into "Corona," prompting the college-age guys in front of us to correctly (if bro-ishly) point out, "Hey, it's the beginning of Jackass." Other highlights included the Love classic "Alone Again Or" and "Guero Canelo," off Feast of Wire. Mainstays Joey Burns and John Convertino appeared to be enjoying themselves, and the whole band sounded great — particularly recent addition Jairo Zavala on guitar. In fact, we witnessed the first call-and-response guitar solo we can remember seeing.
And this year's award for most criminally under-attended world-music set goes to Fatoumata Diawara. For cryin' out loud, folks, where were you? You missed some seriously stellar jazz-vibed Afro grooves. It was a perfect come-down from the day's previous hyped haps — a deep, smooth counterpoint to the the earlier freneticism that was capped off by a drum solo that channeled the spirit of founding Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen.
We cruised up the hill to the Sonic Stage to catch the tail end of Trombone Shorty’s set. Right as we walked in, Shorty and his band, Orleans Avenue, launched into Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” and we knew we were in the right place. The current configuration, or at least what Shorty and band were putting on display on the smaller stage, slants more toward guitar and sax shredding than brass band music, but there was plenty of good swing in the program.
Not gonna lie — we kinda wish we were watching Earl Sweatshirt for the entire duration of DIIV’s rescheduled set at The Other Tent. Nothing against DIIV, whose dreamy shoegaze pop landed in our favorite records of last year. We just wanted to see how the whole OFWGKTA mantra of “Kill People, Burn Shit, Fuck School” would mesh with the hippie-dippie ‘Roo vibes. Plus, we were stoked to hear more than just “Chum and Whoa” from Earl’s post-Samoan therapy school era. But hey, sometimes you can’t choose your party. Down a keyboardist, who apparently split with the band yesterday morning, Zachary Cole Smith (aka Li'l Ariel Pink) led his band through a set of reverbed-out indie pop for crowds not already pulled away by Passion Pit and Of Monsters and Men. The trouble with Bonnaroo is that bands still sometimes treat it like the jam festival it used to be, which they interpret as free license to get weird and long with their formerly concise three-minute pop songs. DIIV started to follow that path in the waning half of the set, and we pretty much lost interest.
A rap show started on time? It’s a Bonnaroo miracle! Big K.R.I.T.’s DJ Wally Sparks was on the decks exactly at 5:45 p.m., hyping the crowd with Southern rap classics like Three Six Mafia’s “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” and Bone Crusher’s “I Ain’t Never Scared” (which Killer Mike busted out on Thursday) and current hits like “Bugatti.” We’ve never seen so many white people get so hyped. By the time K.R.I.T. bounded onstage wearing a vintage Bulls jersey, he already had them eating out of the palm of his hand. Unlike Killer Mike, who doesn’t write hooks almost of out principle, K.R.I.T.’s got hooks for days. As he tore through hits like “4evaNaDay” and “Rotation,” the crowd didn’t miss a beat. Sometimes we have to explain to our lame-o friends what the point of seeing live hip-hop is: We would like to present K.R.I.T.’s performance as the defense's Exhibit A of live hip-hop’s greatness.
Seemingly fully recovered from his recent bout with mental illness (which pulled the plug on his band's Marathon Music Works show among others last summer), Michael Angelakos and Passion Pit had plenty of synth-poppy good vibes to share with the massed audience. He certainly seemed convinced that "everything will be alright for you and me," and sometimes that's all you need. Passion Pit is one of several groups previously booked at Bonnaroo who've been invited back to the flagship stage; it's an honor they share with Local Natives and Trombone Shorty, among others. Bounding across the stage and surrounded by weather balloons, Angelakos asked, "How many of you guys are already high as hell?" We think you'd have to be to fully appreciate the pitched-up Chipmunk vocals that are a signature part of the Pit's sound, but their sign-waving fans begged to differ.
By 7 p.m. or so, hours of day-drinking and sun exposure had The Spin firing on minimal cylinders. We fought past the mob in front of Which Stage until we reached Jim James at This Tent. Though James has a history with Bonnaroo via his My Morning Jacket and their default three-hour spot on Which Stage in years past, a bit of James' thunder was borrowed by the Wu-Tang, leaving attendance at a surprising minimum. In another stab of full disclosure, The Spin’s head was swimming with sax solos, retro melodies and trippy pieces of organ bliss, able to soak up only the most abstract nuances of the performances. We may have also fallen asleep soon after.
But Wu was bringing the mother fucking ruckus at Which, and so we moseyed. We've been waiting 20 damn years to see this show, and it was exactly the payoff we were hoping for — posse cuts for days! Non-stop posse cuts. There is no greater weapon in all the hip-hop arsenal than a posse cut — it's what the genre is founded on, obvs — and Wu-Tang was straight dropping bombs. While the Wu has a massive catalog, the set was primarily built around their debut Enter the Wu-Tang 36th Chamber and the slew of singles and solo records that surrounded it; basically all the hits and some deep cuts for the Wu nerds in the crowd. (There were a lot of Wu nerds in the crowd.) We'd wondered exactly how they would address the whole “ODB is dead, and it's too early to hologram” problem, but the Clan went all in, with the whole gang jumping and swapping bars over classics like “Shim Shimmy Ya” and “I like It." And while we were a little disappointed by the lack solo singles — we had to wait until the Superjam to see Ghostface rip “Daytona 500” — the crowd's energy and the group's ferocity combined to overcome what ever nerdly gripes we had.
An obligatory sense of curiosity kept at least a short visit to ZZ Top’s performance at That Tent on our agenda. Decked out in silver, sparkly blazers, Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill have got their beard-centric stage moves down to a science as hits like “Sharped Dressed Man, “Double Back” and “La Grange” rocked effortlessly with a great deal of magic dispensed by original drummer Frank Beard.
By 2 a.m., second and third winds were in full force and not a moment sooner for Animal Collective’s late-night fiesta at That Tent. The Spin crammed our way up pretty close for this one, as the band’s signature synthetic, glitch-based chirps, gurgles and hums regularly exploded into a throbbing electro mess of reverberated pop melodies. Pulling material largely from 2008’s Merriweather Post Pavillion, A.C. often strayed into a sort of high-speed Middle Eastern disco jam, which is apparently a no-brainer for whipping a late-night crowd into a frenzy.
After a quick nap in a hospitality hammock, we wandered over to Which to listen to and watch some Pretty Lights. We kind of cheated and saw the light show the night before; light check instead of sound check. It was impressive even without music, and it was fun to check out the show in an almost totally empty field. Friday night, however, the field transformed into an impenetrable scrum of people who, in many cases, brought their own pretty lights with them. Hundreds of glow sticks were hurled into the air as the biggest beats dropped, and we spotted dozens of variations on the neon-lit robot costume. There were chicks with hula-hoops, dudes with bongos, and enough people dancing to make it impossible to traverse the field.