Needless to say, my patience was wearing thin when our caravan arrived at 5 a.m. Thursday morning. Gates opened a night early, on Wednesday this year, so we figured we’d beat the stress of waiting an eternity to get in on Thursday morning and set up shop a night early on Wednesday.
Smart, maybe. Original, not quite, as seemingly everyone else had the same plan, too.
An optimistic "we'll probably be there by midnight at the latest" turned into a "well, maybe we'll get in by 2," then a joking "the sun's gonna be coming up by the time we set up our camp." The sun did, in fact, start rising as we finally unloaded our gear.
Ever seen a group of sleep-deprived 20-somethings at their wits-end trying to assemble camping tents in humidity you could slice through? Watch from far away if you do.
"Dude, that piece right there."
"No, no, that one."
"No, that one! Right there! No. There. Right by your fucking foot!"
"Geez, ok, I see it."
Rinse, don't wash, repeat...
I'll spare you any prattling about how the healing power of music made this all just so worth it, man, and get to the good stuff — the artists who rocked the tents on Bonnaroo's opening night. [Photos and tour journal after the jump.]
THURSDAY, JUNE 9
I don't think anyone's made apathy look as cool as Wavves has in the last few years. Bong ripping, slacker extraordinaire frontman Nathan Williams reinforced the shit out of this notion Thursday night with a distorted, brain-rattling set just at home under the This Tent as it'd be at some filthy, basement keg party.
Being a three piece in a live setting, Wavves sacrifices a lot of the subtleties, bells and whistles if you will, that make their debut full-length, King of the Beach, one of the most balls-ily creative pop punk albums in years, but even so, the music held up and good vibes were enjoyed, finally.
The first thing I realized about Best Coast when seeing them live is how downplayed frontgirl Bethany Cosentino's vocals are on their first album, Crazy For You. Chalk it up to their lo-fi aesthetic or brazen humbleness, but it's a shame because she's got dexterous pipes comparable, and (subjectively) better than a number of chart-topping artists today.
Live, she doesn't hold back an ounce on the vocals and it's quite refreshing; a crystalline eye in the middle of Best Coast's fuzzed-out, surf rock hurricane. By the fourth or fifth song, however, their single, "Boyfriend," was played and the rest of the songs just felt kind of dull on the instrumental end. "You guys look a little bored," Cosentino remark half way through the set. She might’ve been right.
Leave it to an up-and-coming hip-hop artist to play one of the most electric, engaging sets of the night. Backed by a menagerie of keyboards and turntables, J. Cole spit from the heart like he had no other choice. Every syllable, every word, the gestures, the stories, it all melded and became a testament to how much J. Cole wants you to hear how a young, black male gets by in the world.
"You know in college it's like, cool to be broke," Cole remarked. "But then you get out and it isn't anymore. You gotta succeed." Right at this point, you're expecting some ego stroking about being the best in the game, but he said something along the lines of "I graduated, but I'm still a broke-ass nigga trying to make it, so I'm glad you're here with me right now.”
He went on spitting over tracks like "You Got It," the Drake collaboration "In the Morning" and a slew of freestyles over beats by artists ranging from Tupac to Kanye. The notion that it takes brains to make a hit never felt like more bullshit after the J. Cole set. It takes brains to masterfully express yourself. J. Cole does this. Hopefully the hit that rockets him to the top is just a byproduct.
This might be is cheesy, but you kind of realize why they called their LP Treats when you see Sleigh Bells in the flesh. With a smidgen of alcohol in the bloodstream and a penchant for buck-wildness, Sleigh Bells tracks are most definitely treats when you're in the right mindset. Thursday night was no exception.
Cranking out a veritable carpet bomb of distorted club-bangers, Sleigh Bells was a two-headed monster captivating, likely, the largest audience of the night. Hits from up and down the tracklist of Treats were played with force, violence, and LOUDness. Frontwoman Alexis Krauss looked possessed by some crunked-out, flailing spirit while guitarist Derrick Miller chugged out the overdrive from his wall of Marshall half stacks like none of us had eardrums. Totally worth it, though. What?!
I split my time between Donald Glover's rap project, Childish Gambino, and Deerhunter for the end of the night.
The second half of Deerhunter's set was an admirable venture delving into minutes of blissed-out psyche and sunny 1960’s pop. It's pretty amazing how frontman Bradford Cox can capture the essence of different eras of music with seemingly little effort judging by his enormous discography. Live and amplified, the Deerhunter tracks were a bit more present and beefed up than the albums in the best way possible.
FRIDAY, JUNE 10
The second day of Bonnaroo brought heat, heat, a little more heat, and some extra heat on top of that. Throw in a little dust, herds upon herds of sweaty bodies, enough alcohol to forget how delightfully disgusting you feel, and you've got a solid day two.
Conditions aside, the lineup of bands on Friday night could easily be the most eclectic and captivating I've seen in my two years attending this thing. Win Butler put it well in the middle of Arcade Fire's late night set" "Any festival where you can see My Morning Jacket and Lil Wayne in the same night is alright with me."
Hate if you want, but Bonnaroo is not messing around when it comes to serving demographics across the board and it shows. Frat-tastic bros rubbing elbows with dready deadheads, old wizard-y looking men puffing on the peace pipes, the frenetic ravers gyrating, glow sticks in their clutching fingers; they're all here, and it's pretty awesome just to see all these characters existing in one place.
Here's what I saw yesterday…..
Bonnaroo organizers seem to have a penchant for throwing the metalheads a tiny bone with the lineup. Last year was Clutch, Gwar, and Baroness. This year it's Kylesa, the Sword, and Opeth. Kylesa was the only full set I caught out of the three, and, as standard procedure would dictate with this band, they cranked out tracks from their latest, Spiral Shadow, and four other LP's that toe the line between dexterous, math-minded metal and a ton of audible bricks.
It's kind of weird seeing Kylesa play a huge fest like this (in the middle of the day, mind you) when they were just blasting out the speakers of our dingy little Brass Mug less than six months ago, but the tracks off Spiral Shadow alone prove they deserve it. Jumping from psych to crust metal, sludge to stoner, the compositions, naturally, were more aggressive and amplified, and less nuanced, than the record. Even so, the face-melting was appreciated.
Matt and Kim know how to worm themselves into your ear, especially in a live setting, which just makes it all the more hard to hate on them. Matt belts it out, Kim beats the drums like Animal from the Muppets, and it just works. If your mood wasn't lifted just a smidgen during this set, man, get some help.
Even the tiniest wisps of afternoon breeze were savored to the max during the Decemberists 5:30 p.m. set, rolling through all the hits from Castaways and Cutouts through their newest, alt-country foray, The King is Dead.
The Decemberists are a band that seems to cut the bullshit and really just focus on sounding clear, coherent, and engaging in a live setting. Clichés aside, they really do sound freakishly close to their albums in concert and Colin Meloy's dry wit was a welcome change from the frequent "thank you thank you" between-song banter.
It all makes sense now. I always kind of wondered how people could sit, or stand, through their notorious four-hour sets, but after yesterday's somewhat shorter, two-hour set, I get it. Jim James is this distant, enigma of a character on stage and the band, well, killing it would be an understatement.
Friday night, they played through a slew of tracks from as far back as At Dawn and from their most recent Circuital. Jim James, donned in a full-blazer, scarf, and some white, furry moonboots, belted it out with vocals soaring over the vast instrumentation behind him, including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a number of tracks like "Holdin' Onto Black Metal" and "Victory Dance."
This is a band with years of live experience (include a few previous Bonnaroos) and chemistry behind them, and it showed in every way. Really, never a boring moment during this set.
They're still rightfully riding on the wave of their Grammy-winning LP, The Suburbs, playing a majority of the tracks from the album during their set, but it worked just because it's such a varied and, frankly, fantastic album. Win Butler and Regine Chassange trade-off on vocal duties and compliment each other well. Regine's falsetto on "Sprawl II (Mountain Upon Mountains)," then Buter's haunting baritone on a number of tracks, like "The Suburbs," and "Keep the Car Running" gives us the best of both worlds and makes you realize why this band continues to be so great.
SATURDAY, JUNE 11
And now, the delirium sets it. You can only run on fumes so long in this dust-laden stinkhole before things start getting weird. Long walks from Centeroo to camp become adventures in zombie-dom; spaced out kids wandering aimlessly, some not even making it, nestling up to a lone lemonade stand and passing out in some crazed stupor; bands throughout the night become fuzzy recollections in the morning leaving you assuring yourself that yes, that did really happen; and that unavoidable veneer of sweat-spackled dust crust coating your bod to top it all off.
Even so, I can’t help but sit back and admire how twistedly great humanity is at a fest like this. Like, how many of these body-painted topless girls are teachers and accountants when they go home, you know? Weird, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Enough on the lovey end though, here’s what I caught yesterday.
Chiddy Bang is pretty much the forerunners in the whole indie/hip-hop mash-up thing that's been catching on of late. Chop up a song like, say, "Kids" by MGMT, throw in a thick, bass-heavy backbeat, and rap over that noise; it's a simple formula, novelty if you want to call it that, but the right people could make it good.
On Saturday, Chiddy Bang weren't quite those people. Something about their performance was just, tepid, kind of phoned in. Chiddy, the rapper, came on late, and lackadaisically jumped into the first track spitting his verses with a distant, lukewarm energy more suited for someone in the crown than a performer on stage. Guess they call these things novelties for a reason.
Portugal the Man
I only caught about half this set before going to shoot Wiz Khalifa, but man, Portugal goes hard. A tripped out menagerie of 60’s era psych-pop, dizzying lights, and epilepsy-inducing visuals, Portugal’s set was a force strong enough to make a new fan out of a young, snobby music writer.
Wiz is just, well, Wiz. In the span of the couple months it's been since we last wrote about him, he's shot from rising star to, arguably, one of the biggest rappers in the game today. His production's still, for the most part, pretty top notch, but his schtick is just kind of old now. He's got the energy, swag if you will, live, so it's still kinda fun just watching him mindlessly roll through tracks like "Phone Numbers" off Cabin Fever, "In the Cut," and "Black and Yellow," but you see this guy once and you've seen all he has.
Mumford and Sons
Man, it's crazy how much this band has blown up since playing 'Roo last year. "Little Lion Man" took over the radio, went platinum, and pretty much verified their status as the folk-rock forerunners in the game today. Love 'em or hate 'em, they've got a knack for tapping into that uplifting, inspired vein with their dramatic compositions on heartbreak, companionship, and triumph. Saturday was no exception as they poured themselves into each and every track played for the monstrous, late-afternoon crowd.
Controversy was stirred when they announced Eminem would headline Bonnaroo this year. Something about the mellowed-out vibe people love about Bonnaroo didn't quite gel with the murderous, hyper-masculine, and sadistic nature of Em's music. Who knew?!
It's not like this dude hasn't been walking around wrapped in a shawl of controversy since he entered the game though. That’s what makes him so definitive and thus, one of the biggest-selling artists of our generation.
He really could've just phoned it in, walked around, spit a few verses and left if he wanted, but this dude went all in and didn’t let go for a solid 90 minutes. Backed by a huge band, Em laid his rapid-fire flow over tracks as far back as "My Name is" and as recent as "I Need a Doctor." Rumors had spread like wildfire that Dr. Dre was in the house, but he didn’t make an appearance during the set.
Even so, the show proved Eminem's conviction to his craft and was one to be remembered.
*Sorry for the lack of images today. Big artists like Em are pretty selective when it comes to photo access. But look out for a big picture gallery at the end of this thing
SUNDAY, JUNE 12
Greetings from the after effects of one of the top five most glorious showers of my life. Along with all the dirt, grime, and whatever else falling from my limbs into the drain, Bonnaroo 2011 is now gone, but forever remaining a dusty, distant memory. I feel like I could hibernate in a cold, cavernous room wrapped in pillowy goose down for a week, so we'll keep this brief. Here's some of the acts I caught on Sunday.
Hype can kill your opinion of a band, just kind of throwing a wrench into the spokes of your perception before seeing or hearing them. Maybe I should've just plugged my ears and screamed "LALALALA" really loudly when hearing friends boast about Junip, but I didn't. Even so, they likely played one of the most intriguing sets of the whole weekend.
Frontman Jose Gonzalez, already known for his solo work, led his Swedish bandmates and audience into some delightfully strange, but quite inventive sonic territories. Soft, classical acoustic plucks tread lightly over bongos, drum samples, Moog tones, and Gonzalez's voice soared over the instrumentation with an unassuming, humbled demeanor perfect for the sounds put out.
Most of what they played was fairly lush and mid-tempo but there were some delightfully surprising, almost hip-hop-y beats thrown in a few songs that really showed they weren’t all square.
I mean no offense by this, but Iron and Wine is great music to fall asleep to. It's soothing; Sam Beam's near-whisper conjoined with acoustic instrumentation makes for a great way to clear some headspace and drift into REM-land.
New life was breathed into songs like "Boy With a Coin," "Free Until They Cut Me Down," and "Woman King" with electric guitars, different key changes, and a new sense of presence and aggression I really didn’t know they had in them.
This was just depressing. Opening with a down-south, dumbed-down rendition of "Rock N' Roll" by Zeppelin, the Band of Joy was hardly joy inducing. Robert Plant looked, and sounded, like he just awoke from a 30-year slumber since Zep probably last played in full, and seemingly just did not give a fuck. I'm not even old enough to pine away about how great Led Zeppelin was back in the day, and this still managed to break my heart.
And rounding out the fest (at least for us) was the Strokes. In the now two times I’'ve seen them in the past year, they have not disappointed in the least. The control Julian Casablancas has got to make his oft-unhinged and raspy vocals presentable and non-overbearing in a live setting is pretty admirable, not that'd he'd ever show how much he's probably worked at it. Donning a leather jacket in 90+ degree heat, you know this guy just bleeds cool like a modern-day, doped-out Fonzie and his his oft-deadpan I-don't-give-a-fuck-ness is just kind of makes you laugh and love him all the more for it.
Albert Hammond Jr. and the rest of the band were in full force playing tracks from Is This It to Room on Fire and their newest Angles with purpose and precision. No bells and whistles, little stage banter, and pretty much all the greatest hits were played in this hour and 15-minute set. Simple and efficient. Sometimes that's all you need.
….And that's it. If you've read this far, thanks. It's always fun documenting unique experiences like this and knowing people other than I read it is pretty awesome. See you here next year?