The Greatest (and Not-So-Greatest) Sets, Where You Least Expect Them
With four days and at least 100 bands, there are bound to be some underwhelming shows. This year, The Strokes proved to be just that. They were the true festival closers for many people who were leaving the festival early on Sunday night, or for those who had never heard of Widespread Panic but idolized Julian Casablancas’s crew. The disappointment wasn’t just that the band went on fifteen minutes late and left fifteen minutes early. Their performance was lackluster, with Casablancas either too tired to try, or doing his best to play the moody, aloof rock star. The band was certainly also a victim to the poor sound at the Which stage, and Casablancas’s absurd decision to wear a leather jacket in 90-degree weather couldn’t have helped his energy level. But regardless of what lay behind it, their set lacked almost any semblance of spirit. At one point, Casablancas, waiting for the rest of the band to start the next song, actually stood on stage with his hands on his hips.
Bootsy Collins & The Funk University were also disappointing, although not for the performance itself. Due to a stage schedule that was already running late and then a painfully prolonged sound check, Bootsy did not go on until the time when his show was scheduled to end. The increasingly anxious crowd moved from chants of “Booo” to cries of “Bullshit!”, “Fuck you!”, and, best of all, “You’re fucking with my schedule, Bootsy!”. It took the crew far too long to explain that they were just trying to make the show sound as good as possible, but once they did everyone calmed down and produced the most endearing moment of the festival. A chant slowly spread of “We want the funk. Gotta have that funk!” When Bootsy finally came out, the party was on and there was plenty of room to dance.
This year, three of the smaller tent shows competed with anyone on the bigger stages for best show of the festival. On Sunday, Robyn put on an exhilarating show of her irrepressible electro-pop. Her band was dressed all in white (except for one shirtless drummer) and looked like scientists as they crafted pulsing beats from behind their synths and drum machines. Robyn, meanwhile, danced all over the stage in the same way that any of her fans would while listening to her music alone in their rooms (admit it, you would too). Robyn’s was clearly the poppiest set of the festival, but it was also the one that exuded the most warmth. The show was spontaneous, unaffected, and fun: everything great pop should be but rarely is.
The other two highlight shows came on Thursday. J. Cole played to an audience of devoted fans who knew all the words to his songs. His cover of Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and his prominent use of beats and hooks from Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. were clearly a way of inserting himself into the hip-hop echelon while showing his knowledge and respect for the history of his music. Yet at the same time, as he told the crowd, it was his way of stealing a page from rock shows: they do live covers all the time, why shouldn’t rappers do the same? By the end, though, the show was all about J. Cole: it was clear you were watching an up-and-coming great playing for his first disciples.
Then two hours later, Deerhunter put on the best show of the festival. The beautiful songs culled primarily from Halcyon Digest and Microcastle gave structure to the set, but they were also given whole new identities as seeds for extended soundscapes. The result was louder, looser, noisier, longer, and improbably several times better than the band’s studio work. As the songs morphed into pounding and relentless krautrock or Yo La Tengo style rhythms, guitarist Bradford Cox unleashed one aural assault after another, exploring every possible sound that he could coax and conjure from his guitar: from shrill noises, to simple melodic lines, to distortion-coated riffs. By the time they ended with “Nothing Ever Happened”, with Cox shifting and remolding the contours of the song in a long, noisy solo and the cascades of sound building pressure for almost eight minutes until the release of the final ringing chord, it was clear that Deerhunter were going to be very hard to top.
At Bonnaroo, the headliners may get the glory and spectacle, but they do not get the final word (except for Widespread Panic, who did). At Bonnaroo, you survive the day in order to enjoy the night and you stumble upon the best acts where you least expect them. At Bonnaroo, you dance to Girl Talk, Pretty Lights, or Ratatat until 4 AM amidst a sea of glow sticks and outreached limbs, and then you finish the night at Gogol Bordello, who on Saturday played gypsy punk to frenetic moshers until god knows what time.
At Bonnaroo, you’ll miss incredibly awesome things because you choose to go to the Girl Talk show rather than go get funnel cakes with your friends. At Bonnaroo, you’ll have the privilege and curse of needing to take a rest during The Walkmen’s set in order to prepare for Deerhunter. At Bonnaroo, you stand, walk, dance, and jump until the soles of your feet hurt so much that you question your ability to get back to your tent; you approach the fine line between passing out and spending $10-20 on dinner; you breath in more dust than is healthy because it is more important to enjoy the music; you don’t shower even though your hair has started to look like a bad toupee from the mix of dirt and grease that’s collected in it. And most importantly, at Bonnaroo, you’ll be having fun while doing it, even though your body insists otherwise.