The 100,000 people who fought their way into central Tennessee on Thursday for Bonnaroo were met with mild weather, by Bonnaroo’s historical standards, and a stellar, relentlessly-paced Thursday lineup. Typically a warm-up bonus day before the headliners kick in on Friday, this Thursday was full-bore Bonnaroo mayhem, with bigger-than-ever crowds doubling the capacity of the tents, where buzz acts like Django Django, Purity Ring, and Alt-J played hour-long sets. Even as word spread that Mumford & Sons, Saturday night’s headliner, would not be performing (due to bassist Ted Dwane’s emergency surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain), the crowd’s mood couldn’t be diminished.
Things got underway with Johnnyswim, the handsome hubby-wife combo, who sparked the early New Music Lounge with their brand of harmony-soul. This duo is easy on the ears and the eyes (Psst: Amanda Sudano is Donna Summer’s daughter!), and the group played easy-soul highlights from their upcoming LP alongside Motown covers.
Nicki Bluhm got the tents going, playing a spirited set in That Tent, backed by her slick-picking band, the Gramblers. It was all ‘70s-country throwback fun, as the band takes its fashion clues from trucker-craze-era icons—Nicki in her Tammy Wynette jeans and belt-buckle, her husband Tim, a Jerry-Reed skinny rambler with a nice-guy beard. Highlights included the slow soulburner “Jet Plane”, allowing Nicki to flirt sinuously with the crowd, many of whom were caught in a brief but hard rain shower during the set. Known for their gone-viral covers (recorded while cruising down the highway in a van), the band showcased that musical versatility on a series of sweet country-lovin’ and a sunburnt cover of “You’re No Good”.
Andrew Duhon played a set of tunes from his excellent new album, The Moorings in front of a lounging café crowd. Duhon was backed by pedal steel and upright bass, flexing his country bonafides, but it was the fingerpicked, Ryan Adams-esque songwriting that impressed the blissed-out audience, many of whom took in Duhon’s set from supine positions. Others swayed to Duhon’s harmonica and beardy intonation on highlights like “Gonna Take a Little Rain” and “Just Another Beautiful Girl”.
It was during Milo Greene’s midday set that the crowd grew noticeable huger and more intoxicated, both by Milo Greene’s swirly, harmony-laden set and by the liberal ingestion, day-one excitement, and 80-something temperatures. The LA-band made their Bonnaroo debut with “Take a Step”, as the crowd swelled so large, it was indistinguishable from the food lines. Milo produced a thick wash of acoustic strumming, breathy vocals, Telecasters selectivity, and generous cymbal-and-purple-light ambience, with the band throwing out Edge-style chiming 16th-notes, bringing the crowd to rock-bliss convulsions. Marlana Sheets captured much of the attention with her erogenous vocals and spidery bass playing, and the band previewed one of Friday’s acts by playing a rubbery version of Wilco’s “Shot in the Arm”.
Southern country-rock hairballs, the Futurebirds, combined sweaty badassitude, slacker aesthetics, and irreverent Robin Zander moves. It was triple-guitar turmoil, as the band’s three frontdudes stomped and slobbered like Neil Young’s ornery nephews. Southern, man! The band’s songs were hit and miss, although they connected with “MJB”, bringing the ruckus, clearly knowing that an hour on stage at Bonnaroo is no time to waste.
Back over on That Stage, JD McPherson led his quintet through his killer originals from Signs and Signifiers, (“Country Gal”, “Firebug”) and rockabilly classics (a slow saunter through “Mona”). McPherson’s dedication to ’53-era rock is heartwarming, full of go-cat-go saxophone, although the band was refreshingly shtick-free, opting instead for a workmanlike set, with McPherson handling all of the grease-monkey guitar himself, veering into jam territory a time or two with tension-and-release boogie amid all the Eisenhower-era rock-and-roll idioms.
The afternoon hit a fever pitch during Araabmuzik, the pint-sized MPC drum-machine wunderkind, who had the crowd going positively bonkers for an unyielding hour of on-the-spot beat-making. The EMD explosion is obvious among the crowd this year, as the trend has altered fashion, dancing, and imbibition—all on full display during the recently-shot Araabmuzik. In a gray hoodie (despite the heat), the producer, the Raphael of the Wrists, distinguished himself from the weekend’s several DJs, by drilling that MPC with superhuman speed and technical dexterity, giving the crowd the chance for both trend-jacking crowd surfing and to marvel at what this guy is doing with his hands.
The day’s strangest set came predictably from indie-rock weirdo, Ariel Pink, who showed up looking like Kurt Cobain had he been committed to a women’s prison. Pink tweaked synth-samples by fiddling with the cords on the back of a stereo receiver while howling his cracked pop-art into a handheld mike. Backed by a band of anomalous miscreants, the set was feedback-plagued early, but settled into a sort of coherent beauty, especially “Only in My Dreams”, although the crowd had trouble connecting.
HAIM took That Tent by storm, the three sisters bringing set-of-their-lives enthusiasm on their fever-pop originals (“Falling”, “Go Slow”) and covers like the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac cover, “Oh Well”. Singer/guitarist Danielle Haim is a hellcat, a feral singer and menacing axe-slinger, and such gusto ate away some of the pop perfection of their studio work. Didn’t matter—the band was a hit, whether by playing an extended sister-verses-sister drum-off or by bringing a one-year-old on stage, who sported large yellow headphones, to serenade him and tell him they wanted to be his mommy. It was clear by “Save Me” that this band has the driving rock, pop hooks, vocal interplay, and stage charisma to break big.
As thousands continued to stream into Centeroo, the 9pm set by British electro-rock band Django Django attracted 30,000 people and played shimmering tracks form their self-titled debut, all which bled together in a continuous stream of trippy, dance-y art rock, a light show spreading wide over the bobbing audience. Across the way, Purity Ring was just as packed, the crowd surging forward to bask in the otherworldly singing of Megan James—in a Twiggy Sanders wig and Ms. Havisham wedding dress—and the lung-collapsing bass waves coming from Corin Roddick’s light-bulb percussion contraption. The crowd danced to what at times seemed undanceable witch-house trance art, another sign of the times, as the crowd responded to each song with damn-near-scary rapture.
Japandroids hit This Stage with the death-defying energy for which they’re known, but couldn’t produce the guitar or vocal force to do justice to their best songs although they played them all, including “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “The House That Heaven Built”. Despite underwhelming sonics, the crowd honored the singer/guitarist Brian King’s request to get rowdy, creating waves shove-love back and forth throughout the tent.
Father John Misty
One of the evening’s most-anticipated sets came from Father John Misty, who ushered in the late-night acts with his hammy thespian singing. Backed by a crack band, Misty performed a set mostly of tunes from Fear Fun in front of a big crowd that knew all the words. Lacquered in reverb, Misty held forth with poised vocal command, androgynous stage moves, and his trademark banter—deliberately mispronouncing “Bonnaroo” and reminding the crowd that they will be asked how the feel once an hour for the next four days.
The night’s most massive crowd proved nearly impossible to navigate through. It was for alt-j, the British indie band fronted by Joe Newman and his gibberish-heavy hits. Starting with “Tessellate”, the quartet hit early its eclectic waves of skittery beats and dream-wave guitar-and-synth shiver. Most of the crowd couldn’t take their eyes of Newman, but drummer Thom Green truly anchored the show, putting his head down and ticky-tacking that cymbal-less drum kit on songs like “Fitzpleasure” and, especially, “Breezeblocks”, which drew the biggest of the day’s crowd responses.
After midnight, Allen Stone held an old-school soul party on That Tent, as the crowd finally started to filter down a bit. Stone was a vocal typhoon, however, hitting ionospheric falsetto notes and getting the audience on the good foot on sing-alongs like “Say So” from his self-titled LP in front of a backdrop of his name in giant letters. At one point, Stone offered a sermon on the dangers of social media, urging the audience to put their phones away during his set in favor of a genuine in-the-moment experience. Hundreds tweeted and Instagrammed their agreement.
Over the The Other Tent, Killer Mike played until after 1am, continually declaring what a good time he was having, clearly shared by his audience. Mike rapped so hard his voice at times strained to keep up, but it was a pile-driving set, marked by the big man’s congenial rapport with the audience—teasing the hearing-impaired translators by making them sign a torrent of profanity and asking everyone to share Mike’s views on Ronald Reagan, before tearing into “Reagan”, his blistering takedown of the Gipper.
As the Vaccines banged onto This Tent well after 1am with a fast pace of their Fonzie rock, they yelled, “Good morning, Bonnaroo!” I took it as my sign to make the 20-minute walk back to my tent. Amazingly, many revelers were just then heading into the festivities. So it goes at Bonnaroo, a city that never sleeps, and it was only the preview day of a massive weekend in Tennessee.