Thursday night, Bonnaroo was a rainy, muddy mess. Every few minutes, a biblical downpour would deluge us. Every step was a chance to detonate a landmine of sludge and filthy water. Things dried up significantly on Friday, but many of the mud pits remained, making for slippery treading as I scrambled from stage to stage catching one blogger darling after another. Things didn't quite go according to plan, but when do they ever at a humongous music festival?
(Sorry about the photo watermarks - I had to use a freeware photo resize program because I don't have Photoshop and I'm in a hurry.)
Thursday night, Bonnaroo was a rainy, muddy mess. Every few minutes, a biblical downpour would deluge us. Every step was a chance to detonate a landmine of sludge and filthy water. Things dried up significantly on Friday, but many of the mud pits remained, making for slippery treading as I scrambled from stage to stage catching one blogger darling after another. Things didn’t quite go according to plan, but when do they ever at a humongous music festival?
(Sorry about the photo watermarks — I had to use a freeware photo resize program because I don't have Photoshop and I'm in a hurry.)
The first band I watched was Dirty Projectors, whose new album Bitte Orca dropped this week and immediately became one of my favorites of the year. They’re one of the most bizarre bands at this festival, operating at a peculiar intersection between avant-garde composition and indie pop. I thought they owned, from the humble balladry of opener “Two Doves” to the zippy closing number “Knotty Pine” with guest star David Byrne. My three companions didn’t find the gnarled vocal acrobatics and twisty guitar licks nearly as satisfying. Presumably, even now at their most poppy, Dave Longstreth’s crew is simply too weird for most people.
Animal Collective's crowd
Not as weird as Animal Collective, though. Avey, Panda and Geologist’s set got off to a bad start, with a cuckoo take on “Lion in a Coma” followed by the most lackluster version of “My Girls” they could have mustered. Minimal percussion + minimal enthusiasm = minimal pleasure. It almost felt like they were intentionally playing a crappy version of their best-known tune just to confound the masses. After that, their sharpness increased, and by the second half of their 75-minute set, they had embarked on a hippie-friendly electronic odyssey that saved their set for me. By the way, their live show used to be mostly unreleased material, but this was almost completely Merriweather Post Pavilion jams with a Panda Bear solo tune tossed in for good measure. Hardly the most satisfying set of the day, but not the worst thing I could think of to soundtrack sitting around in the sun.
Bon Iver & Kaki King exchange contact info
I went walking and caught a minute of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, but I didn’t dig it. So I tried the press tent and found a ridiculous press conference with Lucinda Williams, Kaki King, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and more answering inane questions about how Bonnaroo is different from regular gigs and how the fest is going to help the whippersnappers among them to make it big. Vernon’s comic relief made this a worthwhile experience.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Yeah Yeah Yeahs showed why they have developed staying power while so many of their early oughties Brooklyn breakout contemporaries have flamed out. It’s no news flash that Karen O is a born star, but the band’s songwriting cache is already thick with enough classics and near-classics to thump us for 90 minutes, no problem.
I didn’t witness much of those 90 minutes — just the beginning and the tail end — because I stole away to shoot Grizzly Bear, architects of another one of this year’s heady headphone masterpieces, Veckatimest. I’m always stunned at how visceral and vibrant this band is live, when their albums are always in danger of dipping into slumber. Every one of these four are expert musicians, and it translates into some really thrilling moments when conception perfectly interlocks with execution. While Dirty Projectors’ music school dropout roots often show through, Grizzly Bear never sounds forced. It’s just damn good music. I didn’t get to see them play “Two Weeks,” and I didn’t even care because what I did see was so monstrously satisfying.
The next act, however, made me wonder why I bother with this indie rock garbage at all. Al Green absolutely owned everyone. Strutting the stage with his jacket sleeves rolled up, he mugged for the crowd, tossed roses to ladies in the audience and hit high notes in a way that communicated “the man has soul,” not “the man misplaced his testicles” like some of the bands I’ve been known to enjoy. There was no moment of greater joy Friday than Green’s gargantuan performance.
TV on the Radio
Poor TV on the Radio had to play during the second half of Green’s set, so I comforted them by photographing their first few songs. They didn’t seem too bothered — dudes were playing their future-pop with pizzazz, and harder-hitting moments like “The Wrong Way” and “Wolf Like Me” found them in peak form. Kind of a let-down after Al Green, but who wouldn’t be?
Next up was the Beast! –ie! Boys! The little bit I saw was cool, though it wasn’t much. I was hoping to witness their whole set, but after the photographers shot their customary three songs, I couldn’t work my way back through the sardine-packed audience to get within view of Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA. What I did witness was the band entering as a hardcore lineup, with Ad-Rock on guitar, MCA on bass and Mike D on the mic, showing he’s still got a tad more vim and vigor than his bandmates. Aging has hit the other two in different ways. MCA just looks old and tired, while Ad-Rock has become that goofy uncle who still wants to be hip but comes across as trying slightly too hard. They’re still the Beastie Boys, though, as they proved by barreling through “Super Disco Breakin’” and “Sure Shot” with flair.
I had planned to watch the end of David Byrne’s set once the Beasties wrapped up, but since I couldn’t get close enough to enjoy anything, I hit up Byrne’s beginning instead. I was pleased to discover that seeing Byrne in 2009 is a lot like seeing Jonathan Demme’s transcendent Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, from Byrne’s quirks (admittedly softened with age) to the polyrhythms to the background dancers to, most importantly, the songs. I kept trying to leave early, and he kept reeling me back in with one classic after another. “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Born Under Punches,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “Life During Wartime” all in a row? What did I do to deserve this?
I met up with Roger, who had camped out to snag a front-row spot for a late-night slate of Phoenix, Crystal Castles and Girl Talk. This was crucial because I have been obsessed with their new Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and I didn’t want to vacate the front area after my requisite three songs were up. So we pressed up against the front barrier and witnessed a band far more capable of wowing a crowd than the one I witnessed at Little Brother’s three summers ago. Thomas Mars seemed genuinely excited to be playing for so many people. He even had the band restart a vamp of the “Falling, falling” bit from “1901” so he could go crowd surfing. I wish they wouldn’t have slowed things down with the utterly superfluous “Love Like a Sunset,” but they held their own up there and validated my incessant listening habits.
Of course Crystal Castles started 20+ minutes late. When they finally did begin just after 1 a.m., it was thrilling and scary at once. I’m indifferent about the band’s album, but they make much more sense live, with thumping drums and turntables backing Alice Glass’ vapid vixen whirlwind. She looked possessed as she stalked the stage, screaming indecipherable rants and frequently thrusting herself into the crowd for a bit of grandstanding. She climbed up on the barrier, crowd-surfed and even sat on my head for a few seconds. This would have been mostly exciting and partly terrifying, but the balance shifted closer to terrifying thanks to throng of entranced Crystal Castles fans and eager Girl Talk anticipators behind me, who relentlessly pushed forward, pinning me up against the barrier and filling my mind with visions of those Pearl Jam fans who got trampled to death at Roskilde. After five or six songs, my newly discovered claustrophobia got the best of me, but even from afar, the band was among the most magnetic of the weekend so far.
I strolled over to try Phish for a second, but whatever they were playing repelled me back to get in line for the Girl Talk photo pit. Gregg Gillis finally got on stage some time after 2:30 a.m., delivering his usual mashup pandemonium (plus girls with toilet-paper guns) much to the audience’s delight. As a stage full of people grinded out their last few calories of energy, I bolted for my tent. Fourteen hours after my first show of the afternoon, I was spent.