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Photos: Tom Bellos

Bonnaroo 2013

(15 Jun 2013: — Manchester, TN)

Bonnaroo, for all its challenges, is a remarkably well-organized festival. Over the four days, I saw virtually no technical glitches or any artist start more than five minutes late. The festival has also gotten fan friendlier (more shade areas, more free water, frequently-emptied trash/recycling/compost containers every few feet, a new Food Truck Oasis offering better and more varied culinary options), so while Bonnaroovians might wait in some lines to get into the festival, their access to water, food, beer, and portable toilets usually comes with no wait at all, even at the busiest times. Some things are harder to come by. Sleep, for example. With many of the top-line acts playing between midnight and 5am, and the sun turning everyone’s tents into Dutch ovens by 8am, Bonnaroo is the most sleep-deprived city on earth. Which is why you see casualties everywhere: all day and night, you’re forced to step over unconscious bodies, sacked out in the fields, in the less-crowded music tents, in the cinema venue, and, as it turns out, while attending a press conference backstage in the air-conditioned media tent.


On Saturday morning, fans were still recovering from Friday night’s three-hour McCartney show and a smorgasbord of high-energy late-night offerings. It’s a tall order to follow Sir Paul, but ZZ Top did what they could to keep the party going over in This Tent. It took some patience from the crowd, however, as the band slogged through a middle section of deeper cuts (“My Head’s in Mississippi”, “Pincushion”, the new “Chartreuse”), and although Billy Gibbons was setting off sparks from that low-slung Les Paul, a trio of girls behind me left after declaring that they just wanted to see the band’s beards. But Billy, Dusty, and Frank finished with a half-hour of relentless smashes (“Sharp Dressed Man”, “Legs”, “I Thank You”, “Tube Snake Boogie”, “La Grange”, and “Tush”), and the Eliminator tracks were played with almost-eerie reproductions of the studio recordings, scratching a major itch for the big, hard-charging crowd.


From there, fans could take part in the recently-added Hip Hop Superjam featuring Method Man, Ghostface Killah, RZA (who was clearly drunk), DJ Jazzy Jeff, Schoolboy Q, Chad Hugo from the Neptunes, Solange, and stagefull of others. It was a loose affair, to say the least, but a peak came with Solange’s magnetic performance of the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly”, and Method Man sealed the deal late in the set, showing up to declare, “Fuck Coachella!”, reprise the Wu classic “C.R.E.A.M.”, perform the How High track “Part II” alongside surprise guest Redman, and lead a cover of Cypress Hill’s “Hand on the Pump”.


Saturday’s lineup kicked off with Lord Huron in This Tent, playing rollicking versions of their best tunes from their 2012 album Lonesome Dreams, opening with “Ends of the Earth”, complete with some lonesome yodeling, and a handclappy “The Man Who Lives Forever”, a death-is-a-bummer song that seemed to fit with the sun worshippers and skirt-twirlers congregated for these L.A.-based indie-folkers. In fact, there were 60% fewer tattoos in the audience for this show compared to the rest of Bonnaroo, and despite (or because of?) their tendency toward a melodic similarity in their tunes, these songs went down easy for this resilient audience midway through the fest.


Solange Knowles played a short set of her laid-back, ‘80s-influenced R&B on the Which Stage. The singer—with waist-length braids and a midriff-baring sundress—seemed distracted by sound troubles during her opener, the appropriately titled “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work”. Things smoothed out from there, and Solange produced some vocal gymnastics, piping up at the top her considerable range, but most often ‘Lange proved to be a more understated singer and performer than her more-famous older sister although she did break into some Time-style dance choreography with her guitarists at one point. The highlight came with her stellar cover of “Stillness is the Move”, originally by the Dirty Projectors, who would play their own version a couple of hours later a few yards away.


Over in the Miller Lite Lounge, singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, who, with his long country-boy hair and beard, looks like the second coming of Waylon Jennings, debuted songs from his upcoming solo album. Long one of Nashville’s most respected songwriters and a singer of frightening power and range, Stapleton was familiar to many in the audience as the singer for bluegrass outfit the SteelDrivers. Here, he played his hook-filled, snakebitten hard-country tunes during a fatigue-erasing set. His solid band, including his wife on backing vocals, was impressive enough, but it was Stapleton’s Willie Nelson-meets-Otis-Redding voice that had people howling during soon-to-be-hits “Wildfire” and “What are You Listening To?”


In This Tent, The Tallest Man on Earth drew an immense crowd, only a quarter of who could actually lay eyes on the Swedish singer-songwriter. Only at Bonnaroo will you see thousands of people standing in full sun, listening attentively to songs played identically to their studio versions by an artist they can’t see. Furthermore, he stayed seated most of the time, making fans wish that Kristian Matsson was indeed the tallest man on earth, just so they could make visual contact. Thankfully, Matsson’s intricate finger-picking and muppet-of-a-man voice carried the set, zipping through 16 songs, seizing the crowd from the start with “King of Spain” and cresting with eloquent takes on “1904” and “Criminals” from last year’s There’s No Leaving Now. The set ended with “The Wild Hunt”, which bled into a lovely Tennessee-tickling cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”.



On the main stage, Nas strolled out in his Yankees cap, gray t-shirt, and pink swim trunks, bolstered by a DJ, MPC machinist, and a four-piece band. The musicians gave the veteran rapper a full sound, as they barnstormed through dozens of Nas snippets, including an early block of Illmatic faves “N.Y. Stage of Mind”, “Represent”, and “Life’s a Bitch”, which Nas performed while standing in front a giant sign that read “Life Is Good”. The vast crowd was energized and thriving under sunny skies, rather than wilting as in more humid Bonnaroos past, and the most hands in the air came during “If I Ruled the World”, a communal moment during a set that was a bit too short of those, given the uneven pace of songs that kept the show from truly taking off.


Lovable folk-rock ensemble Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors drew a respectable crowd given an insanely competitive afternoon, as they were up against Matt & Kim, Dirty Projectors, Cat Power, and Nas. But those who attended were treated to a polished set of Drew’s affable love songs, while his wife, Ellie, sings harmonies and stares at him admiringly. The band also played tribute to Sunday night’s headliner by bringing out a twofer of Tom Petty tunes—“A Woman in Love” and “American Girl”. Finally, a sweat-soaked Holcombe finished with “Fire and Dynamite”, the exuberant new single, capping a set that made the most of their Bonnaroo moment.


Dwight Yoakam was this year’s country legend, the kind that reaches the point where he’s introduced to the stage by his drummer. Dwight typically plays for audiences who expect a certain amount of showbiz cheese, which Yoakam brought in the form of a backing band that that was dressed like he found them in a gay bar in Vegas. Someone should have told Yoak that he could leave the Branson shtick out for this particular show, as this audience would’ve preferred they keep it lean and mean. However, Dwight still delivered the fine singing, honky-tonk ankle-taxing stage moves, and tight jeans the audience came for, and it was a cool setlist—hitting ringers like “Little Sister” and “Streets of Bakersfield” early and playing tracks from last year’s 3 Pears, including the set-opening “Take Hold of My Hand” and the whimsical giraffe-fetish tune “Waterfall”. At one point, Dwight joked that he intended to play longer than McCartney had the night before, and his enthusiastic audience hoped he was serious.


As the sun started to set, Bjork delivered the weekend’s most enchanting performance, appearing in a spiky white dandelion space helmet and a lumpy alien-fetus dress, backed by a keyboardist, laptop-erator, and a fourteen-girl choir dressed in lamé muumuus. Most of Bjork’s shows from this year’s Biophilia tour has been comprised of the blippy, abstruse songs from that record, but for this festival crowd, she debuted not only her new look but also worked in more older material, including a beautifully sung “Jóga” and a soaring reading of “Hyperballad”. With her choir moving in expressive formations behind her, Bjork was in brilliant voice, dedicating the middle of the set to the quiet Eastern-influenced songs from Vespertine and Biophilia but later transitioning to electro-dance mode, the female choir thrash-dancing all over the stage, on a throbbing “Pluto” and a set-closing “Náttúra” that featured columns of fire rising in front of the stage. Bjork didn’t approve video screens for this set—troubling, considering the distance that many people were from the stage—but those who had a good view were treated to one of the most musically inventive and visually stunning experiences of this year’s festival.


The Lumineers, wearing hobo-chic derbies and suspenders, wasted no time swinging for the fences during their evening set on the Which Stage, launching into their smash hit “Ho Hey” only the fourth song in. With their mostly unopposed timeslot and with the fact that Mumford & Sons had canceled tonight’s headlining spot, the Lumineers became this year’s gargantuan neo-folk event. And the Colorado band stepped up to the challenge, playing nearly the entirety of their best-selling debut and throwing in a nifty cover of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. The acoustic-based music couldn’t carry to the back of the masses, so the ‘Neers did the only logical thing by taking the show out into the crowd where they performed unreleased songs “Darlene” and “Eloise” from a tiny platform in the middle of the great unwashed.


Festival organizers did their best to propagate a Jack Johnson-Saves-the-Day spin after the Mumford cancellation. Many in the crowd didn’t buy it, as they had been holding out hope that the festival would pony up the dough for a legitimate replacement headliner, and rumors about Paul Simon, Prince, and Kings of Leon were already spreading before Jack Johnson was named as the official replacement. Despite rampant disappointment, a chill-pill Jack Johnson set provided the opportunity for a down-tempo respite before the epic party to come with Saturday’s late-night shows. Johnson played his middling, whispery songs about bubble toes and banana pancakes, and predictions that half the crowd would skip his set turned out to be wrong, as the great lawn was mostly full. A couple of sweet moments came when Johnson surprised the crowd with a loping cover of Mumford’s “The Cave” (played so that fans would get to shout along to that song on Saturday night after all) and a song Johnson wrote just hours earlier about his being asked to replace Mumford.


The only other musical option during Jack Johnson was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, playing over in This Tent, the beginning of a joyful late night celebration. The New Orleans greats had the crowd in a lather on jump tunes “Bourbon Street Parade” and “Liza Jane”, but reached a fever pitch when Jim James showed up to sing a glorious take on “St. James Infirmary”, pulling out every vocal trick in his bag as the men in suits blasted behind him. After their set, the PHJB lined up at the front of the stage and beamed at the capacity crowd that was exploding with energy and adulation.


As the speakers announced “The show will begin in R-minus five minutes!” the oversized crowd at the Which Stage waiting for R. Kelly bristled with excitement for a full-blown R&B show as if they hadn’t already watched 12 hours of music that day. Finally, the thudding beat of “Ignition (Remix)” kicked in and R. Kelly appeared floating twenty feet above the Which Stage’s rotating question mark logo. Turns out Kelly was standing in a cherry picker, which then had to be lowered, nice and slowly, back to earth before the singer could reappear, a momentum-killing pause after a thrilling opening. Once the show resumed, complete with a marching red-robed choir, Kelly tore through a medley of his bumpiest, grindiest songs, and if anyone showed up with irony in mind, they probably stayed for the baby-oil-slick getdown bash, one of the biggest of the weekend.


But difficult decisions had to be made, and Billy Idol was about to hit the stage in This Tent, and while the ‘90s kids were at R.Kelly, Gen X was at Billy Idol. Speaking of Generation X, Idol opened with his first band’s “Ready Steady Go”, backed by the squealing guitar of Steve Stevens, who was in full shag-haired glam-stud mode, setting a blowtorch to the audience during “Dancing with Myself” and “Pumping Out Steel”. Later, Stevens’ roasting-hot solo interlude on an acoustic guitar was pure ‘80s-style metal-god glory. As for Idol, it was as though the last 25 years never happened; he’s still spiky of hair, curly of lip, pumpy of fist, and chiseled of chest, which he made sure everyone noticed—he was shirtless for 80% of the set. The last half of the show was a thrill a minute: his cover of the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” became “Bonnaroo Woman”, a chugging “Blue Highway” resurrected a lost gem, and the final hat trick of “Rebel Yell”, “White Wedding”, and “Mony Mony” ended a nostalgic, jubilant show just shy of 2am.


Meanwhile, “Weird Al” Yankovic was staging his show, which featured various set-pieces interspersed with pretaped videos that allowed Al to change costumes. I caught the middle section of the show, a medley that started with the “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” rip, with Al playing a keytar in Mark Knopfler’s headband, and ran through the B.o.B. parody “Another Tattoo” (with Al flexing a pretty impressive vocal range), the Huey Lewis-jacking “I Want a New Duck” (forgot about that one, did you?), and the food-centric block of “My Bologna”, “Lasagna”, and “Eat It”, for which he donned his old MJ jacket.
 
From there, the second of the weekend’s three Superjams was well underway, this one billed as the Rock n’ Soul Dance Party Superjam, and with the sweat-bucket boogying, flag waving, ball bouncing, glowstick tossing, the party dial in the crowd was set to last-night-on-earth. And what a soundtrack. With Jim James, John Oates, Lee Fields, the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Sly Stone’s bass legend Larry Graham all onboard, the two-hour-plus session was an only-in-Bonnaroo collaboration bash for the ages. I arrived in time to see Graham, in his trademark white suit, lead the band through a run of Sly classics, finishing with “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, followed by a surprise appearance by R. Kelly, who sang skillful, poignant versions of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Bring It Home to Me”. Next, Billy Idol, just minutes after wrapping his own set, arrived to belt out “Bang a Gong (Get It On)”, and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes (and who knew she was even on the farm) sang an Otis-influenced “Satisfaction”. A filthy-funky “I Want to Take You Higher” with everyone on stage, capped a set that will likely raise the bar for Roo Superjams for years to come. Other acts were staged even later, after 3am—DJ Boys Noize, post-new wave costume rockers Empire of the Sun, Zeppelin deconstructionists Bustle in Your Hedgerow—but exhaustion and muscle failure finally prevailed. After all, Sunday is another full Bonnaroo day, and the sun will be up in three hours.

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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