Words by John Bohannon
Segueing into Saturday after Friday’s festivities, I came to the slow realization that my body can’t quite handle these events like it used to. After a barrage of beat-driven acts on Friday, my goal on Saturday was to seek out a relaxing array of music throughout the day in preparation for the day’s headliner, Bruce Springsteen.
One of the most pleasant surprises came in the form of a press exclusive performance by Nonesuch newbies, The Low Anthem. Combining the droning element of a pump organ and the subtle nuance of atmospheric tones, the band hit a perfect chord, especially the vocals, which were absolutely phenomenal and as pure as can be. Their debut Oh My God, Charlie Darwin will be making it into my hands as soon as the festival is finished, and I suggest it makes it into yours as well.
Now, for the record, I have always had an avid hatred for the music of Jimmy Buffett. I’ve stayed as far away as possible from hotel resorts that might pipe out his tunes as I check in, and you’d never find me in one of his Margaritaville restaurants. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a giant smile on my face during his set with Ilo Ferreira and the Coral Reef All-Stars. There is something mighty charming about the man in person. Whether you like Buffet’s music or not, he knows how to make an audience feel good -- and one can do nothing but commend that.
Robyn Hitchcock is a legend in his own right, but his off-kilter brand of alternative pop didn’t fair well with the Bonnaroo audience. While most people were standing around during his set waiting for Bon Iver, it felt as if a good 30 people actually knew anything about Hitchcock and the Venus 3 (and a good 15 of those were there to see Peter Buck). Maybe that’s his fault for playing to a semi-alienated audience for the past 20 some-odd years, or maybe it’s the fact this is the first festival he had ever played (he claimed the last festival he had been to was the Isle of Wight to see Jimi Hendrix). Of course, the songs were great, but the show itself didn’t win him many new fans, which is usually an established artist’s reason for playing the modern festival circuit.
While I tried to tough it out through Bon Iver, it just wasn’t happening past a couple of songs. The heat had reached its peak and the way his album has been selling, I knew there would be an overwhelming attendance, so I got the hell out of here as soon as possible. It’s incredible watching just exactly how big Justin Vernon’s songs have become -- a true testament that great songwriting can be much more effective than even the artist themselves can sometimes gauge. Vernon handles himself well, staying completely humble and in debt to the songs that overtake him. Kudos, Vernon -- it couldn’t have happened to a better person.
After a much needed nap in the shade, I trotted through the campgrounds to catch Wilco. I really had no desire to see the band after what I deemed to be a disappointing album in Sky Blue Sky, but they were playing on the main stage right before Bruce Springsteen, and I had to secure a valid spot. Slowly but surely, though, Wilco’s set made me remember how much I actually love this band (and how much I love Nels Cline’s guitar playing). This was possibly the best set I’ve ever seen them play. Jeff Tweedy was playful and full of life -- dancing around the stage like a child and loving every second of it. Most times I’ve seen the band, Tweedy has been semi-standoffish, but something sparked a fire in him that put new life into the songs they’ve played thousands of times. They are all learning to feed off each other and working more as a band than they ever have before. They are one of the few bands of their status that keep growing internally, and it shows on stage, and hopefully on their new recordings.
The main reason I came to Bonnaroo this year was for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Hands down. Had they not been on the line-up, chances are I would have been sitting in my nice air-conditioned Nashville home sipping a cup of tea. But the boys trekked down from New Jersey for only their second festival appearance ever, and I figured I’d make the trek from Nashville. I was not disappointed. A lot of the folks at Bonnaroo had never experienced a Bruce gig before and the beauty of the Boss’ set was that he didn’t treat it any different than an arena gig. They came out and did what they do every night. He’s the only performer I’ve ever seen that can make an audience of thousands seem like an intimate club gig. The band did what they’ve been doing all tour long -- taking requests via posters from the audience. This night, they happened to grab a giant Santa poster that read, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” And while Bruce initially complained, “It’s too fucking hot for Santa!” he then proceeded to rip through the Christmas ditty in the middle of June. He was running down the aisle, grasping his fans, spending more time with them than he did on stage. He ripped through hits like “Thunder Road”, “Glory Days”, and “The River” like he had just written them last year. Bruce Springsteen is the perfect performer. Every artist out there can take a lesson or two from the Boss and the legendary E Street Band on how to treat an audience.
Check back for photos from Day 2