A hashtag was reborn at Bonnaroo Friday night. #FuckKanye. Returning to the 'Roo six years after The Great Production Debacle of 2008 — when some combination of ego, an ambitious stage set, Pearl Jam and broken glow sticks saw the rapper not taking the stage until dawn — Kanye West once again had perhaps the most poorly received headlining set in the festival's history. But history didn't repeat itself for the same reason.
Maybe festivalgoers expected another late arrival; maybe not enough people cared; maybe it was the mud; maybe for many, Kanye hate supersedes morbid curiosity. Either way, as we made our way to the What Stage, we were pretty shocked at how thin the crowd was. It would get thinner as the night went on.
At first it seemed things might go well. Kanye took the stage on time, opening a 21-song set with a farm-rattling rendition of the bangin' Yeezus throw-down "Black Skinhead" while screens flashed in blinding blood red, and the rapper — with his head shrouded in a reflective, studded mask — charged at a roof-raising, balloon-slapping crowd spitting venom. But that was the only exciting five minutes of a passive-aggressive, unmitigated failure of a show that mostly consisted of Kanye — the Axl Rose of hip-hop — hate-fucking the crowd with self-indulgence.
Due in large part to West not utilizing the stage-flanking video monitors — leaving only neon, distorted, film-negative-like images of the masked rapper on the screen behind the stage — along with a lack of accessible material at the top of the show, the energy across the field drained fast. But it was when Kanye started into a series of his now-infamous, minutes-and-minutes-and-minutes-and-minutes-long rants (about the media, how to love him is to love yourself, his desire to be his generation's Shakespeare and other maladroit nonsense) that the crowd really turned on him. This was the first time we've ever heard angry boos at Bonnaroo. The mark of a great Bonnaroo headlining set is how much it can unify the crowd in a moment of joy. Friday night, Kanye united his haters, and maybe even made a few new non-fans.
By the time of the rants, it seemed one of the few who enjoyed the set was newlywed West's wife Kim Kardashian, who was on the side of the stage Instagramming and shit. "I'm the biggest rock star in the world!" West proclaimed after noting how he was playing to "90,000 people" at Bonnaroo, which he was not. This statement was especially ironic juxtaposed against the image of festivalgoers hemorrhaging from the crowd in droves, setting off to other stages to await other performers. The crowd that was gathered to see EDM duo Disclosure reportedly busted into a spontaneous "Fuck Kanye!" chant. And later, face-tat-sporting Mastodon bro Brent Hinds gave a "Fuck Kanye" shout-out of his own during his band's set. "Fuck you," the crowd shouted in en masse call-and-response to a repeating lyric, the What Stage now an echo chamber of hateful harangues — we overheard an audience member or two singing South Park's Kanye parody "Gay Fish."
Seriously, the real entertainment during the transcendence-bereft set came from overhearing the Comedy Theatre-worthy heckles from the thousands-strong peanut gallery as we wove our way through the crowd searching in vain for a decent sight line to watch the most visually unexciting stage production imaginable. And that was the true disappointment: Kanye being Kanye — talking shit like living as a pop star in the world is a daily punch in the gut — is par for the course, but his recent Yeezus Tour had endless amounts of big-budget, heavy-handed Kanye quirk. At Bonnaroo, there was no white mountain, no dialogue with a walking Jesus, no stage-stalking Yeti, no naked-lady throne to sit on — no ridiculous shenanigans to keep the curious entertained. At least when Kanye came on at sun-up in 2008, he had the glow stage as an excuse.
By the time West de-masked and launched into a frustratingly start-stop-y victory lap of could-have-been-crowd-pleaser hits like "Jesus Walks," "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" and "Heartless," it felt like trying to celebrate a funeral. The crowd that stuck it out didn't clap wildly for an encore, but Kanye gave them one anyway. "Did you have a good time tonight?" the rapper asked the crowd before closing the show with the double-shot of Yeezus genius "Bound 2" and "Blood on the Leaves." No, Kanye, we really didn't. Thanks for playing to us, not for us. Did you even want us to have a good time?
As far as headline-status main-stage performances are concerned, Kanye set a surprisingly low bar on Friday night. As long as Saturday night headliner Jack White neither alienated his crowd nor provided a mediocre, lackluster performance — and those aren't exactly things the Nashville resident and Third Man Records honcho is known for — it promised to be a bar White could likely skip over while blindfolded with his Telecaster-strumming hand tied behind his back. And as soon as White delivered his first words to the audience ("Come on, Tennessee! I know you!," which he shouted in the middle of his second song) he had Bonnaroo eating from the palm of his hand.
With his band gathered around him in a tight semicircle and bathed in powder-blue light, White would later tell his audience that rather than using pyrotechnics or flashy gimmicks, he hoped to play like he and his friends were performing in some room together, with all of us looking in. He engaged the tens-of-thousands-strong crowd all throughout his set, "checking up on" everyone and noting that — just as he told us in our interview with him days ago — his "heart goes out to" anyone who loves music enough to suffer through lines and heat and mud just to watch their favorite artists perform. "Who makes music happen?" he demanded. "Does a tabloid like Rolling Stone make music happen? You and I make it exist." Unlike Kanye, White wasn't playing at his audience — he was playing to them.
White and his band of Nashville ringers led their set with a thunderous rendition of "Icky Thump," though it of course wouldn't be the last White Stripes tune in the set — "Hotel Yorba," "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told)," a countrified "We're Going to Be Friends" sing-along, "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" and "Ball and Biscuit" all made the cut for the main set, with The Raconteurs' "Steady, As She Goes" and "Top Yourself" dropped in along the way. But just as much of the set saw White stomping, lurching and charging around the stage to cuts from 2012's Blunderbuss and the brand-new Lazaretto, with drummer Daru Jones' volatile, explosive bombast setting the pace.
White doesn't make set lists before his shows, and perhaps the most electrifying part of the performance was seeing him call audibles — picking out songs for his band to play on the fly, cuing various players to take solos and summoning multi-instrumentalist Cory Younts to the stage to play harmonica on a handful of tunes. From our vantage, we could see White duck into the wings mid-set and bring his two small children side-stage to watch him shred — a little out of the ordinary as far as Take Your Kids to Work Day is concerned, but the sleepy-eyed little munchkins (who were dressed more sharply than most adults we know) reminded The Spin to call our own pops on Father's Day.
There was a bit more banter and crowd-engagement: White nodded to Tennessean musicians who came before him (Elvis, Dolly, Loretta and more), thanked everyone for doing whatever job it is they do, name-dropped Jim Jarmusch, talked about the moon and reminded everyone that some of the best art has come into existence simply as the result of folks "having nothing better to do." There was a snippet of Led Zeppelin's "The Lemon Song," and then, at the conclusion of White's main set, the crowd — which, so far as The Spin could tell, hadn't dissipated or lost momentum one bit in the 90 minutes since the performance began — summoned the man and his band back to the stage not with chants of "Encore!" or "Jack!" but rather by screaming the melody to "Seven Nation Army."
It worked, and what followed was a 10-song encore that started with "The Hardest Button to Button" and included The Dead Weather's "Blue Blood Blues" and Blunderbuss' "Sixteen Saltines." When we chatted with White for last week's cover story, he told us that when it comes to festivals, "I just try to give as much energy to it as I possibly can. Sometimes it feels like that energy just dissolves into a black hole in front of us." If that's what the man was feeling at Bonnaroo Saturday night, he certainly wasn't showing it — as the clock ticked over to 1 a.m., he gave the people what they wanted: The inevitable "Seven Nation Army," an after-the-fact jock jam adopted by sports fans the world over, was received with roaring applause. With thank-yous for each of his band members and a thank-you to a crowd that stuck with him from "Icky" to "Army," White took a bow, offering, "You've been incredible, and I've been Jack White."
About a third of the way through Elton John's closing performance on Sunday night, The Spin was asked if EJ's set list was front-loaded with all of his best songs, or if he just had that many hits. The answer, of course, is that he's just got that many hits. That's the great thing about legacy acts: Their songs have permeated the lives of millions over decades, and audience members have the fun of not only sharing in a literally awesome communal experience wherein you become one of tens of thousands singing along to "Bennie and the Jets," but also of making phenomenal memories. Like the bro we saw singing along to "Tiny Dancer" and holding back tears. Like the gay couple near us whose jaws dropped in druggy glee when Ben Folds was introduced to play along with "Grey Seal." Like the guy on the giant screens who was filmed crowd-surfing at a damn Elton John concert. Even Elton himself said it was his "first ever festival in America." Oh, Bonnaroo.
We had our own serendipitous memory-making moment as well, when we ended up standing next to a friend whom we hadn't seen all weekend. It seemed like everyone stuck around for Elton: The crowd was very full but not at all cramped or surging; this was a group of people who wanted to hear perfect pop songs, and they were not disappointed. Clad in a jacket with "Rocket Man" spelled out in sequins, John took everyone through a litany of classics, starting with "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," and then boom, "Bennie and the Jets," boom, "Candle in the Wind," boom, "Levon," boom, "Tiny Dancer."
When you've got a back catalog like that, the visual production can afford to be minimal, and oh, it was. The absurdly handsome cellists occasionally projected onto the screens were a treat, but the animated segments were cheesy to the point of being amateur, and the pendulum swung back into them being fascinating. There was the '80s Trapper Keeper vibe that was shown during "I'm Still Standing," the American flag projected during "Philadelphia Freedom" that seemed suited for a used car salesman's commercial, and the cartoon eras of John's life shown throughout "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which featured an image of him with Leon Russell, whom we at first mistook for God. You know what was a great visual, though? When a bunch of people waited until "Rocket Man" to release their paper lanterns and balloons into the sky.
While John's speaking voice was a bit hoarse and he very occasionally leaned on his backing vocalists — among them John's career-long drummer Nigel Olsson, who hammed for the camera a time or two — for the lead melodies, he was largely in full, iconic voice, and the songs sounded as big as they ought to and always have. It was fun when John leapt onto the top of the piano for "The Bitch Is Back." It was also fun when he occasionally puttered around stage, extolling the crowd to clap or get up their hands. It was fun when we got choked up to "Someone Saved My Life Tonight." And oh, the two-song encore! "What else is left?" we were asked again. It was a one-two punch of "Your Song" and "Crocodile Rock," delivered to people who come to Manchester every year for nothing more than a good time, braving heat and traffic and bad vibes and mishaps, and it was just what they needed. Every word was sung back by everyone in the crowd. Elton John should play festivals more often.