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Photos: Tom Bellos

Bonnaroo 2013

(14 Jun 2013: — Manchester, TN)

Friday is Bonnaroo in full swing. Eight stages pump out simultaneous around-the-clock music, first-tier comedians (Daniel Tosh, Bob Saget, David Cross) perform in the Comedy Tent, film events (the 30th anniversary of National Lampoon’s Vacation! Polyphonic Spree plays the Rocky Horror soundtrack!) screen 24 hours a day in the Cinema Tent, hundreds take part in restorative yoga or the 5K Roo Run, graffiti artists tag miles of fences around the property, beer lovers belly up at the vast craft beer tent, couples wait their turn at the giant Roo ferris wheel, and any number of other ways to get your thrills and spills at the biggest party on the planet.


The variety of music to absorb on Friday posed formidable challenges, and navigating from one stage to the next all day is a good way to lay waste to your body, which happens to be one of Bonnaroo’s most-popular pastimes. Thankfully, Friday offered a few (relatively) chilled-out music opportunities, as the big stages helped alleviate some of the crowds in the tents. As a result, This Tent, designated as a world-music venue on Friday, gave the crowd a chance to bask in the wiry grooves and dusty guitar tone of Bombino, the Tuareg singer/slinger and his band, decked out in colorful robes and heavy scarves, who were clearly taken aback by the uproarious love from the crowd. Bombino’s Stratocaster sliced through the morning sun via his Mark Knopfler-style thumb-tough fingerpicking, including a sizzling “Amidinine” from this year’s breakthrough record Nomad.


Over on the Which Stage, Bonnaroo’s second-largest, Jason Isbell fronted a six-piece, fiddle-abetted band, debuting a handful of new songs while rewarding the crowd with fan favorites like “Alabama Pines” and smoldering versions of Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers tunes “Decoration Day” and “Outfit”. With a razor-edged twin-guitar crackle, Isbell finished with “Never Gonna Change” and “Super 8”, before telling the crowd to “be careful but not too careful”, sage advice for a crowd encouraged by Isbell’s terrific set and sunny, pleasant weather to create brisk business at the beer tent.


In The Other Tent, British synthpop sizzler Charli XCX was busy making a splash. “How many of you are taking drugs this weekend!?” she asked the crowd. Subtle she’s not. But such banter was typical of a firecracker set, as she spun and whipped in a Catholic-girl skirt, camo croptop, and black platform shoes. Backed by only a drummer and a skater-boi keyboardist, Charli officially kicked the party into high gear with her Icona Pop hit “I Love It”, unleashing inflated balls into the crowd and triggering an insanity workout in the tent. She closed with “Grins”, combining all of the pop strumpet libido and punky agro-pop heart she could muster, with was plenty.


Back in the world tent, Fatouma Diawara took the stage looking stunning in a red-and-yellow headrap, seashell-adorned hair, and resplendent dress. The Ivory Coast singer and guitarist forged a gorgeous sound with her four-piece band, continuously smiling as they created regal tapestries of percolating guitar and burbling bass lines. Vocally, Diawara toggled between her lithe upper register and some alien ululations over the course of one of the day’s loveliest (albeit lightly attended) sets.


On the Which Stage, Of Monsters and Men played to an ocean of neo-folk dreamers, half of whom could barely hear the band, but who blissed out under expansive blue skies anyway. Getting to most of their smash debut, the Icelandic band’s buoyant runs through “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound” were the jackpot the crowd was waiting to hoist their cups to, although those looking for a more intimate setting opted for the Glen Hansard tent across the field. Hansard, the Toast of Broadway these days, eschewed his ragged busker mode this time in favor of a large band complete with strings and horns. They made a joyful noise on a cross section of The Best of Glen: his new solo record (“Bird of Sorrow”), the Frames (“Fitzcaralldo”), and the Swell Season (“Low Rising”). But every Hansard set comes with emotional covers, this time Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, played solo acoustic with machine-gun-fire strumming, and a showstopping version of “Don’t Do It”, their cover of the Band’s cover of the Marvin Gaye classic. They closed with the traditional Irish singalong “The Auld Triangle”, allowing the crowd to participate in the singer’s vein-bursting passion.



Back in the world tent, blind Malian duo Amadou & Miriam kept that particular dance party going, as Amadou leaned into a golden Telecaster, matching the couple’s gold lamé robes. In their usual tight formation, the couple harmonized on songs about Africa over slinky, richocheting guitar and percussion. Amadou is a nimble guitarist, and his watery runs alongside two percussionists uncorked an organic pastiche for the folks who chose the world-hopping That Tent over the supersized indie-pop of Passion Pit over on the main stage.


Once Foals took the stage in early evening, fleshing out songs from their new album Holy Fire, the band proved why they’ve burned up the charts in their native England. “Milk & Black Spiders” and the single “My Number”, both played early, updated New Romantic grandeur with art-school ooze, but it was “Spanish Sahara”, with its sensuous pulse that drew the crowd close before the band busted loose with cavernous tonal colors and spiky synth-and-guitar grandeur.


Wilco had both the honor and challenge of playing the What Stage as thousands were trying to secure real estate for the Paul McCartney show to follow. Opening with a three-pack of some of their skronkier numbers—“Poor Places”, “Art of Almost”, “I Might”—Tweedy’s setlist didn’t quite connect with the tens of thousands of the apparently uninitiated on hand. As if to prove that indie-rock royalty need not win the crowd over early and experiment later, Wilco, in time-honored Wilco fashion, took the opposite approach, letting the early songs fall apart into crap-noise mess-and-strew. The band eventually got to more festival-nuzzling fare, like “California Stars”, backed by members of Calexico on horns, and the band turned Nels Cline loose on “Impossible Germany”, always a treat. A final run featuring many of the band’s best-loved songs (“Jesus, Etc.”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, “Shot in the Arm”) finally established some late momentum during what was otherwise a generally sleepy set.


No one was going to miss McCartney, but Wu-Tang Clan attracted a massive crowd on the other side of the festival, taking everyone back to 1993 by playing almost the entirety of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers over half of their ruckus-bringing 90-minute set. It was a crowd that was intimate with these tracks, and the Killa Bees gave them lots of opportunity to participate on “Shame on a Nigga” and “Clan in Da Front” as the ten MCs on stage bobbed and weaved in a relentlessly menacing and uproariously fun show. It took a while for the audience to get their bearings—identifying Ghostface in yellow, RZA in the denim vest, Raekwon in the sequined cap—but eventually Ghostface and, especially, Method Man took over. Method, for his part, was a man possessed, the group’s best live verbalist and most charismatic performer—his grizzled solo turns on his eponymous song and solo hit “Da Rockwilder” were thrilling moments. No ODB hologram surfaced, as had been rumored, but the collective led altered-state sing-alongs on Dirt’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and “Brooklyn Zoo” while the audience threw Ws in the air and finished off whatever they had loaded in their CamelBaks.


When Paul McCartney shed his jacket after a smashing opening of “Eight Days a Week”, “Junior’s Farm”, and “All My Loving”, he announced, “That was the one and only costume change.” It was as if to declare his intention to bring it straight to the 100,000 crammed onto the vast lawn, which he did over nearly three hours and 38 songs. It was, risking superlative overkill, a breathtaking set, given the perfect weather, the scope of the party, and the fact that Paul, at age 70, looked and sounded terrific. Flanked by mile-high video screens, Sir Paul led his iron-horse four-piece band on a set overflowing with more Beatles and solo hits than the crowd could keep up with, and those W’s in the air that stood for Wu-Tang an hour before, now stood for “Wings”. Selections from that era—“Listen to What the Man Said”, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five”, “Mrs. Vanderbilt”—helped many in the crowd get back although with most of the audience under 30, those songs were also a break from the crowd screaming along on the Beatles tunes.


It was a welcome sequence when Paul played material that the crowd was less familiar with (“My Valentine,” dedicated to his wife, “Here Today”, described as “a conversation with John that I didn’t have”), a moment of active listening opposed to the euphoric sing-alongs that otherwise defined the night. The other curveballs came with a stray cover—a snippet of “Purple Haze” (complete with a story about hanging out with Hendrix and Clapton) and “The Midnight Special”, plus meticulously reproduced tunes that Paul had never played live before this tour, including “Lovely Rita” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. The pyro was quintupled for the titanic stage, so that during “Live and Let Die”, it was unclear if the band would survive the onslaught of fire and bombs on and above the stage. Paul took a moment to soak up the crowd, to read some of the hundreds of signs in the audience, and even after three hours of heart-swelling, grown-men-crying musical euphoria and an encore that included “Yesterday” and a brass-knuckled “Helter Skelter”, the audience was still trying to burn the image of McCartney into their brains as the legend waved goodbye a final time.

Steve Leftridge has written about music, film, and books for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, No Depression, and PlaybackSTL. He holds an MA in literature from the University of Missouri, for whom he is an adjunct teacher, and he's been teaching high school English and film in St. Louis since 1998. Follow at SteveLeftridge@Twitter.com.


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