My plans for the restorative yoga session at 9am fell through, as I opted to have breakfast at camp, which meant sitting on the back bumper of the car and dipping Triscuits into peanut better. Before I knew it, it was time to head back in for the first act of the day, and I made the long haul past people holding rolls of toilet paper while waiting their turn for the Porta-Potties. Amusement park signs along the way would have been helpful: “Your Wait From Here: 45 Minutes”.
My day started in the Cafe Where with Imelda May, an Irish rockabilly lass who deserved a bigger venue, although I was grateful to catch her in such an intimate setting. Like a film-noir femme fatale in her jazz-age dress and skunk-striped pompadour, Imelda cuts quite an image, and she and her crack band (which includes Imelda’s husband, splendid guitarist Darrel Higham) had the tent jumping. Imelda sings with gangster’s-moll sass, but when she cuts loose, her chainsaw upper-range reveals a punker at heart. Overall, it was one of the festival’s most satisfying sets, in part because it felt like a well-kept secret.
Baaba Maal / Photo: Taylor Crothers
Off to the Which Stage for the Senegalese singer-guitarist Baaba Maal, who came out like a holy ambassador of West African music, leading a 14-piece band of guitars, horns, and a barrage of percussionists through a gorgeous set of African and Latin American stylings, drawn largely from the recent Brazilian Girls collaboration, Television. It was a huge, exuberant event, with Maal working the crowd hard to dance, and it was impossible not to. (He even hyped the USA vs. England World Cup match that was coming up later in the day.) The show didn’t attract a huge crowd—1pm is, after all, the crack of dawn in Bonnaroo—but Maal’s band, in brightly-colored robes, delivered an enthralling, graceful musical education, which culminated in an Afro-Cuban percussionist duel that spilled out into a rapturous crowd.
Next up: Brandi Carlile in That Tent. Opening with two songs from last year’s Give Up the Ghost, the ethereal ukulele-based “Oh Dear” and the propulsive “Looking Out”, Carlile quickly flashed the songwriting and vocal chops that have established her as one of modern folk-rock’s biggest talents. The tent was full of believers who held tight to Carlile and her tight five-piece band as they worked across Carlile’s three records. The biggest responses were for new single “Dreams” and Carlile’s signature tune, “The Story”, but Carlile, looking cute in a newsboy cap, also delighted her minions with peppy readings of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”.
Norah Jones / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
Norah Jones had already started on the Which Stage, another of those cruel Bonnaroo conflicts, and I arrived in time to hear “Light As a Feather”, the Ryan Adams co-write from Jones’s new record, The Fall. “Chasing Pirates”, the album’s first single followed; in fact, Jones, looking lovely in a gray sundress, would play six straight tunes from The Fall from there: “We’re doing some songs from my new record”, she announced, “so that’s fun for us”. It may not have been as much fun for the scorched crowd on the lawn, unfamiliar as most seemed with these mellow new tunes, and, again, without video screens, subtlety doesn’t work on the Which Stage. Bonnaroo’s crowds are uniformly excellent, however, and they were rewarded midway through by covers of Johnny Cash (“Cry, Cry, Cry”), Neil Young (“Barstool Blues”), and Tom Waits (“Long Way Home”), interspersed with silken versions of her biggest hits, “Sunrise”, “Don’t Know Why”, and “Come Away With Me”.
I beat my next path back to That Tent a couple of songs into the Dave Rawlings Machine, and y’allternative fans were loving this collective hard. The Machine features not only the great Gillian Welch (and god bless her for sticking with Rawlings, her long-time collaborator, while he takes center stage on this album and tour) and three-fourths of the Old Crow Medicine Show, a sweet bonus. They dealt string-band beauties like “Ruby” and “I Hear Them All” from last year’s Friend of a Friend—terrific stuff—but “It’s Too Easy”, a double-fiddle hoedown that sped up into a frantic barn-dance finish, was one of the biggest hoots all weekend. Later, Dave and Gil performed a simmering duet of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” and finished with The Band’s “The Weight”, a major crowd-pleasing pick-me-up at precisely the right time.
Jimmy Cliff / Photo: Taylor Crothers
Next, I had a date with Jimmy Cliff at the What Stage, making a hard choice to miss Aterciopelados in the Other Tent, which on Saturday was rechristened the “Latin Tent”, and one of the sore thumbs for me this year is that I didn’t make it over there despite a superb lineup of acts all day. But I just had to see Cliff, one of four Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on the farm this weekend. The story with Cliff is that his soaring tenor has lost zilch of its heyday glory, and on “Many Rivers to Cross”, for instance, his performance was breathtaking. I missed the first third of the set, arriving in time to hear environmental call-to-arms songs “Save Our Planet Earth” and “Global Warming” followed by his classic “ Vietnam ”, which he restyled as “ Afghanistan ”. It wasn’t the setlist of dreams—no “Sitting in Limbo” or “The Harder They Come”—and his set was the least-attended main stage show I saw, but he tickled the crowd with his hit remake of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, and, at 62-years-old, Cliff was in otherwise peak form, sprinting the length of the stage and broadcasting the clarion call that has made him a legend.
The Avett Brothers / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
I’m still pissed about having to choose between Brothers and Sons, but I started with the Avett Brothers on the Which although I was well back from the throngs who were shouting I and love and you at Scott and Seth. After such prolific output, the Avetts were bound to leave out some of your favorites, but the boys made a noble attempt at covering ground from their entire canon, from the raucous mountain-punk of “I Killed Sally’s Lover” from 2003’s A Carolina Jubilee to the chamber-pop epics on the Rick Rubin-produced I and Love and You. Highlight: the timelessly gorgeous “Laundry Room”, on which the crowd couldn’t wait to jump in on the call-and-response part at the end. In fact, if their oldest fans had any quibbles with the band’s modern move to full-drumkit and piano arrangements, you’d never know it by the zealously allegiant crowds up front who swayed to the Avetts’ earnest songs of family and manhood, braving first the extreme heat and then, for the last third of the set, the only rain shower of the weekend.
Mumford & Sons / Photo: FilmMagic Inc.
The Avetts were so good that I stayed longer than I’d planned but still cut out in time to catch the last half of Mumford & Sons in That Tent, a show that drew a huge crowd eager to see this British folk-grass act that has been selling out shows across America . Still, leadman Marcus Mumford declared this audience the biggest by far they’d played for in the States, an indication of how huge even the tent shows are at Bonnaroo. Mumford mentioned the heat every other song and admitted to being “stressed out about the football game” earlier, referring to that USA/England match that ended in a 1-1 tie. ( I wasn’t at the Lunar Stage for it, but reports indicated that thousands turned out to watch the match, and when the Americans scored the late goal to tie it, the crowd went apeshit, breaking a new Tennessee record for number of high fives per second.) Mumford played nearly their entire debut, Sigh No More, and those achingly rhapsodic ballads worked even better live than on the record. They provided a real festival highlight, though, by bringing out Old Crow Medicine Show along with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch for a euphoric “Wagon Wheel”, Old Crow’s signature tune, a cathartic sing-along for those in attendance. The guests stuck around for the finale, “Roll Away Your Stone”, which cooked mightily, aided by the Ketch Secor’s freight-train harmonica.
The Dead Weather / Photo: Jeff Kravitz
By the time Mumford ended, the rain had stopped and The Dead Weather was into their set over on the What Stage; just as I made it over, I heard drummer Jack White taking credit for the rain. He was, indeed, a force of nature on stage, treated with rock-god adulation every time he spoke or emerged from behind the drumkit. A swelling crowd was settling in for a long night of headline acts, and The Dead Weather’s psychedelic scary-blues freakouts played well with a crowd that was tired of walking around. Jack White devotees needn’t worry that his position behind the drums would leave him obscured in the shadows, as he commanded plenty of attention, whether through between-song banter—thanking Conan for running the monitors, for instance—or through his own shivering vocal takes and occasional turns at the guitar. And as a drummer, White was surprisingly skillful—he’s an unhinged basher, but he played with style and, on occasion, precision. On the other hand, it was Alison Mosshart who often owned the stage; squeaking and growling, crouching on the monitors in her leopard-print jacket and black shag cut, she was dangerous business, like Patti Smith on potent shrooms. The set culled six songs from the debut Horehound, seven from the new Sea of Cowards, and although fans were less familiar with the newer tunes, they were the most fun as White tended to be more involved vocally, hiccupping back and forth with Mosshart on catchy-quirk tunes like “Die By the Drop” and “Hustle and Cuss”.
I wanted to stay there on the lawn and wait idly for Stevie Wonder, but I had two more legends to see back in the tents. So I hiked it back over to That Tent for most of John Prine’s blue-ribbon set. With Kris Kristofferson watching (and singing and whistling through his fingers) from the wings, Prine, backed by a guitar and bass combo, held the audience rapt with a quickly paced series of his best-loved songs. Prine moves stiffly these days, but he’s in fine control of his voice and overall alacrity, never faltering as he was clearly having fun with the overflow crowd on spirited takes of “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and “Fish and Whistle”. Prine kept smiling over at Kristofferson, as if the two were delighting in Prine’s clever wordplay, one songwriter to another. I was hoping for “Hello in There”, which never came, and I had to reluctantly trudge away before “Illegal Smile” and “Angel From Montgomery”, but I left with a renewed appreciation for one of the all-time great folk tunesmiths. Prine for the Rock Hall of Fame 2012—take it to the streets.
Jeff Beck / Photo: Jason Merritt
The other legend was Jeff Beck, playing in This Tent; it was a shocker in the schedule that Beck didn’t get a stage show, but there he was. The other shocker was that he wasn’t wearing a bandana around his neck although he did have the sleeveless shirt and bicep bracelet. Beck, of course, has a sort of Dorian Gray thing going on, and he gave the guitar geeks and classic-rock true believers what they were looking for—mastery of tone, whammy bar heroics, and lyrical leads. It all sounded terrific, with his band defaulting to hard funk, driven by Rhonda Smith’s pile-driving bass runs (she also lent vocals to a slammed-tight “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”). The transcendent moments, however, came when Beck played the vocal lines to “People Get Ready”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and, as expected, his refined arrangement of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”.
Stevie Wonder / Photo: Taylor Crothers
Well, if every single festivalgoer wasn’t on the big lawn for Stevie Wonder, it certainly felt like it. It’s impossible to describe the scope of such a scene—the massive stage and the ocean of people, all experiencing a jolt of adrenaline in anticipation of Stevie and the realization that they were, at that moment, attending the single biggest party on the planet. A little after 8:30pm, Stevie walked out playing an unaccompanied keytar solo, thereby announcing that the people had better be ready for a funky night. Once the band kicked in, the stage pumped out an incredible soul-rattling sound on a breathtaking run of hits, courtesy of two guitarists, three percussionists, three keyboard players, backup singers, a horn section, etc. Despite the immense setup onstage and the 80,000 people watching, Stevie called audibles throughout the show in what he called a “soul traveling” experience. Stevie’s unmistakable voice was in tip-top shape, but he loves when the audience sings, and he spent much of the show teaching the audience vocal parts and turning “Living For the City” and “My Cherie Amour” mostly over to the crowd. A few songs into the setlist, Stevie got into a serious roll with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and barely let the audience take a breath for the next 90 minutes, with all kinds of exhilarating moments: a disco-jocking “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” (it was a great night for Innervisions fans); a surprise left turn into “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” sung through a talk box; a swinging “Sir Duke”; a joyous “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”; and a dozen other thrills. Another only-at-Bonnaroo highlight took place between the main set and the encore when a group of percussionists, courtesy of Baaba Maal’s band and the Latin Tent, kept the party going on congas, bongos, djembes, etc., for several minutes until Stevie came back with the Songs in the Key of Life dance hit, “Another Star”, capping a Bonnaroo set for the ages.
Jay-Z / Photo: Taylor Crothers
The audience had about an hour to catch its breath, as an army of stagehands got ready for Jay-Z. Close to midnight, the video screens displayed a timer counting down from ten minutes, and with a minute to go, the place was surging and the diamonds were up in the air. Jay walked out to the ominous clamor of his band, which worked a relentless string of hits, with Hova leaning hard into the verses, immediately running through the singles from The Blueprint 3, “Run This Town”, “On to the Next One”, “D.O.A.”, and throwing in a slow, plinky rewrite of his verse from Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”. Once sidekick Memphis Bleek joined him, things got even hotter, hits coming at a furious pace, each getting thunderous reactions. It was clearly Jay-Z’s crowd, but even casual observers were able to go nuts midway through the show when the band looped the verse of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, which turned out to be “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” from the first Blueprint record and, especially, for “Empire State of Mind”, a feast for the senses, given Jay’s verses, singer Bridget Kelly’s soaring chorus, and a dazzling backdrop of a shifting skyline. And give it up for Tony Royster on drums, who deserves a spot on the Bonnaroo all-star team this year. You could argue that listening to a guy for two hours brag about how awesome he is marks a pretty bizarre point in pop history, and you’d have a point, but 80,000 partiers proved that Jigga has single-handedly erased all doubts that hip-hop can rule on the biggest of stages.
And then I hit the wall. I had plans to attend the late-night shows—metal workhorses Clutch; electronic soul-groovers Thievery Corporation; costumed dance-maestro Deadmau5; blood-throwing monster-metal ironists GWAR; livetronica jamband Disco Biscuits—but I was acutely out of gas. I was in my tent at the absurdly early hour of 2:30 in the morning, descending into sleep while listening ruefully to the distant throbs of all the music I was missing.