Oh Bonnaroo. Like a gorgeous, fun, bad-for-us ex we see once a year, you had us elated and terrified to dive in once more. The shoegaze-y, synth-poppy post-rock of EMA wasn't exactly the most compelling way to start of our 'Roo 2012 experience. There were violins and atmospheric guitar parts and style-over-substance vocals that had the melodramatic inflection of Björk without the sheer talent. But we opted to venture inland after a few songs to see the shiny, sweet, world-influenced pop of Rubblebucket. They didn't have the giant robot puppets that they did at SXSW, but they had the horns and bright colors and hooks.
Detroit's Danny Brown kicked off this year's hip-hop lineup in fine style, with a rowdy set of big beats and chant-along choruses. It gives us a bit of hope for the future of music that most of This Tent knew all the words to Brown's music industry piss-take "Radio Song," as it seemed like a good thesis for the entire festival. Then it was over to The Other Tent to catch some of Orgone, the LA funk outfit we first caught in one of the cafe stages at 'Roo a few years back. Walking in to them throwing down super-super-hard on a cover of "Funky Nassau" was pretty much all we as soul nerds could ever ask for.
Subscribing to the Animal Collective strategy of pop music, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. reinforces the idea that layering on harmonies for harmony's sake (through copious amounts of delay) will definitely sound like something melodic for a relatively appreciable length of time. That isn't to say they don't have a good song or two. And Yelawolf, who we've seen move up from the basement at Phatkaps to the Mercy Lounge to SoundLand, absolutely fucking killed it. "Pop the Trunk," "Daddy's Lambo" and "Trunk Music" all basically got the same reaction as they did in that basement in Antioch, except that it was scaled up by about a bazillion times. Even his sing-along medley — which included nods to The Beastie Boys, Skynyrd, Metallica and NWA — was a welcome moment of levity in what is otherwise dark and kinda disturbing set. White Denim flourished at The Other Tent, milking the proggier, jammier elements of their indie-rock-with-chops style. There's as much Led Zeppelin and Yes influence in the Denim's mix as there is Pavement, and they deliver it with a nonstop barrage of interludes and psychedelic freak-outs.
The affable beer-clutching bro-comedy of Jeff Tate started the 10 p.m. set in The Comedy Theatre, and he performed a solid warm-up act regarding parents on Facebook as "cockblock snipers." We kind of fell in love with Kyle Kinane. Stories of drunken cab-ride escapades for fast food and the existential crisis one experiences when on a plane next to someone eating pancakes from a Foot Locker bag. Pete Holmes also killed, winning us over with his opening line, "I'm tired of festival." Set headliner Brian Posehn asked what shitty band we were missing to hang out in the Comedy Theatre, which was a fair enough question. But Posehn's weed-and-balls brand of stand-up wasn't enough to keep us in the tent all night.
During Phantogram, backing tracks were present and aggressive, which made the live songs sound exactly like their recorded counterparts. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing . We can't say for certain what exactly was happening in the middle of the crowd at Phantogram, but we're pretty sure that at least one girl with a pixie haircut wound up pregnant. Just sayin'.
With even the media area packed to capacity, we spent most of Alabama Shakes' set swilling booze and contemplating just what a perfect rock anomaly they are. It's just Deep Southern soul crossed with grunge-inflected indie rock, but something between Brittany Howard's accessible lyrics and the band's quiet-loud-quiet dynamics strikes a chord with listeners of all stripes. Some of the down-tempo, balladic numbers toward set's end seemed to lose the crowd only slightly, but you're going to get that with a festival crowd. Playing to a moderate-but-appreciative lot at the Great Taste Lounge, Glossary dropped 15 years' worth of Southern rock science, mixing angular Thin Lizzy riffs with the lazy strut of the Eagles — minus everything that pisses you off when someone mentions the Eagles. The night's biggest surprise soon followed on the same stage, when local club-stepping duo Cherub started setting up. The crowd swelled to 10 times its previous size, and by the time their silky smooth computer funk started flowing, Cherub had officially made perhaps the festival's most triumphant leap — from last year's failed impromptu camping-lot set to moving a couple hundred booties on into the wee hours.
Noon was maybe a little too early for us to catch a first show, but we put up with this to watch The Kooks, "from England," who artfully deployed their brand of 21st century rock songs to a crowd that skewed a little older than what I'm used to seeing at Bonnaroo. It's jangly and a bit by-the-numbers, but the numbers are at least well-painted.
Over at What Stage, The Soul Rebels — think a hybridization of soul, funk, marching band, an exuberant second line and hip-hop — traded in the low-tide miasma of New Orleans, where we last saw them, for the scent of Porta-Potties drifting in on occasional gusts, and an intimate Uptown club just off the Mississippi, where the natives come to drink and electric slide, for a perspiring, sun-burned, bandana'd crowd of thousands on Bonnaroo's What Stage. Then it was tUnE-yArDs at This Tent. And don't get us wrong — Merrill Garbus' loopy Afrobeat-inspired world pop is ... um, inspired. But there's a significant difference between listening to a tUnE-yArDs song on Spotify and seeing it happen in front of you. Because Garbus is essentially a one-woman band, using an elaborate rig of drums, ukuleles and her own voice to layer in each detail of the song; it takes a minute to put everything together and turn stray bongo thwacks into something resembling a song.
Sharon Jones — backed as always by the phenomenal Dap-Kings — delivered with stunning proficiency at What Stage. Jones was confident as ever, strutting around the stage in her purple sequined dress, thanking her fans and the universe for the success she's achieved despite obstacles like the recent loss of her mother, getting a late start in life — she cut her first solo track at age 40 (she's 56 now) — and a recent dental procedure gone awry. Jones typically performs a cover-laden encore, but if that went down, we had to miss it to catch local gal Caitlin Rose over at the Great Taste Lounge, which effectively served as the Nashville Stage all weekend. Rose and her backing band — consisting of top-notchers Spencer Cullum Jr., Reno Bo, Jeremy Fetzer and Ian Fitchuk — kicked off with three new tunes, among them a double-time, bittersweet and triumphant number by the name of "Menagerie" that was absolutely soul-stirring. We returned a few hours later for Oberhofer, a band that makes bright, sentimental indie pop, loaded down with hand claps, whistles and xylophones. Summer music personified.
That evening, Ludacris destroyed This Tent. With the exception of Jay-Z, no one in hip-hop can work a crowd like Ludacris. With a live band and a crowd that knew every word to every song — remember, Chris got hits for days — and a predilection for all things dirty and Southern, he turned it into the biggest party of the afternoon.
Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) is basically the Black Swan of indie rock, dark and transfixing but not a downer, and adept at getting a crowd to eat from the palm of her hand. Clark convulsed and ballet-stepped rhythmically around the stage in all black, meshing singular, catchy vocal melodies with fuzzy, art-rocky, effects-laden riffs that she played flawlessly between fits of banging with clenched fist on the body of her guitar. Back at The Great Taste Lounge, frontman Daniel Pujol of PUJOL acknowledged friends in the crowd whilst cranking through old faves and new cuts from his newly released United States of Being.
Radiohead's concert opener, King of Limbs' leadoff track "Bloom," removed any doubts about its stageworthiness. Framed by a rapidly blinking grid of monitors offering kaleidoscopic cubist glimpses of the band members, against a backdrop resembling a cathedral organ's pipes undulating with marbled light patterns, the group turned a rhythmic headscratcher of a song on record into a billowing sail of beats, nervy and elating.
As dizzying as the visual show was, it was frustrating at first not to be able to see the band members in giant, unwavering close-up on the festival's jumbo monitors. The band is pursuing something democratic: a focus on the whole over the individual components. The show seemed more about a symphonic overall sweep than individual songs. That's not to say there weren't standouts among a set that was rarely less than spellbinding. Some of the night's most spine-tingling moments came from Thom Yorke momentarily singing alone at his piano, even when, as during a gorgeous version of last year's single "The Daily Mail," he sat with his back to the crowd.
Other than the "big thank you" to Jack White as they dedicated "Supercollider" during the first encore — Yorke teased that he couldn't say why, "but you'll find out" — the night's loudest screams came for the closing performance of "Paranoid Android," which ended the concert in a blinding flash of lights and a final salvo of throbbing noise.
Back at the Miller Light Corporate House Party Lounge (i.e., Great Taste Lounge), Valient Thorr gave the festival a healthy and much-needed dose of ballz. Not unlike Motörhead, the brutally relentless VT plays full-throttle rock 'n' roll just fast, loud, and hard enough to ascend into the metal stratosphere. We camped out for good spots during L.A. electronic producer Flying Lotus. FlyLo isn't really that much of a DJ, and a whole bunch of the mixes were super-janky. But once he finally found his zone, he went deep on some 303-fueled trap-step, dropped huge dubstep for the kiddos and mixed in a little Jackson 5 and Lil Wayne.
Cranking up around 3:30 a.m., New Orleans' transgender bounce sensation Big Freedia somehow managed to top all the barely covered, jiggling asses we'd seen walking around in the sun all day. Accompanied by four healthy auxiliary rumps, Freedia's fast flow and unfaltering syncopation rose to cartoonish levels with her crew's bouncing backsides pointed directly at the audience for the remainder of the evening. It's basically everything we needed before drifting off to sleep.
After discovering that Darondo had canceled his 12:30 p.m. appearance on Saturday, we took a leisurely stroll to the What Stage to have our minds blown by "Screaming Eagle of Soul" Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires. The best explanation we can come up with for Bradley is that he's a time-traveler from 1966. He crashed his DeLorean into a barn and is now trying to raise money for the plutonium he needs to power it by being an irrepressibly authentic soul singer.
But hey, what the hell happened to Bad Brains? More precisely, what the hell happened to frontman H.R.? The Spin was warned long in advance not to expect the back flipping, stage diving, spasmodic H.R. from the '80s, but we didn't think that meant, "Expect H.R. to come out dressed like a blond wig-sporting plantation owner, not really playing the guitar that's cinched up to his chest."
Road to Bonnaroo winners Wild Cub had a crowd of about 150-200. We saw at least three unfamiliar faces singing along to the Phil Collins-up-to-11-style pop (with more drums). There were some tech issues with the first song, but that didn't seem to faze the dude dancing on a pylon.
Santigold performed on the What Stage, a place where we're used to seeing lasers and LED screens and other assorted shenanigans, but she utilized the space with effective simplicity: two backup dancers, multiple costume changes, and two people dressed up in a horse costume. The top half of her set was hit-heavy, and Santigold invited audience members up to dance for "Creator." From our vantage point it seemed relatively orderly, but a friend closer to the action described it as a "bum rush" and a "total mess."
Maynard James Keenan — our favorite middle-aged misanthrope — and his Puscifer delivered a deranged performance art project, a portrait of portent and arch theatricality set to vulgar, misogynistic post-industrial rock. Seriously though, there were literal portraits. Wearing a navy airline pilot's uniform replete with golden cuff bands, a captain-style peaked hat over a shaggy Ron Burgundy wig, aviators and a fake de rigueur pilot's mustache, he stood behind a portrait frame with elaborate, Renaissance moulding, mugging into a video camera that projected his unmistakable, aquiline nose onto a screen, like some antic, funhouse acrylic.
We hadn't seen Battles' mathy strain of experimental rock since the departure of founding member Tyondai Braxton, and on Saturday they replaced Braxton's pitch-shifted vocals on tunes like the undeniable "Atlas" with tracks. Anyway, hula-hoopers, flag-fliers and hipsters alike were bobbing along to Battles' pulsing electronic grooves, and we were invigorated. Invigorated perhaps, but not prepared for how weird Danzig Legacy at That Tent would get. After banning photographers from the pit, Glenn Danzig himself took issue with one shutterbug in particular. The photog in question was our own Michael W. Bunch, who was photographing some people in the crowd dancing. Mid-song, Danzig ran to the side of the stage pointing and screaming before approaching security and then proceeded to run all the way past the side stage, almost into the crowd to "walk among us." Security soon slowed his roll, and Danzig returned to stage after a matter of minutes. Bunch told us that he was certain "Danzig was going to kick [his] ass." See our exclusive video at nashvillecream.com.
The band front-loaded the set with mostly newer Danzig tunes, working their way backward to touch on a Samhain song or two before bringing out original Misfits member Wolfgang Von Doyle to trip through the classics for which he's best known. I've heard Misfits covers all my damn life, but we gotta say that watching only two original members including the man with the dark croon himself thrashing through faves like "Astro Zombies," "Skulls," "Bullet" and "Vampira" was nothing short of epic.
We slipped into the photo pit at the start of The Roots' What Stage set. Black Thought dedicated the set to departed funk guitarist Chuck Brown as well as The Beastie Boys' MCA, launching into a verse from "Paul Revere." After three songs amid the photogs, we were shuffled out of the pit, but found that we were allowed to climb into the side-stage observation area as The Roots burned through tunes like their "Jungle Boogie"-cribbing "Don't Feel Right" and every rendition of "Apache" that has ever been released. It was all smooth transitions and nonstop head-bob material.
A funny thing happened on the way to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While en route to the band's What Stage headlining performance, we struck up a conversation with and befriended a Bonnaroo VIP with an Infinity Pass (which apparently grants you access to Anthony Kiedis' sock collection if you desire). Benefiting from our newly made friend's all-access escorting capabilities — and his willingness to give 'em away, give 'em away, give 'em away now — we got to watch the show from right on fucking stage. Naturally that got us a little more pumped to see the band trot out old warhorses like "Scar Tissue" and "Under the Bridge." As expected, the band handily delighted the Bonnaroovian mass with tried and true antics like funky slap-bass solos, shirtlessness and world-class musicianship. Not exactly sure why Kiedis is sporting an alt-rock Hitler haircut these days, but at least he had the decency to cover it up with an OFF! cap.
Once it was finally time for legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper's midnight set, we squeezed in among our fellow members of the media for the most literally spectacular performance I'd seen yet. As Cooper entered on a gliding staircase — holding sparklers and wearing a jacket adorned with dangling spider arms — we contemplated the similarities between the performer and our dad: They're both in their mid-60s, they're both Christian Republicans, and they're both pretty sharp, charismatic dudes. It's just that one happens to make his living by breezing through iconic hard rock tunes with names like "Black Widow" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy" while the other works in ... we think it's HR, basically? From there we cut out to see GZA perform Liquid Swords with Grupo Fantasmo, which was fucking incredible — one of the tightest bands we've ever seen performing one of the best rap records of the '90s. Made up for the fact that it started over a half-hour late.
Feeling game enough to at least satisfy our professional curiosity in regard to Skrillex, we followed a pack of fellow Nashvillians through a barricade and up to the backstage area at Which. Before we quite knew what was happening, we found ourselves standing before Sonny Moore. Skrillex himself. Surreality bonus points.
As we watched from the wings, the diminutive, asymmetrically coiffed, boxily bespectacled 24-year-old sneaked into a tiny entrance at the back of his center-stage spaceship, popping up into a control booth the very moment a counter behind him ticked down to zero. What ensued was an absolute synapse-obliterating spectacle, made most overwhelming by the flashing, full-stage LED screen behind Skrillex's spaceship. He's actually quite talented at cutting and scribbling, whipping the teeming crowd into a frenzy and earning his paycheck with the hyperactive antics of a kid playing an arcade game on a nine-hour soda bender. His silver contraption lifted off, its various hinges unfolding, raising Skrillex 20 feet in the air on a concealed platform, where he remained for the rest of the set. Trippy.
Sunday afternoon's lingering good vibrations resulted in unusually strong turnouts for ordinarily heat-dampened tent shows. We entered the fray again at noon for locals Fly Golden Eagle's set under gray skies at the Great Taste Lounge. They were joined onstage by Square People's Chris Murray, who provided some jazzy, psychedelic sax over sexy, side-winding grooves. Smooth keys and tight, on-top-of-beat grooves have upgraded these dudes from something of a well-kept secret to deservingly beloved locals. Great set.
Watching The Beach Boys from the observation area above Brian Wilson — where the teleprompter and keyboard inside the body of his piano were plainly visible — we had a clear view of the band of ringers that played in a row behind the OG Beach Boys. Though brand-new tunes from their latest, That's Why God Made the Radio, were sprinkled throughout the set, Wilson, Love, Jardine, Marks and Johnston played nearly every hit imaginable: "Don't Worry Baby," "I Get Around," "God Only Knows, "Little Deuce Coupe," "Sloop John B," "409," "Little Surfer Girl." Though Wilson, as expected, didn't do a whole lot of singing, he shared the lead a bit on God Made Radio's titular tune and shined on classics like "Heroes and Villains," his unmistakable tenor as pure as ever. The Spin was moved.
Sounds of the excellent "Jesus Fever" guided us to That Tent, where Kurt Vile was singing, as predicted, from behind his hair, playing his hypnotizing, spacey, echo-laden bedroom-grunge songs. Good stuff, even if it drags a bit mid-set. We later found Kenny Rogers is kind of mean to the crowd during his stage banter — think Don Rickles — but he also was clearly delighted by the fact that he was a forerunner of this whole freak scene, and he definitely reveled in the stoner adoration heaved upon him when he played "Just Dropped In." Plus, pretty much every person in the crowd was elated whenever he played one of his hits. OK, every song was a hit. There were no deep cuts, but Lionel Richie showed up for a wildly received rendition of "All Night Long."
Later at The Other Tent, The Civil Wars played to a vast throng so spellbound that John Paul White could barely plunk a note before people started shrieking in recognition. By the time Joy Williams showed her solidarity with the crowd by recounting her own experience among the sunburned and unshowered at Bonnaroo a few years ago, folks were ready to hoist her to their shoulders. Their set was simplicity itself — two voices, one guitar — but their stripped-down, laser-focused artistry eclipsed a lot of the festival's high-dollar stagecraft. NYC pop hedonists fun. ravished a to-brim-filled That Tent area with their feel-good, radio-ready jams. In a What Stage-worthy display of Mercury-esque showmanship, frontman Nate Ruess milked each moment of crowd adulation, working up the masses until they finally burst into a cathartic outpouring of emotion during the anthem "We Are Young." Some in the crowd were even crying, but in, like, a totally fun. way.
Kenny Rogers joined Phish for the second "Gambler" of the day, so that was great. The phellas of Phish sure can play, and they know how to work a synapse-popping crowd as well as anyone. And getting to see what was probably about 65,000 people sing along to "The Gambler" and go apeshit for Kenny Rogers was pretty cool.