Words by John Bohannon and Pictures by Karen Dunbar
After the never-ending ordeal of plunging into the campgrounds, another prolific year for Bonnaroo is underway. Now in its eighth year, it has become one of the world’s most diverse and popular festival destinations and it’s parked dead in the middle of Tennessee. No different from previous years, the backpacked druglords and the eager and willing are in full force. After a setback on Thursday night that involved a torrential downpour and the quick scare of a tornado warning rumor, Friday proved to sit among the row of ducks for impressive days having taken place at the festival. On initial thought, the excitement I managed to muster up for this year’s trek in the mud was minimal at best. Communing with Phish and Public Enemy fans alike, the atmosphere filled with the smell of patchouli and weed smoke somehow draws me in to its, well, unyielding charm.
Friday’s madness kicked off with a phenomenal set from critical-darlings (and David Byrne advocates), the Dirty Projectors. Every little thing about this band is complex in its nature, but simple in its approach. Building layers of beautiful vocal harmonies and spastic guitar-lines, the band somehow finds a groove that is grounded in the pop world of Wings-era McCartney and Paul Simon’s Graceland, and the convulsive, quirky approach of Talking Heads. Considering they were playing on the David Byrne-curated stage, it only made sense for them to have him guest on the Dark Was the Night sensation, “Knotty Pine”—a beautiful way to end a near perfect set.
After having standards set high, it was inevitable something was set to fail. It just happened to be possibly the most hyped band of 2009, Animal Collective. Their set was a complete and utter failure. Full of electronic meandering and slowed down renditions of their otherwise, upbeat and sunny songs, their Merriweather Post Pavilion-driven set fell flat on its face to a monstrous crowd. In order for this band to take the next step in their career, they should spend time learning to wow larger audiences and how to adapt a set in stadium-sized situations.
BELA FLECK [Photo: Karen Dunbar]
Bonnaroo has always had a knack for exposing world music to American audiences, one of my favorite aspects of the festival. This year, they had the Africa Rising tent featuring the likes of Toumani Diabate & Bela Fleck, Toubab Krewe, Amadou and Miriam, and African beat legend, King Sunny Ade. The Nigerian-based Ade brought the funk from across the Atlantic. Known as the king of Juju, his new compositions sound just as fresh and soulful as those he created over 20 years ago, melding the best elements of the west’s approach to pop music with traditional Nigerian music. The only shame was this was probably the least attended performance I saw on Friday (probably due to the fact they were competing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). Ade and his band, the African Beats, showed artistic integrity and dedication to an art form unlike anyone else on Friday, and lets hope it paid off with a new, dedicated audience.
TV ON THE RADIO [Photo: Karen Dunbar]
After a quick nap in the lovely hammocks behind the stage, I managed to get some liquid courage from the fine Tennessean whiskey and pummel through TV on the Radio’s set. I think its fair to say Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone are two of my favorite figures in modern music. They are so charismatic and inimitable with their approach, its hard not to love what they are doing. I’m not quite sure what the hell Tunde is doing when he dances, but after watching the man act in Jump Tomorrow and Rachel Getting Married—it makes complete sense. His awkwardness is his allure, and creates a stage presence that’s unparalleled.
DAVID BYRNE [Photo: Karen Dunbar]
After curating a stage for the day, David Byrne had a performance to take care of himself. There’s a reason why he is one of the biggest figures in the world of avant-garde pop music, and it comes out in every aspect of his live performance. Playing everything from Talking Heads era classics such as “Born Under Punches” and “Burning Down the House” to cuts off of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne is truly a seasoned veteran, controlling the crowd with every word and fluid movement. He also had the help of a brilliantly choreographed dance-routine that was about as offbeat and spastic as David Byrne’s music itself (which I’m sure was intentional). Truly sensational and one of the best experiences I’ve had at Bonnaroo in my six years attending.
PUBLIC ENEMY [Photo: Karen Dunbar]
Capping off the night was a solid performance from political-minded hip-hoppers Public Enemy. I have the feeling a good 75% of the crowd came out to see Flava Flav, and rightfully so—the man looks about 65 but holds it down like he’s 25. There’s a reason he was and is the best hype man in the game. Chuck D brought the brains to the operation, doing exactly what he has been doing for over 20 years, informing an audience that’s willing to listen and encouraging them to be socially conscious. That’s a deed to the death for Chuck D, and its obvious even in a constant party environment.
After a day of blistering heat and constant exhausting, the back of my car had never sounded so good (my tent got flooded the night before, which never fails to happen). Prepping for a Saturday of Springsteen and a hefty endurance test is on the horizon. Looks like Bonnaroo will be yet another success.