DAY 1 - THURSDAY, JUNE 10
We roll in greeted by some of the best weather in, I'll venture to guess, Bonnaroo history; 80 degrees is still pretty hot by most standards, but here at Bonnaroo, the difference between 80 and 90 is worth more than its weight in $3 waters and copious loads of sweat seeping through your shirt, or lack thereof. With no must-see acts until 7 p.m., I go on a curiosity trek through the grounds.
, an "indie-dance" band out of Brooklyn, is playing to a massive crowd on a barroom-sized stage in the middle of the festival. With a horn section in tow and a cute little leading lady dancing and hair-whipping her way across the stage, they run through a bland set of tired '80s dance tropes and big choruses the 2004 iPod marketing team would foam at the mouth for. Everything sounds like something else, which is fine in a sense, but musical influence should ideally be an interesting amalgamation when it comes to crafting and performing your own songs. What the fuck do I know, though? My non-existent band isn't playing Bonnaroo.
Bored, I venture over to "This Tent" (all the stages/tents have names like This, That, The Other, What, and Which) to catch The Lonely Forest, another foreign entity to me when it comes to acts performing here.
The results are more than pleasing. The Washington foursome rifles through a riff-heavy set draped in the post-punk and pour-more-than-enough of your heart out tendencies that bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World championed in the mid-late 1990s. With his guitar hoisted to Beatles-level height, front man John Van Deusen bounced between confessional musings and heartfelt shouts through songs about Benadryl, leaving your house, and Ray Bradbury. They're pretty boorish onstage, but, in contrast to a band like Rubblebucket, it just feels honest. The songs, including a carbon-copy cover of Tom Petty's "Listen to her Heart," are more than enough to captivate for a first watch/listen.
The first act I wanted to catch was Danny Brown, the front-teethless, bizarre-o rapper who, somehow, made his way onto this year's XXL Freshman List (the hip-hop magazine's widely coveted list of up-and-coming, soon-to-blow up rappers). Not that he doesn't deserve it, but a dude who raps with a duck-quack delivery on topics like the female genetalia, Adderal, and scrapping copper piping for change in the slums of Detroit is a curve-ball to say the least.
When I caught him last year opening for indie-rap comrades Das Racist, he failed to really live up to the whacked-out persona he'd built through his rhymes. This time around, Brown is more of the same, but noticeably honed and focused. The thing is, though, his production and his beats are such weird animals in themselves, it's easy to get lost in them (or dance like you're painfully white) and miss out on Brown's words like many seemed to do.
Regardless, Brown's carved a niche. It's easy to think this guy's a novelty, a master of trolling the rap game, but if his Bonnaroo performance proves anything, Brown is seriously serious about making hip-hop weird.
Alabama rapper and Eminem understudy, Yelawolf is up next in the same tent. The discrepancy in the size and look of the crowd between Yela and Brown can't be more apparent. Brown's a Pitchfork darling and thus, packs the indie cred most rappers don't, or will ever, have. You can't help but laugh inside at two bi-spectacled white kids in overly-ironic dashikis bobbing their heads to Brown rapping about how a certain part of the female anatomy tastes like Cool Ranch Doritos. That is, until you realize you're exactly the same, minus the dashiki.
With the co-sign of Eminem and his first commercial release out last year, Yelawolf is, by all standards, a mainstream rapper now. His redneck schtick and impressive machine-gun delivery works to get him props from a wide spectrum of listeners made all the more apparent when you're right in the midst of them. I bob to his set flanked by a hyped-out low-grade cowboy with a barbwire tattoo band around his bicep and a posse of stoic, blunt-puffing giants who could've easily doubled as bodyguards. A social scientist would've had a field day at this thing.
Now, and with shows in the past, Yelawolf is a snarling dog of a rapper onstage. He blends the presence of a wire-y rock frontman with the lyrical cadence of a top battle rapper to create something entirely new in itself. I could take or leave most of the watered down tracks from his latest major label debut, Radioactive, but they hold up and crush live as did tracks like "Pop the Trunk," "Trunk Muzik" and "Daddy’s Lambo" (see a theme here?) off his first Trunk Muzik mixtape. After a handful of songs, Yela and his DJ play through a melody of song snippets that have, I guess, made Yelawolf into what he is today. While long and completely unnecessary, it's hard to deny the visceral enjoyment that a 10-minute medley of everything from the Doors to The Beastie Boys brings.
The temperature drops significantly now that the sun is down. Throngs of now-sweat caked people would heat up in the tents then walk out for a chilling blast to the next set, self included.
Out of bored curiosity, I venture over to catch the Alabama Shakes
playing to the undoubtedly largest crowd of the night. They sounded Southern and howly and awesome. From a football field or more away though, it's hard to get in to any band playing here. There were more shows to see
L.A. dubstep producer/DJ Mimosa has one of the last performances of the night and walks onto the stage greeted to a tent of glowing, dance-ready bodies. Like most DJ sets, the lasers and fog and all that is, yeah, pretty awesome, but his pacing needs alot of work. Jumping from sample to sample, Mimosa knows what tracks to splice in to get the crowd moving, but can't seem to focus his efforts far beyond what's playing at this exact moment. It's midnight. People just want to move and this guy's switching the style up like an identity-starved teenager in a shopping mall. For me, Day 1 is done.
DAY 2 - FRIDAY, JUNE 11
Waking up comfortably is a feat as rare as a unicorn here at Bonnaroo. If it's not the chatter of people rallying around their 9 a.m. beers, it’s the thick heat of your tent-turned-sauna that’ll rouse you from hibernation. Add to the fact that it gets to hoodie-temperature at night then schizophrenically flips to sweltering heat in the early morning hours, and you've got a recipe for filthiness beyond anything even moderately acceptable in the real world.
The real world. How amusing. The idea that some guy is tightening the Windsor knot on his work tie just a couple miles away while this tripped-out musical refugee camp of 80,000 willingly marinates in its own grime next door is kind of fascinating. But, we've got a reason. We do it for the music, and maybe the drugs, but mostly the music. Friday couldn’t have been a better representation of this sentiment.
My day kicks off with Merril Garbus and her cohorts who make up one of the most feverishly creative acts of the past two years, Tune-Yards. "Ho-lee-shit" Garbus says, wowed at the massive crowd before taking her place in front of her trusty arsenal of loop pedals, mics, and sundry instruments. Her voice flutters into a syncopated cadence of oscillating oohs and ahhs as she hits the loop pedal and builds more vocal layers atop. Before long there's a chorus of contrasting vocal patterns weaving in and out of each other while the off kilter drums and bass move the wild composition of "Party Can" along.
The thing that's so attractive about a figure like Garbus, especially in a live setting, is the unbridled enthusiasm and consciousness she puts forth with each song. Highlights from their 2011 LP, Who Kill, like "Gangsta," "My Country" and "Bizness" were played true to form with a few wild flourishes it seems Garbus can't resist.
After some overpriced, underwhelming lunch, I write a little more as a press panel composed of a handful of notable figures like Dax Shephard, Little Dragon, Fitz from Fitz and the Tantrums, and, I can't even type this with a straight face, the dancing Youtube dog, appear and do their best to entertain and answer the moderator's questions. It's pretty lighthearted fare and the celebrities are quickly rushed away as soon as it’s over. That dog could dance, though.
The Avett Brothers take the massive main stage around 5 p.m. and play a passable set of cutesy folk songs and anthemic declarations of love, loss, redemption, etc. etc. etc. These guys are undoubtedly solid songwriters and well-versed in conveying the raw emotion of their music in a live setting, but something inside me has had its fill of new indie-folk or whatever you want to call it. Everything's so declarative and grandiose; listening to too much of this (and there’s a fuck-load here) is like binging on too much musical barbecue after a while.
Even so, it's easy to tell these guys are students of folk/country history, which was made all the more evident by the two Doc Watson covers – "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues" and "Down in the Valley to Pray" – they plopped in their set list. In addition, The Avetts played through a well-spread assortment of past and modern songs from their catalog, like "Kick Drum Heart," "Paranoia in B Major," "Die Die Die" and "Will You Return."
I catch a couple minutes of Feist's set afterward and am immediately blown away by how much bravado this nimble songstress gives off in a live setting. If guitars have feelings, Feist's should appear in one of those terrible Sarah McLachlan commercials with all those frail, abused animals. She ripped and roared, roused the crowd, and generally rocked the fuck out (Mastadon song) before I trekked across the field to catch Ludacris.
Ludacris is, well, Ludacris. His set's an assortment of dumb fun and nostalgic early millennium rap swaths of Gen-Xers in the crowd eat up with unbridled enthusiasm. Between more than enough Napster-era wistfulness and Ludacris asking me to make some noise for like, the 11th time, the prospect of seeing St. Vincent across the field feels all the more enticing.
And it is. Annie Clark is a force of pure, cute destruction on stage. She treats her six strings like an audible scepter, ravishing the fret board with a penchant for off-kilter, crushing riffs that ebb and flows in ways most couldn't even dream of. Then her crystalline voice comes into play and I admiringly wonder how songs so strangely haunting and beautiful – "Cheerleader," "Marrow," "Actor Out of Work" – come to fruition. St. Vincent, for all intents and purposes, is a bonafide diva in the weirdest, most refreshing way possible.
Foster the People are one of those bands worth the watch if only just to see what the massive hype is all about. As they work through the songs that compose their only LP, Torches, it's easy to see why.
Mark Foster's Beegees-level falsetto soars above the group's sweet, dopamine-pumping rhythms in each number. The music of Foster and company is admittedly too catchy for its own good (Mark moonlit as a commercial jingle writer before their heyday), and the audible sugar rush just feels like too much of the same formula after a couple songs. And, how in the hell does a guy with a voice as deep as Foster's sing so high? I'm beyond baffled.
Foster the People led right into Radiohead's 10 p.m. set on the main stage. As easy at is to knock, the obsessive compassion people have for this band really can't be understood until you see them live. "It feels like I'm watching a concert DVD, but I'm like, here," a comrade says amidst the flurried flow of "Idioteque." The band masterfully replicates each lush tone, each near-inaudible vocals part in a live setting is a way that is, for lack of a better word, breathtaking. Add a behemoth stage composed of raised, angled mirrors and dozens of tripped-out LCD displays, and it's almost scarily easy to get lost in the sensory feast that is a Radiohead show. The two-hour set covers an equal-opportunity expanse of Radiohead tracks throughout their career including "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," "Karma Police," "Morning Mr. Magpie" and "Kid A" with a consistent sense of fervency and passion you can't help but applaud.
As much as many of us could've easily sat and watched for another hour or five, Radiohead closes out their set a little after midnight and I venture off into the strange land that is Bonnaroo at night. Like zombies (some way more than others), everyone shuffles from stage to stage, many losing their minds to the psychotropic gods for better or horrifyingly worse.
The steamy tent that houses Major Lazer, the dancehall/reggae fused side project of DJ/producer Diplo, looks like a massive, glowing orgy in action. Major Lazer should really just be called 'Diplo featuring dancers and three hulk-sized Jamaican dudes barking commands at the crowd.' Seriously, it's fucking terrifying. "I WANT EVERYONE IN THIS TENT TO TAKE THEIR SHIRTS OFF NOW!" one of them shouts over a bass-rattling Diplo beat. A couple seconds later… "I'M SERIOUS. RIGHT NOW. EVERYONE. YOU, YOU, YOU, TAKE YOUR SHIRTS OFF AND SPIN THEM ABOVE YOUR HEAD!" which, minutes later, turns into "I NEED EVERYONE IN HERE TO TAKE OFF ALL THEIR CLOTHES. TAKE THEM OFF RIGHT NOW!" I'm pretty sure if they asked us all, we'd probably throw our wallets on stage, too, just so these guys wouldn't crush our skulls like deflated beach balls. Thankfully, it didn't come to that point and Diplo and his henchman bounce, pop, and lock us into a sweaty stupor.
By now its 2 a.m. Everyone's either chemically blasted into oblivion or just irritated and drained. Flying Lotus has taken the helm at another tent and blasts us with an apocalyptic symphony and bone-shaking bass line that wakes at least 50 people sleeping in front of us up, and brings them up from the ground to life. I've never seen anything like it. One second, it's sleepaway camp and the next, everyone is flocking to the stage like zombies toward an illuminated house.
There are DJs like Diplo and Mimosa here who boast solid strengths in their own right, and then there are DJs like Flying Lotus that completely defy convention with how far they're willing to push the limits of their art form. Much unlike his recorded material, Lotus' set is an easily digestible, but no less powerful pastiche of found sounds, pitch-shifted bleeps and stabs, pulverizing drum tones, and pop melodies churned through his audible meat grinder into near-unrecognizable form. How someone turns, or even tries to turn Lil Wayne's "A Milli" into a melodious dreamscape is a ballsy feat that just in itself proves this guy's worth his weight in the electronic music landscape. After an hour, we're worn, dusty, and tired. The mile trek back to camp feels like an eternity and my dew-soaked pillow couldn't be more comfortable after the longest day of Bonnaroo thus far.
DAY 3 - SATURDAY, JUNE 9
Evenings at Bonnaroo can be truly magical experiences. When the sun goes down, the freaks come out, the glow toys abound, and the festival reveals a charmingly depraved side of itself only the darkness could provide.
These are the times where Bonnaroo really gets it right. For all the moaning and groaning I do about this thing, it's hard to deny how fun and wildly interesting any given night here can be. Saturday, for better or worse, seemed to fly by right into the night. Amidst the thousands watching The Roots’ powerful sundown set, I found myself wondering where exactly the day had gone. Even so, there was plenty to look forward to during the twilight hours. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's take it from the top.
After a morning writing session, I venture from the media compound to catch, one of my favorite hip-hop acts out there right now, Das Racist
. While their knack for cultured, nihilistic humor works as a compellingly disruptive turd in the rap game punch bowl, these characteristics carry over into their live show with notoriously terrible results. "We're gonna do some rap songs. Is that ok with you?" one half of the duo, Heems announces before they launch into "Who's That? Brooown!” from the 2010 mixtape Shut Up, Dude
. It's loud and rambunctious as the tag team of Heems and Kool A.D. trade verses bolstered by the shouts of their hypeman Dapwell. After about 30 seconds, it's easy to realize the joke is completely on us. I don't think any group cares less, yet has as much fun doing it as DR does in a live setting. Kool A.D.'s sleepy-stoned flow on record turns into a grating, atonal shout live while Heems kind of raps like it's a chore.
Each forgets verses, with Heems openly admitting he had to Google the lyrics to his solo track "Womyn" before the show, and forgetting them anyway. Their DJ, Mike Finito, clearly has a hard time queuing up the songs and has to get noticeable help from Dapwell multiple times throughout the show. It's a clusterfuck, and with any other group, probably a fucking nightmare, but Das Racist do it all with a smirk and childish enthusiasm. "Everyone turn around. Turn around," Heems commands to the crowd halfway through the set. "Now look at the sky and think about your life," A.D. chimes in. I do, and laugh, because guys like this exist.
Battles is next on the same stage. I'd caught the foursome (now threesome) back in 2006 at Crowbar and still regard it as one of the best shows in memory. John Stainer's devastating drumbeats melded with the alien vocals of then-singer Tyondai Braxton and the intricate, robotic instrumentation of Ian Williams and Dave Konopka was a hypnotizing force that left a lasting impression. This time it was more of the same aside from the addition of a new album, Gloss Drop, and subtraction of a live vocalist.
They open their set with the ominous tones of "Africastle" and burst into a flurry of layered, ambient tones, pinched guitar plucks, and a breakneck drumbeat. In itself, the song is an audible adventure, bending and breaking in and out of chaos and tight grooves. Live, the sound envelopes the listener even more, a shared trait each song progressively reveals throughout their set. Numbers like "Atlas," "Tonto" and "Ice Cream" are played true to form, becoming all the more engrossing channeled through the massive sound system.
Across the field, The Roots
crew is setting up for an early evening performance on the main stage. The enthused foursome takes the stage and launches into a rich groove followed by a funked-out rendition of the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." Throughout the set, it becomes immediately apparent that each member is viciously dedicated to their craft(s); Questlove effortlessly shifting between drum styles, Black Thought's powerful delivery and engaging presence, and Kirk Douglas' frenetic fretwork all working together in a near-nonstop flow of Roots classics and covers.
As Jimmy Fallon's house band, the group has ample time and responsibility for crafting and perfecting a multitude of different musical styles, which shines through in a live setting like this. As the sun falls, the group plows through songs like "The Next Movement," "The Fire" and an impressive cover of "Sweet Child o' Mine" with a consistent sense of energy and movement bands far younger could take a lesson from.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
are the headliners for the night and take the stage at 10 p.m., erupting into "Monarchy of Roses" off their latest, I'm With You
. The song sounds like a hollow ghost of the Chili Peppers' past, but breathes life far beyond it's sound on record. If the remnant energy left by The Roots still remains on stage, the Chili Peppers are gobbling it up and coming back for seconds. Anthony Kiedis, still as weathered and sinewy as his young self, belts out the words with the profound presence that made him a star in the first place. Flea, I'm convinced, is an sugar-rushing 12-year-old in a 49-year-old man's body.
Relatively new guitarist and John Frusciante replacement, Josh Klinghoffer boasts a sleek, rock star presence but lacks the weird gumption and blazing fretwork Frusciante had with the six strings. From a distance, their sound is slightly muddled and disproportionate – discerning Keidis' vocals is an active chore – but improves as the set progresses. Their set list is standard assortment of Chili Peppers' greatest hits including "Scar Tissue," "Give It Away," "Under the Bridge" and a pounding cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." The frenzied spirit the Red Hot Chili Peppers had back in the day still feels very much alive on this cool Saturday night.
Skrillex is set to play a 1:30 a.m. set on the second largest stage. We arrive greeted by a swath of sweaty, eager fans awaiting the arrival of EDM forerunner and America's dear dubstep leader. We're packed in tight and the prospect of a nearby ecstasy meltdown feels all the more likely as the on-screen clock winds down to zero. It hits and the next two hours turn into a brain-melting foray in dubstep, house, and seemingly anything else Skrillex wants to pull out of the bag. The collective reaction is like nothing I've witnessed at this festival before, a sort of twisted Pentecostal church ceremony, and I'm jammed right in the middle of it. Hands raise, arms flail, sweat pours, and fog churns as we eat everything handed to us. A light drizzle begins to pour and becomes an equally loved presence as Skrillex himself.
Pumping out bits and pieces of originals and remixes (Avicii's "Levels" of course, included), Skrillex mans the booth – a quasi replica of a Star Wars TIE fighter rising to the top of the stage – like a terribly hair-styled space captain gone mad. As divisive as he's become with his newfound superstardom, it's hard to deny the worthiness of an amazing spectacle like this one.
Amazing and, in turn, absolutely draining. The rain thickens and it's time to split. Three days down, one to go…
DAY 4 – SUNDAY, JUNE 10
The Saturday night showers bleed over into the early morning hours and cast an unprecedented cool upon the Bonnaroo grounds. For once, waking up is a chore as I begrudgingly shed my blankety cocoon and venture outside into the somber overcast that would ominously linger atop us all on the last day of the festival.
As morose as it looks, the dark coolness is a noticeably uplifting presence that makes many-a-Saturday hangover recoveries all the more bearable. The sky churns and broods throughout the day, but remains docile aside from a few sporadic, misty showers that descend around dusk. The setting couldn't have been more ideal for a notoriously sluggish final day at Bonnaroo.
I arrive later than ever – around 11 a.m. — to the media compound with the naive hopes of crafting the previous day's recap quickly enough to catch Delta Spirit at 12:30 p.m. The self-brought pressure soon turns into a culminated cork of worry and over-analyzation jammed deep into my bottleneck of thought. I chew my nails, gulp weak, overpriced coffee, type and delete, type and delete, and type and delete a little more until I'm glaring at the two sentences this hour of snowballing frustration has yielded.
12:30 passes and I lukewarmly promise like some chronic drunkard that this evil cup of procrastination will never be sipped from again. It's a couple minutes past 1 and GroupLove is set to play at 2. Shoveling fried rice into my face hole while mindlessly gaping into the void of internet-land seems like a perfectly suitable way to bide the time.
As I trudge through the slop towards GroupLove
, tentacles of greasy guilt born from the past hour wrap tightly around my conscious. I meet up with the crew I've traveled with and simply being in their presence helps wash away some of this accumulated head sludge as we wait.
Cheers swell as the L.A. fivesome enters and branches off to their respective stations. The opening bass line of "Lovely Cup" flows through the tent and the band launches into a Jungle Book
-y stomp so infectiously cheery it sends a tingle down my spine. You'd probably have a good case for writing this band off as another quasi-indie outfit drunk on catchy hooks and radio rotation, but right now, as they bend, bob, and howl their way through cuts off their debut EP (Grouplove
) and full-length (Never Trust a Happy Song
), the thought drowns in a big, dumb wave of contentment.
The original Beach Boys
– Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks – are next on the list, scheduled to play a 4 p.m. set on main stage. The contrast between the ominous clouds above and the sunny Beach Boys ethos is a constant reminder of the darkness that's loomed over much of the band's 50-year history. It doesn't get much better as the five take the stage backed by a supporting troupe of guitarists, keyboardists, and drummer that could've easily been their kids.
Otherwise, it's surprising how well the Beach Boys still sound as a unit. The chorus of their opener "Do It Again" hits and the group's vocal harmonies sound about as smooth and crystalline as you could really ask for from these guys, which - let's be honest – shouldn't be a whole lot. In comparison to other reunited bands from their era (looking at you, Crosby, Stills, and Nash), the Beach Boys sound, for lack of a better phrase, pretty damn good.
Then my eyes wander over to Brian Wilson. It takes a song and a half to remember he's there sitting behind the white baby grand piano on stage left. The 70-year-old's sunken expression is nothing short of lobotomized as his thousand-yard stare projects intermittently from the big screen. When he sings, it's sporadic and barely discernible – all aided by a mounted monitor above the keys. Wilson just looks gone as his bandmates cheese for the crowd and play through a Time Life
-worthy selection of Beach Boys hits. Mike Love throws him a couple mentions between songs, but other than that, Wilson might as well just be a wax figure on the side of the stage. It's sad. I leave to finally get some writing done before Bon Iver
takes the stage after the Beach Boys.
Finally locked in a groove, I opt to stay in the media pen and watch the live feed on the fancy flatscreen. With a massive band in tow, Justin Vernon takes to the stage and opens with the distorted guitar plucks of "Perth" from his band's self-titled second. It's incredibly rich and lush like you'd probably expect, but lacks the powerful intimacy that really defines Vernon's recorded material. The sentiment solidifies as the collective progresses through the discography with tracks including "Minnesota, WI," "Skinny Love," "Beth/Rest" and "For Emma."
Writing done, I head out to catch my last band of the festival, The Shins
. When I caught them at the Deluna Festival late last year, Mercer and company were fresh out the studio where they'd recorded what would eventually become Port of Morrow
. Their performance was rife with a refreshing sense of energy, precision, and newfound-weirdness that shined through in what were only described to us as "new songs."
Port of Morrow
dropped in March and the Shins seem like they've been on an eternal tour since. It's hard to tell, though, as the band breezes through the lion's share of Morrow
tracks and other Shins hits. James Mercer, god bless him, pushes his voice through a brutal, yo-yoing smattering of sweet highs and sultry lows throughout the two-hour set with highlights like "New Slang" ("Sounds like a warm blanket you can hear" says my notes), a pysch-y extended jam at the end of "Sleeping Lessons," and another, this time improvised, 15-minute jam to close out the last song "One by One All Day." The last note rings as the house music begins to play over the P.A.
For the first time in my three years attending this thing, a pang of unprecedented sadness hits at the inevitable end of Bonnaroo 2012. Usually it's just a relieved sigh that I survived unscathed, but now, it's different.
I reflect on that sadness it driving through the night down I-75 and come to this: what the weighted donut on a baseball bat does for a great swing is pretty much exactly what Bonnaroo does for a profound musical experience – drags you through the mud so hard that you have no other choice but to seek refuge and pay some real gratitude to the power of music.
Stay tuned for more pics from Mike Wilson along with a Bonnaroo post-op from Deborah Ramos