Here Comes the Sun, and it’s going to Kill You.
Bonnaroo is all about choices, so let’s start with the most basic one: Do you have fun or do you get the bare minimum amount of sleep needed to function properly as a human being?
At Bonnaroo your day begins at 8:30 AM. You do not sleep in at Bonnaroo because the demonic sun will not allow it.
At Bonnaroo your day ends somewhere between 4 and 6 AM. You do not miss the late night shows at Bonnaroo because you’re not a wimp.
Given these two rules, your days at Bonnaroo are spent gauging and trying to get the most out of what’s left of your physical capacities. What that means is that your experience of any given concert is just as dependent on your physical state at the time as it is on the performer. Did you rush in to see the Smith Westerns without eating lunch and then grab a bite to eat right before Galactic? You can guess which band might make the better impression. This isn’t unlike any other concert experience. It’s only that over four days at Bonnaroo you can’t help but miss the full force of some concerts due to mental or physical exhaustion.
Any time slot between 12 and 5 PM is particularly brutal. One of the first victims was Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Bonnaroo started as a festival dedicated primarily to jam bands, so having the original lineup of the Flecktones was perfect for those who still come to the festival to get their jam band fix. (As if to leave no doubt about the matter, Fleck sported a t-shirt with a large rainbow peace sign). But Fleck and his band, even if incredible in their technically proficiency, were too unfocused to bravely fight the midday heat.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Alison Krauss and Union Station, who were playing with Jerry Douglas, faced a similar problem. Their bluegrass music, reminiscent of their work on O Brother Where Art Thou, also fit the Southern setting perfectly. But their set, like Fleck’s, was ultimately too subdued and placated.
The best thing to do during the day at Bonnaroo is to accept the heat and hide from it while still staying at earshot from a stage or tent. Lying in the shade on a 90-degree day is nice; lying in the shade on a 90-degree day while Mavis Staples sings “The Weight” or The New Orleans All-Stars play a funk cover of “Fortunate Son” is heavenly. The shade at the festival is limited, and the best of it is found in the corners of the festival grounds where you won’t necessarily see the music you’re hearing, but if you get it right these more subdued moments are just as enjoyable as any other concert experience you’ll have at the festival.
The daytime is also when you can catch the younger bands at the festival, many of which have only released an album or two worth of material. One of the first shows of the weekend was by Wavves, who managed to overcome the bad sound that festival stages are infamous for and play a raucous set to a densely packed crowd. Nathan William’s voice carried perfectly over his skuzzy rhythm section, and the loose and frayed sound of the album was given a full and very tight sound for the concert.
If Wavves surprised by just how good they sounded, Best Coast disappointed at first with what was a much more muddled sound. They ended up putting on a great show, though, based only on the sheer range and quality of their material. Their ability to move with ease from raw blasts of white noise to soothing vocals made for one of the more engaging sets of the festival. They played songs from their upcoming second album, but the most memorable moment was their cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City”, one of those endearing country songs that hide explicit violence behind a jovial melody and chord progression.
Another young band playing an early set was the Smith Westerns. Their latest and second album is one of the highlights so far from this year, but their live set lacked any sense of adventure with regards to the material. It was too much like listening to the album, with very little added flare. Then, when at the end of the set Cullen Omori told the crowd that “if you didn’t like this set, then fuck you,” it was clear that the band harbors more youthful conceit than useful stage presence, at least for now.
That’s the opposite of Man Man, who came on sporting white face paint and proceeded to stalk the stage while yelling and singing their way through their weird, caveman music (that’s a compliment, just in case you were wondering). Their best songs incorporate everything from doo-wop to more modern rock and filter them through a stream of percussion and lead singer Honus Honus’ growled vocals. Their live show adds a whole new level of energy to their music as they play and bang on everything they can get their hands on, from a glockenspiel to a large aluminum percussion device that sat next to the keyboards until one of the band members started running around the stage putting dents into it.