Wahoo Bonnaroo!

By Charles Gray and Morgan Swank

Going to Bonnaroo is kind of like being at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. If everything around you is delicious, how the hell do you choose to what to eat your fill of?

Although it’s probably the best first world problem you could have, Bonnaroo was a long weekend full of difficult decisions of which fantastic act to catch over the other. Luckily, Thursday started things lax as the day went over without the aid of its biggest stage. With plenty of smaller groups filling out This Tent or That Tent (literally), opening day was packed end to end with a wide range of music starting with Bonnaroo’s first act, The Dirty Guv’nahs.

Somewhat folky and kind of poppy, the Dirty Guv’nahs are an outfit whose sound fits snugly in all the right places and hangs loose exactly where it’s needed. Throughout the set, they pushed their southern comfort song style and huge stage presence with many cuts off their newest effort Underneath these Southern Skies.  The Guv’s went through a fast-paced hour in front of a large crowd who swayed to their tunes and sang along as the Guv’s closed with an energizing “Hey Jude” that left behind a sense of optimism for the long weekend ahead.

We’d fallen in love with Rubble Bucket from the weekend before at Wakarusa, so the Solar Stage was my next destination. What to like about the Bucket-o-Rubble is their abstract concepts made relatable through a simple, playful nature. Their songs might have weird time signatures or strange vocal melodies, but they’re so easy to digest and sing along to. Rubble Bucket bring amazing energy, charisma, and excitement to the space every time they grace the stage. All their music is fun and engrossing with memorable choruses to catch you and weird enough where it counts to keep you coming back. Do yourself a solid and check out “I came from a Lady” (or even better, the 8-bit remix by Fun Secret).

After seeing a growing favorite, and setting up camp, the first night of the festival brought with it some of our favorite examples that deserve awards marked “deserves better than this.” White Denim is an alt/pop act out of Austin, Texas that sets that standard. In a similar fashion to Rubble Bucket, White Denim’s sound tends to be overtly catchy with occasional bouts of strange quirkiness. White Denim’s sound is a bold stroke of dark color fueled by youthful energy and ignorance of fear. “River to Consider” and “Drug” went over especially well, but the whole show was amazing and definitely one of the biggest highlights from the weekend.

Phantogram immediately followed with smooth as silk vox work from Sarah Barthel and super classy beats from her producer partner Josh Cooper. Their sound sits in the middle of indie idealism, with the deep bass of 21st century dance music juxtaposed with densely emotional chord progressions and melancholic lyricism of love, loss, and loss of love. “As Far As I Can See” went over most well, but I guess that’s what singles are for.

Across the too-many-people theme park that is Centeroo, Big Gigantic was using its sound and light show to personify their name. Purveyors of partying, dancing, and crazy light displays, the EDM artists were showing how to drop a beat AND play an instrument at the same time. (I know waving your arms in the air looks cool, Skrillex, but it doesn’t actually do anything towards the music you are performing.)

Friday began in the middle of the hot hot heat of the afternoon with hear the loopy lullabies Tune-Yards throws down.  Merrill Garbus began her set with a quick tip, for us to “Imagine you’re in Hawaii at 10 o’clock at night.” With the breeze blowing and the bright sun getting us squinting anyways, closing our eyes and thinking of ocean breezes while listening to “Bizzness” wasn’t a half-bad idea. She played Whokill tracks almost exclusively (which was lame because we really wanted to hear “Fiya”), with the exception of the 2009 single “Real Live Flesh.” She closed with her most recent single “My Country” which was her bass-heaviest and hardest-hitting song, giving her a great finale.

We’d gotten the word that Judah Friedlander was hanging around promoting his “World Champion” status at the Comedy tent and had to go check out what the man had to say for himself. As it turns out, Judah is pretty iconically the eccentric Frank he plays on 30 Rock and was hanging around a Comedy Central camera crew inviting everyone to a “sex party” while talking about his awesome karate skills. Sounds about right. We only agreed to make an appearance if Liz Lemon showed up to said party, because you know what they say, “Ain’t no party like a Liz Lemon party ’cause a Liz Lemon party is mandatory!” His comedy set was equally as funny as he spoke more about his karate skills (that we still have yet to witness) and his political platform for when he runs for president. Hint: more sex parties. You can catch his set on June 23rd on Comedy Central. Look for us bobbing our heads in the background.

After Judah, we ran over to catch the set of the sporadic 20-somethings that comprise Oberhofer. If you haven’t checked out these guys, you need to. Brad Oberhofer, the lead vocals and guitar for the ensemble, shreds so hard while still being able to pull your heartstrings with haunting “ohhs” and “ahhs.” He ended the set with one of our personal favorite songs, “Landline.” We then made our way across the street to catch the last fifteen minutes of Ludacris’s set, but the air was so clouded with smoke that it was impossible to see anything within a mile of the stage. Luckily we could still hear through the thick puffs long enough for Luda to cover some classics like “Fantasy” and “Number One Spot.”

All weekend long, performances/interviews were held at the Rock the Earth Solar Stage, and we just made it in time to check out The Infamous Stringdusters. The Infamous Stringdusters are a bluegrass band from up north who play comforting americana with an unexpected modern flair. Something refreshing about bluegrass groups after Bonnarooing it up and hearing different forms of pop all day is their indulgence in music theory.  The Infamous Stringdusters easily lay claim to super dead-on musicianship and a passion for playing a stage (even if it was smaller) that larger bands seen throughout the weekend seemed to take for granted.

We then found ourselves sitting hammock-side on the side of the What Stage to listen to The Avett Brothers wail some tunes. Towards the end, they started the opening to “I and Love and You” to an extremely moved and grateful crowd. It was such a beautiful moment, we shared a tear… or ten. Before the end of their set, there was a distraction as Rolling Stone decided using the hammocks in a photo shoot for Dawes would be a good idea. Check us out… somewhere… on the internet. Look ma, I’m famous!

Though the night was young, there were also 70,000+ people in attendance, and like hell were we going to be in the back of the crowd to watch Thom Yorke Muppet dance around Bonnaroo’s main stage.  We got to the field of the What Stage as spanish guitar virtuoso duo Rodrigo y Gabriela were furiously clawing at their six-strings with the help of backing band C.U.B.A. The thing about Rodrigo y Gabriela, is that we (and we assume much of the crowd) are completely ignorant of any of their songs, and much more familiar with their reputation for being incredibly talented musicians that know traditional spanish stylings like we know the map of the original Metroid.

So yeah, Rodrigo y Gabriela was an unexpected blast of fun in the middle of a very busy day… Where were we? Oh yeah, RADIOHEAD! Talking to anyone on Thursday or Friday made it very apparent that although some might want to see The Kooks or check out Santigold, if you paid $250 to see one thing, you put your goddamn money down to see Radiohead. Spoiler alert for all those who didn’t attend: It was well worth it. Fresh off of releasing their 8th studio (sounds more like a basement work, honestly) album King Of Limbs, the band that heads the alternative radio front booked the biggest stage, and they only had to play for 2 hours. Estimates of the crowd in attendance were something like 60-70% of everyone on the Bonnaroo grounds, or 60-70,000 people in total.

The love easily got going early on as the great majority of the crowd was able to sing along to opening lines of “Bloom” as Radiohead pried open their set. King Of Limbs did get the most love of the evening, immediately followed by tracks from In Rainbows. Having said that, the set extended back in time to 1997’s Ok Computer and hit every album since. (Sorry, fans of The Bends and Pablo Honey… Are there still fans of Pablo Honey?) Chocked full of old favorites, the set exhibited some new tracks, too (“Super Collider,” “Staircase”).

“Everything in it’s Right Place,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “Nude,” and “Lotus Flower” were all accounted for, with a half gajillion on stage light sources illuminating 2 gajillion people in the audience. With the inclusion of “Kid A” (our personal favorite) and closing with “Paranoid Android,” the show was twenty-five songs straight of immense baddassery… and the weekend was only half over.

Although getting your faced rocked off would be the best reason to call it a night on any other occasion… FLYING LOTUS was going to play the late late show. There’s no way in hell we’d miss that. Luckily, FlyLo was to close the tent that rap legends Black Star (Talib Kwali + Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def) were making shake. They went through tons of Black Star, Mos Def, and Kwali material (“Get By” was off. the. chain). Black Star’s show was great, but they went over time by half an hour, cutting into Flying Lotus’s set.  Although that was super lame, FlyLo still had plenty of room to throw out all sorts of material.  The living legend dropped trap, ’90s hip hop, Low-End Theory material, and even Jackson 5. He also went through a handful of his own sauce with from Cosmogramma and Los Angeles.  He ended in the early hours of the morning, giving us enough time to get to bed as the sun was rising.

Saturday’s adventures started in the sweltering Tennessee heat in the mid-afternoon for Das Racist’s set. They brought as much energy as they could, but we couldn’t help but be distracted by the hoola-hoop dance battle in front of us. If you’ve ever witnessed a duo of scantily dressed girls crumping with hoola-hoops you can imagine how unfocused we were on the stage. Next was a private, acoustic set by the Punch Brothers in the press tent, which was a real treat to behold. Covering favorites like “Rye Whiskey” the faux bros kept us stomping our feet and slapping our thighs in joy. (Also, we were just happy to be in an air-conditioned tent, but that’s a whole other story.)

Across Centeroo, in true festival danzition fashion, modern prog rock followed left-of-center rap, as Battles followed Das Racist.  Battles’ sound more or less defines present day math rock. They’re guitar work is highly technical and dependent on accuracy. This makes an amazing show when they pull off their tracks live so effortlessly. “Atlas,” “Ice Cream,” and “Inchworm” were featured and amazing.

SBTRKT came up next. We were looking forward to seeing SBTRKT anyways, but holy shit—their set of live english EDM was some of the most fun we had all weekend. What was so impressive about SBTRKT’s performance was exactly that—something performed. Any DJ set can be fun, but it’s much more of a duet with the music involved instead of choreographing how the music itself dances. SBTRKT played live with crystal clear and precise vocal work, polyrhythmic drumming, and various samples, synth textures, and tones.

Saturday was great because This Tent more or less noticed that we had been on our feet all weekend and gave us a string of acts that we loved. The culmination of the afternoon came after SBTRKT finished and Mogwai took over. We’ve long been in love with the Scottish post-alternative crescendo-based slow-motion rock band and were very much looking forward to the live set. Although they’ve released half a dozen albums since the ’90s, we were happy that their set extended back twenty years, including work from Come On Die Young and Rock Action.  We lived vicariously through our high school selves and had at least three eargasms.

In preparation for getting a good spot for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the end of the night we sat on a table-cloth three hours early to catch Santigold and The Roots, who both played on the What Stage. Santigold’s set started out slow and sad but picked up when she invited about fifty people on to the stage to have a five minute dance-along to the rest of her set. That got us dancing for the remaining thirty minutes and got us pretty pumped for what was to come.

Ok, We’re just going to say this now: HOLY SHIT THE ROOTS. Easily one of our favorite shows of the entire festival. They played a non-stop set of funkadelic tunes and covers like “Apache.” They teased us on and off for an hour as they kept exiting the stage and coming back for more applause. Eventually they said that if the audience waited fifteen minutes they would bring out a surprise. Spoiler alert: it was a dancing golden retriever doing the salsa with a human partner. No really, we’re not kidding.

Finally we were able to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers take the stage and blow us away once again with an outrageously energetic and memorable set. You can’t have 88 thousand or so people singing along to “Under the Bridge” and not be able to shed a tear or two.

We got back to Centeroo as Quest Love’s Superjam was setting up. The rumor around the mill was that ’80s pop star Lionel Richie was going to join in for vocal duties for the superjam. The reality was kind of much better. (Lionel Richie was a guest performer for one of the billed acts, but I didn’t see the show so I can’t say—cough—Kenny Rogers—cough) Late ’90s R&B star D’angelo suspended his 10+year absence from the live music scene and added smooth vox to the additional instrumentation of The Time’s guitarist Jesse Johnson, bassist Pino Palladino, and The Roots’ guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas. Although Quest Love and the Supergroup were exciting enough, the highlight of the evening had always been… Skrillex!

Did we say Skrillex? Oops, we meant GZA and Grupo Fantasma performing his pivotal 1995 album Liquid Swords from beginning to end! The show was great just because of GZA’s enthusiasm towards building and facilitating Wu-Tang folklore. After songs like “Cold War” or “4th Chamber,” the GZA would go on tangents delving into the history of each song and how it relates to Liquid Swords. GZA shedding light onto wu-tang history was the best kind of director commentary you can’t get as a DVD extra.

Sunday started out with Fly Golden Eagle at the Miller Lite Great Taste Lounge Stage. The set alone was fantastic as Fly Golden Eagle filled our ears with psychedelic Americana-influenced sounds and just a hint of some garage rock thrown in. The crowd was full of other artists that had made their presence known over the past days of the festival, including an impromptu backup vocal performance by Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Definitely an act to watch out for in the future.

Next was an absurdly energetic and batshit crazy set by The Black Lips, including but not limited to: crowd surfers, copious amounts of toilet paper, and a crammed celebrity-filled side stage/VIP area full of dance parties. The Black Lips no doubt fulfilled their party-going punk persona with non-stop music, finishing the set a massive crowd sing-along to “Bad Kids” and closing with a hearty “I wanna smoke a joint with Kenny Rogers after the show!” Would you expect anything less?

Just because we wanted to hear “Brick,” we totally had to catch the Ben Folds Five. Ben Folds is one of the last remnants that define piano-based American singer/songwriters of old; for the many years he’s been writing uber-classy pop tunes, he’s worked on his vocal and piano game. His live show is a mix of catchy choruses and impressive piano work that gives him vibes of modern-day Billy Joel (with less arrests). He played “Brick,” “Army” and “Underground,” giving us satisfaction with how pleasant and easy Sunday was going.

Then there was The Beach Boys. There’s really only one thing to say about The Beach Boys set: STREAKERS. Yep. Right in front of us, as a matter of fact. After about an hour and a half into being pelted with beach balls, a little bit of rain, and getting to hear some classics like “Surfin’ Safari,” “God Only Knows” and the like, the aging boys of the surf encored with “Barbara Ann.” That must have been the queue, as not but ten seconds into the song a handful of men and women in front of us decided that it was the right moment to take off all clothes and do some air surfing from the crowd. We commend them on their bravery, but thankfully they weren’t seen from the boys on stage as that probably may have caused some cardiac arrests.

After a short nap, we caught Young The Giant’s set. The indie pop darlings have really blown up over the past year with the gigantic success of “Cough Syrup.” They went through quite a bit of their self-titled debut and showed what it is to make really accessible songs but still have some indie cred.

Sunday closed in perfect Bonnaroo fashion with the world’s most popular jam… Phish! Like hell they’d be able to fit their set into two hours, so the improvising wizards of castle jammatron got two full sets to boogie out. I could go into their set list by saying they played “Down with the Disease” and “Wilson” and every other Phish song, but it seems people go to see Phish for the long journey rather than the many smaller destinations. But yeah, they played “Down with Disease,” and “Wilson,” and every other Phish song.

The coolest bit was that the rain had settled on a delicate sprinkle, the perfect cool-off without being an inconvenience and a fantastic bookend to a mild-weathered excursion to middle Tennessee to see some very memorable shows. Bonnnaroo was four days of an ass-ton of fantastic (well, not always) music with plenty of surprises and us finally getting to see Mogwai live. (Woohoo!)

Stayed tuned to The Vinyl District for interviews with Rubble Bucket, Big Gigantic, The Dirty Guv’nahs, and more!

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