Sleeping past 8 or 9 in the morning is impossible, since by that time the Tennessee sun has turned your tent into a Dutch oven, and on Friday morning my head was still fairly spinning by the bombardment of music I had absorbed a few hours before. Thursday’s eclecticism—bluegrass to post-rock to soul-revival to progressive-metal to synth-pop to alt-country to hip-hop to twee-goth to house—is now Bonnaroo’s most extraordinary accomplishment after years of being primarily a jamband festival. There isn’t necessarily a shortage of Deadhead descendants on the farm, but the fest has attracted a more diverse audience by moving beyond headliners like Widespread Panic and Phil Lesh & Friends.
The jam crowd that helped build Bonnaroo into a juggernaut cried foul when the festival started this transformation years ago but reached a point of no return in 2008 when Metallica was announced as the Friday headliner. Last year, when Bonnaroo landed Bruce Springsteen, it became even more obvious that the String Cheese Incident wouldn’t be prime-time headliners at Bonnaroo again. Rather, the fest has the capacity to bring in three or more of the world’s biggest touring acts in a single weekend, hence this year’s quartet of Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Dave Matthews Band, and Kings of Leon. Who’s next? McCartney? U2? The Rolling Stones?
Due to the festival’s sprawling range of genres, the improv-loving noodlers and twirlers can still get their jammy fix—this year Umphrey’s McGee, Lotus, Disco Biscuits, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and others were on hand—but they take up no more space on the schedule than hip-hop, country, or world music. As a result of these changes, Bonnaroo has gotten bigger, more expensive, and younger—increasingly a rite of passage for college students ready for a cramped cross-country pilgrimage of boundless musical hedonism.
The kind of tent-hopping by which I operated—splitting sets, catching half a set here, another have there—is viewed as festival heresy by some who believe that you haven’t “seen” an artist unless you watch the whole set, start to finish. Admittedly, they have a point; artists build sets to be complete entities—with expositions, complications, and resolutions—and I knew I was shortchanging the shows by cutting out early or entering midway through. But I could never come to easy terms with the kind of heartbreaking cuts that Bonnaroo forces you to make. At any given point, thoughts gain ground about what awesome once-in-a-lifetime collaboration you are missing on another stage at that very moment.
Moreover, in an effort to split up the massive crowd, the festival will pit similar acts against each other, multiplying the anguish. This year, we were forced to choose between Hall-of-Fame songwriters: Kris Kristofferson vs. John Fogerty; between alt-bluegrass buzz bands: the Avetts Brothers vs. Mumford & Sons; between mainstream country hitmakers: Miranda Lambert vs. Zac Brown Band; between nostalgia-tripping parties: Daryl Hall vs. Dark Side of the Moon (courtesy of the Flaming Lips); and between comedian/movie-star musicians: Jack Black vs. Steve Martin, all of which were scheduled for the same times on competing stages, and I wasn’t about to miss any of them, not entirely, even if it meant missing portions of each.
This sort of constantly-on-the-move approach has costs and benefits, but one of the real liabilities is that it will wear your ass out but good, especially in 95% humidity. If other years have been infamously dubbed “Dust-a-Roo” and “Mud-a-Roo”, this year was “Sweat-a-Roo”, as temperatures climbed hotter each consecutive day so that even by midday Friday, there were casualties everywhere, languishing in limp, dripping clusters around any shaded area, and there aren’t too many such areas to find in Centeroo.
Friday’s music started in That Tent with the Punch Brothers, fronted by mandolin wizard Chris Thile, one of the most butt-puckeringly talented musicians in the world. It was the first act in a day full of bluegrass and roots music in That Tent hosted by singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, an unexpected treat. Thile and his band, which also features banjo savant Noam Pikelny, suited up and played an hour-long set that toggled between traditional bluegrass rippers and Thile’s abstruse original compositions. The latter tended to put the brakes on whatever momentum the former would build since this crowd was ready to party, but it was a crowd of rapt music lovers and the peerless playing of these guys provided the kind of collective mind-blowing you’ve come to expect from Thile’s shows.
The big stages were in action on Friday, but before hitting them, I took the hike all the way to the back of the What Stage lawn (the What Stage is the titanic main stage with a lawn that holds 100,000 people) to the cozy Café Where tent to see Jill Andrews. I’d fallen for her eponymous EP, and she offered fresh, delicate versions of these songs (highlight: the lovely “These Words”) in front of the over-30 crowd seated around tables, the only spot in Bonnaroo that offers such a listening arrangement, a welcome respite from the hot hustle everywhere else.
The Gaslight Anthem / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
But it was back into the fire I went, to the Which Stage, the second-largest venue, for The Gaslight Anthem. It was the Jersey band’s first trip to the farm, and a head-nodding throng of their admirers were braving the blast-furnace heat to hear selections from the Anthem’s three albums of their bildungsroman tales of twin-guitar grease and Springsteenian nostalgia. Love for The Boss was in the air—a dude next to me kept yelling “Bruuuce!”, singer Chris Fallon kicked off “Old White Lincoln” by quoting the opening line to “Racing in the Street”, and their “Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts” was the Bruciest song that Bruce never wrote. All the while, Gaslight proved that they’re one of America’s most vital rock bands although it was relatively hard to connect with them at the Which Stage, which at times attracts 30,000 or more people but has no video screens, a real upgrade need for the future.
I moved on to the Other Stage midway through Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ set to find them playing in the most congested tent I experienced all weekend. It was a gigantic crowd for a huge show, as frontman Alex Ebert (no one in the band is named Edward Sharpe) led the ten-piece ensemble’s Age of Aquarius vibe. Twice as many people showed up as could fit under the tent’s roof, and the masses sang along so loudly on tunes like “40 Day Daydream” and, especially, “Home” that they fairly drowned out the vocals onstage, and even whistled along with Ebert (who’s own whistle petered out in the humidity, apparently) at the beginning of “Home”. It was certainly happening, as groovy lovefests go, and second vocalist Jade Castrinos was a fan favorite, spinning and swinging shakers in pure pixie-child jubilation. It was hard to take your eyes off of Ebert, though, who jumped into the crowd often, and, when he dropped that line about Jesus Christ in “Home”, with the guy’s shirtless, skinny beardo look and the crowd’s rapturous love for him, it felt like a self reference.
Hot Rize / Photo: FilmMagic Inc.
Back to That Stage next for legendary bluegrass quartet Hot Rize, which was the most sparsely-attended tent show of the weekend, a shame for the band but a treat for me since it was a chance to get close and personal with singer-mandolinist Tim O’Brien and especially with Bryan Sutton, the most amazing flat-picking bluegrass guitarist of his generation. Sutton wasn’t given much room to stretch out amid Hot Rize’s super-traditional approach, and he was too low in the mix, a bit of a disappointment. In fact, their set was nearly identical to the standard sets they’ve played over the last couple of decades, opening with “Blue Night” and moving through “Radio Boogie” before morphing into Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, their Western swing alter egos, which has them dressing in goofy cowboy costumes and has banjo statesmen Pete Wernick switching to a lap steel.
Off to the What Stage for the first time to see Nas and Damian Marley, supporting their solid new collaborative album, Distant Relatives. After what seemed like interminable DJ hyping and product pitching, the duo finally hit the stage with the rapid-fire duet “As We Enter”, representing the best of the project’s rap-reggae fusion. Nas, for his part, had a tendency to overwhelm Marley when the two performed together, so his insistent emceeing worked better on his solo hits like “Represent” (could have used more songs from Illmatic, in fact) and “Hip Hop is Dead”. Marley returned with a reggae medley that got the crowd moving despite the serious mid-afternoon heat. The scope of the crowd was evident for the first time during this set—as huge as the space is, it was packed pretty tight. There was much pre-fest speculation that numbers would be down this year, but the Nas/Marley show proved that the place had to be close to capacity. In fact, post-fest estimates have placed this year’s attendance between 80,000 and 110,000.
Nas and Damian Marley / Photo: Taylor Crothers
I hurried back for the start of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, part of Friday’s That Tent bluegrass series (I had regretfully missed the Carolina Chocolate Drops earlier in the day). I’d never seen the Dirt Band before, and I was delighted to see Jeff Hanna and John McEuen looking vibrant and sounding great, opening with Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and dusting off the folk-blues standard “Sittin’ on Top of the World”. I had to leave before the band (I assume) got around to biggies like “Mr. Bojangles” and “Fishin’ in the Dark”, but I left a mostly full tent of spirited fans, one of whom fainted from heat exhaustion into a trash can right next to me.
I was off to see the National on the Which Stage. There was considerable buzz around this set all day, and the Brooklyn-based critical-faves’ biggest fans had waited much of the day to be within shouting distance of the five-piece, rounded out at Bonnaroo with a horn section and violinist. It was a full sound, but the group’s patented slow-burning sonics, as on opener “Start a War”, and Matt Berninger’s murmuring baritone only commanded the attention of those closest to the action although even from my distant vantage point it was easy to admire the smooth embellishments of drummer Bryan Devendorf, a big key to The National’s sound. The horns were a nice complement to the band’s chiming guitars on the singles “Anyone’s Ghost” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, both played early, from the elegant new record High Violet. It was obligatory by this point for artists to comment on the heat, and the typically dapper Berninger joked that he was glad he wore his vest but that it was “all just paint”, a nod to the popular boob-painting trend at Bonnaroo.
Tenacious D / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
Back to the What Stage for the start of Tenacious D, introduced by Conan O’Brien, who performed sets both Friday and Saturday in the Comedy Tent, an event so in demand that a line for special tickets snaked 200 yards, and the shows were simulcast on the Lunar Stage’s jumbo screen. I never set foot in the comedy tent all weekend, where acts like Margaret Cho and Aziz Ansari also performed, so my only looks at CoCo were his brief introductions from the What Stage on Friday and Saturday nights. “They asked me to host Coachella—I said no!” he yelled. “I said, not humid enough!” Tenacious D took the stage as a duo launching into new material (“One Hit”, “Rise of the Phoenix”) from an upcoming album, but it was songs from their 2001 debut that drove the crowd crazy: “Kielbasa”, “Tribute”, “Wonderboy”, “Dio” (sad timing for that one), and a certain ballad about gentle sex that turned into the biggest singalong I heard all weekend. Jack Black, for his part, was in exultant voice for what he called the band’s “one-day tour”, one that included guest appearances from a kung-fu chopping giant metal creature (Metal personified) and Satan himself.
I positively pranced over to That Tent during the D’s last tune, worried that I was missing a great deal of Steve Martin‘s set. What’s funny is that seconds after I took my place at Martin’s show, Jack Black himself came bounding into the VIP area to the side of the stage. Those golf carts would be plenty handy. It was a celebrity-filled area, with Black (eating a cheeseburger), John McEuen, Chris Thile, and the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne all looking on. Martin is, as you know, touring with the Steep Canyon Rangers, a group of deft bluegrass instrumentalists, and he was as charming and clever as you’d expect, refined in a white jacket that conjured up those suits Martin wore when he was the wild-and-crazy-guy comic in the ‘70s, when his standup show included a little token banjo. Here, Martin’s banjo took center stage as he moved from Scruggs-style picking to clawhammer tunes. The actor knew that the crowd expected some witty gags, too, and he delivered those, whether by typing out “laughing out loud” on his iPad or by pulling a beer out of an upright bass. Martin didn’t do a lot of singing although “Late for School” from his Grammy-winning record The Crow was fun, and the set ended with a bluegrass reading of “King Tut” to the broad smiles and raucous applause of everyone.
Kings of Leon / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
Night was starting to fall by this time, and we got set up for Kings of Leon, the first of the weekend’s headliners. There was plenty of chatroom griping about KOL prior to the fest, including speculation that a sizable chunk of attendees would skip them to rest up or secure spots for the late night shows. Turns out the field was positively crammed for the brothers, who played a scintillating two hours that drew generously from each of their four records and included a handful of tunes from their recently-recorded upcoming follow-up to 2008’s smash Only by the Night. There was also worry concerning singer Caleb Followill’s voice after the band canceled some shows a couple of weeks before citing throat problems, yet he had a great night, pushing his voice hard with all kinds of power and range, sounding stronger on the set-closing “Use Somebody” than he did on the opening “Crawl”. Those two songs, along with hits “Notion” and “Sex on Fire” drew the biggest responses, but older songs—the Who-like splendor of “Fans”, the U2-style toms and ringing guitars of “The Bucket”—sliced hard across the night sky. Even the unfamiliar new material was a hit, especially “Southbound”, a super-catchy country-rock ode to their roots, and Bonnaroo was, as a beer-tipping Caleb continued to remind the crowd, a homecoming for the Followills. After the last notes echoed out, it was clear that Kings of Leon had earned this momentous night.
Daryl Hall & Chromeo / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
For many Rooers, however, the real fun only begins after the headliners. There’s no curfew out here in the middle of nowhere, so the shows go on, literally, all night long. Nor does Centeroo ever close, so as you walk around after midnight, you see bodies strewn everywhere, many of them asleep, casualties of a long day of heat, exhaustion, and ingestion. The conflicts were maddening on Friday, as the night owls had to choose among simultaneous sets by the Flaming Lips, electronic/dance act Bassnectar, garage-rock titans the Black Keys, and a Daryl Hall/Chromeo collaboration. The choice for me was easy—I marched straight over to the Other Tent to get a close spot for Daryl Hall & Chromeo. This once-only set was a live version of Hall’s popular viral series, Live from Daryl’s House, and those who, like me, chose this show in anticipation of hearing a pile of Hall & Oates classics weren’t to be disappointed. Opening with a double shot of H&O, “Dance on Your Knees” and “Out of Touch”, with Hall in killer voice, it was obvious that this was going to a pop-soul dance party to remember. What’s more, the tent was also full of Chromeo fanatics who sang along to every word of the duo’s shiny electrofunk singles like “Tenderoni” and “Bonafied Lovin’”. The band was filled out by Hall’s group of ace players (although, sadly, longtime bassist T-Bone Wolk passed away in February), and Chromeo’s Dave 1 and P-Thugg contributed to the Hall & Oates classics, most notably with P-Thuggs’ talk-box on the choruses, and during “Private Eyes”, “Kiss on My List”, “No Can Do”, and “You Make My Dreams Come True”, the tent came unglued. I’d see a lot of amazing music over the weekend, but no show matched the unadulterated fun of this one. A stone-cold classic.
The Flaming Lips / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
As luck would have it, the end of Hall & Chromeo coincided with the beginning of The Flaming Lips’ complete version of Dark Side of the Moon over on the Which Stage. (They had already played a first set of their own tunes.) It was now 1:30am, and I worked my way through several thousand rock soldiers to get a good look at the Lips’ elaborate stage setup, a massive round video screen, which showed triptastic swirls and silhouettes of women dancing (and/or crying, strangely enough), along with green lasers that shot over the crowd’s heads and supplied the lyrics to “Us and Them”. The Dark Side set worked okay, perhaps better on paper than in reality, which asked a field full of
sleep-deprived sun-logged zombies to stare at kaleidoscopic patterns while listening to a rote version of what is, after all, a pretty sleepy album. There were plenty of costumed revelers peaking during “The Great Gig in the Sky”, I’m sure, but most of the crowd seemed to be simply zoning out.
LCD Soundsystem / Photo: Jason Merritt
At 2:30 am, I headed to This Tent to see LCD Soundsystem. I had looked forward to this set, but I had very little left to offer them and sat outside the tent at a safe distance rather than fighting through a jammed tent erupting in glowstick wars. The crowd couldn’t wait to go nuts, although the set was plagued by sound problems, and James Murphy’s performance felt oddly flat. The new material from the excellent This is Happening, especially “I Can Change”, was Moz-some, but the band never quite fueled the party explosion the crowd seemed primed for. I missed both Kid Cudi and Galactic, who were on my original itinerary, although I stopped at That Tent for the opening of B.O.B., hip-hop hitmaker of the moment, who hit the stage around 3:30am, promising a roiling crowd that he was going to play until the sun came up. I took his word for it, staying for a half-hour before starting the weary two-mile trek to the tent.