Oh Bonnaroo my love you don’t know how much I’ve missed your warm embrace! When my crew and I arrived on the farm Friday morning, we quickly cracked open a brew and set up camp underneath the rising Tennessee sun. We missed Thursday’s opening night festivities, but three nights in Manchester would prove to be just the right amount of time to cram as much music, debauchery, insomnia, breakfast burritos, and dust into our skulls before we had to report back to work Monday night.
Bonnaroo started out as the premier jamband festival, but has morphed into the most eclectic lineup in the U.S. Friday’s afternoon had us glued to The Other Tent, where The Infamous Stringdusters began the day with a set of high octane bluegrass. The Stringdusters have been a staple in the bluegrass scene for a few years, and each time I see them they are tighter and looser at the same time. These guys love playing together, and when the band is having as much fun on stage as these pickers do, the audience is always in for a treat. Highlights of the set included a ripping version of The Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone” and a fitting closer “Steam Powered Aereo-plane.”
After the Stringdusters had thousands stomping in the heat, it was time for Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings to bring their Soul-Train funk express to What Stage. Sharon Jones commands the stage, channeling the ghosts of Otis Redding and James Brown with every shimmy and shake. Her backing band, The Dap-Kings, may be the tightest backing band on earth. These guys know when to pick up the pace, or lay it down in the cut. The guitarist’s funky riffs strut alongside the walking bass, which bounces to the dueling drums and congas, only to be stabbed repeatedly by those pesky horns. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are always a must see on any festival lineup, that is if you are down with the funk.
The rest of the afternoon was spent bopping around from stage to stage. We caught the end of Two Door Cinema Club’s packed This Tent set, went and had a few brews with some buddies back at our campsite, caught the last have of the rapid-fire full frontal bluegrass assault that is Trampled By Turtles. Man these guys play fast, which makes for one helluva afternoon hoedown. Ludacris was up next and started his set with a bang. The Atlanta rapper dropped hit after hit, making the overwhelmingly large crowd go crazy. Towards the end of his set, however, Luda ditched the stage, and his DJ proceeded to play top 40 hits for twenty minutes. Such a strange turn of events had us wandering over to What Stage to witness the shred-fest that is Rodrigo Y Gabriela. The acoustic duo was backed by an all-star Cuban band that brought to life some of the groups more complex rhythms. These two musicians always put on a fantastic show, and provided the perfect soundtrack for the pristine Bonnaroo sunset.
The highlight of the night, and, arguably, the entire weekend was Radiohead’s Friday night set. I must admit, I only knew three Radiohead tracks going into the set. They were that one band I was destined to someday spend sleepless nights tearing through their illegally downloaded discography, but it wasn’t until Bonnaroo that I paid attention to what the rest of the world already knew. Radiohead’s music defines power. The intricate beats layered on top one after another laid the groundwork for the cavity-shaking bass. It was amazing to watch the three drummers work together to cause catastrophe and rhythm at the same time. When that bass would fall into place underneath the guitar, the perfect platform was built to be mesmerized by Thom Yorke’s voice. The man can swoon. No doubt about it, Yorke’s voice caressed 80,000 ears with each tune. The 2+ hour set was orchestrated with a strong, aggressive progression. Each song spoke to the next, creating their masterpiece.
Late night at Bonnaroo is what sets it apart from every other festival. You never know what you will see. Maybe My Morning Jacket will perform a 4 hour marathon set in a monsoon, or John Paul Jones will jam on some Zep with ?uestlove and Ben Harper. Superfly always provides us with some sunrise sets and unforgettable moments. Friday’s late night was stacked. So many choses, none of them bad. We decided to wander all night, catching a little bit of everything instead of putting all our eggs in one basket. First, we stopped by The Word, a sacred steel gospel group featuring Robert Randolph, John Medeski, and the North Mississippi All Stars. Unfortunately, bassist Chris Chew had health issues and couldn’t perform, but the band still gave The Other Tent a dose of that gospel soul music. After a few tracks preaching the good word, it was time to witness the sexual mess that is Major Lazer.
Diplo and Switch’s Jamaican, zombie-fighting alter-ego brings the heat during their live performance. Diplo bounces from moombahton to reggae to dancehall to house and back keeping the massive hoard of freaks moving. Diplo does not hide behind an elaborate light show like most current DJs, he just throws a fucking party, and all are welcome to shake it, and maybe strip down. I have never seen more naked women at a concert in my life, and doubt I ever will.
Up next we wandered over to That Tent for the unconventional hip hop of Flying Lotus. Armed with no light show, FlyLo’s music is dirty. Each track the producer played was covered in moss and drenched in that sticky sap that drips from trees. While Diplo’s production played closer to pop music, FlyLo’s brand of hip hop is closer to Radiohead than Luda. Flying Lotus is what happens when you trap Weezy in the dungeon and dose his lean. Perfect for the trip that is Bonnaroo Late Night.
We walked past The Other Tent for a taste of Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, which proved to be every bit the New Orleans party as advertised, before heading over to the Umphrey’s Mcgee marathon set in This Tent. Scheduled for a 2-hour set, everyone knew the Chicago by way of South Bend rockers would push it through the sunrise. Umphrey’s brand of rock often gets thrown in with the jamband scene, but at their core they represent prog rock at its finest. Around 4 AM Umphrey’s slowly left the stage, and Big Gigantic took over and tore up the tent with a surprise set. After that quick interlude Umphrey’s retook the stage and kept the crowd dancing until breakfast. The highlight of the set was the dubbed out cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” which the band slowed jammed in and out of for what seemed like forever. This is a band that eats together, sleeps together, and jams as a single beast. A little after 6 AM I made my way back to the tent, passed out for a few hours, and rested for the next leg of the marathon.
Saturday welcomed more beautiful weather to go along with the packed schedule. This year Bonnaroo was blessed with temperatures in the 80’s and a cool breeze at night. Saturday’s lineup brought a diverse mix of groups across the tents and stages. We started our day off with the classic, soul sounds of Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires. Mr. Bradley wooed his audience with his heart-wrenching moans, providing a pleasant soundtrack to relax in the sun with a few brews. Later, Flogging Molly would bring it’s Irish punk brigade to That Tent, and SBTRKT would lay down some twisted form of British soul/house/hip hop/dubstep over in This Tent right after The Punch Brothers picked and strummed a sing-a-long on Which Stage.
After a quick brew break at the campsite, we gathered our crew and made our way to What Stage where The Roots were finishing up their live hip hop set. We migrate to the left side of the stage and grab a nice piece of real estate for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ headlining set. Like Radiohead the night before, RHCP is a band that carries weight in their name alone. Anthony Kedis, Flea, and company provided a soundtrack to the 90’s, then continued with countless hits in their 3rd decade. I was interested to see how the band would perform without guitarist John Frusciante, who quit to pursue a solo career, and they answered any doubts with a set full of pure adrenaline. These guys can fucking jam! Each song was stretched to its limits, with Flea and new guitarist Josh Kinghoffer dueling back and forth. Their set of classics, new tracks, and a lone cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” was a roller coaster ride through the last twenty-nine years of these rockers careers. Kedis’ voice soared through the packed field. Glad to see these west coast boys are still rocking.
Saturday night. Womp oozed out of car stereos and boomboxes, flooding the campsites with that sticky sound. Skrillex’s late night set on Which Stage was the big ticket item on Saturday, and tens of thousands of ravers armed with glowsticks and pinky-sized sandwich bags full of pixy dust descended on the field. Armed with a few adult cigarettes and a mason jar of whiskey, I made my way through the colorful crowd of freaks to witness this year’s Superjam. Billed as ?uestlove with Special Guests, the evenings lineup kept everyone guessing. Flea? Luda? Who would grace This Tent at 12:15 AM late Saturday night? The answer was an all-star band of funk enthusiasts led by D’Angelo! They tore through funky classic’s like Funkadelic’s “Hit It and Quit It” and played a face melting version of Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be.” D’Angelo’s voice was immaculate, and the set of covers was a blast. Each musician in the band played as if they were a family band.
After most of the set my group of freaks were restless, and the womp from Which Stage was calling their souls. I’m not a huge fan of Skrillex. I’m an avid house fan, but recently, with the growing popularity of the genre and its many breakaway genres, I have found myself searching for the house of old. Gone are the days of house with soul. It is no longer a spiritual thing, a body thing, now producers search for the highest pitch synth they can find and try to create as many serotonin-evaporating peaks as possible. Skrillex’s set was repetitive and stale. It was hard to decipher songs from each other, and when they were different songs, they had the same exact format. While the repetition has always been a problem for house music, these newer DJs find it easy to hide behind overwhelming light shows. While thirty-thousand plus loved the set, it just was not my cup of tea.
Sunday morning brought a light rain to the farm, cooling off the late night ravers and helping keep the dust down for the final day. Bonnaroo’s Sunday lineup was the perfect blend of relaxing tunes. Starting off with the jammy, surf rock of ALO, we then caught the Austin, Texas blues of Gary Clark Jr. This man is destined for big things, but the size of the What Stage seemed to be too large for his personality. His play was timid. He can shred like a rock star, but does not have the stage presence just yet. His debut album, due in September, should be a launch point to stardom for this master of America’s music.
Up next on What Stage was the newly-reunited Beach Boys. While Brian Wilson stayed in the background for most of the show, the harmonies and melodies of old had the crowd twisting in the grass. It was the perfect Sunday Bonnaroo set: positive music played for positive people. This afternoon dance party was a fitting end to the weekend, but there was still a few big name acts to take the stage. Somehow I ended up missing Bon Iver’s main stage set, though I’m sure it was equally as breathtaking as his albums. Instead, we decided to relax underneath the bobbleheads and watch The Shins bring their blend of indie rock and sway-along songs to Which Stage. It’s hard for some indie rock bands to have a captivating live show, but The Shins did an admirable job.
The final headliner of the weekend was Phish. Phish has always been one of my favorite bands, and it was great to see them on the farm to close out the perfect weekend. They may not be for everyone, but Phish knows how to put on a show. The set included some of my favorite tracks. “Axilla” had the crowd rocking before “Moma Dance” brought the funk to the farm one last time. The two set performance was the fitting end to the weekend. It was time to return to reality. Every time I leave Bonnaroo I feel whole. Every person you meet at the Roo spills out positive energy. They’ve made it, and want to share their joy with everyone in sight. When it’s over, you pack up your tent, dust off the Birkenstocks and start dreaming of next year, when you’ll return to the little town of Manchester, Tennessee to rock out once again.