Here I am once again, typing away in a musty press trailer and basking in the air-conditioning at Bonnaroo here in Machester, Tenn. While I laugh at my peasant friends who are currently sweltering in our cheap tents drinking equally cheap beer at 10 a.m., the joke's on me. I'm working. [Text by Andrew, most photos by Mike.]
Through some masochistic sense of consistency and a strange fondness for this pleasurably depraved festival, I did the same thing again last year. And now, I've returned for a third round.
I'll break Bonnaroo down day by day with set recaps, mundane observations, and whatever else pours into this unwashed head of mine. Check it out after the jump.
DAY 1 - THURSDAY, JUNE 10
We roll in greeted by some of the best weather in, I'll venture to guess, Bonnaroo history; 80 degrees is still pretty hot by most standards, but here at Bonnaroo, the difference between 80 and 90 is worth more than its weight in $3 waters and copious loads of sweat seeping through your shirt, or lack thereof. With no must-see acts until 7 p.m., I go on a curiosity trek through the grounds.
Bored, I venture over to "This Tent" (all the stages/tents have names like This, That, The Other, What, and Which) to catch The Lonely Forest, another foreign entity to me when it comes to acts performing here.
The first act I wanted to catch was Danny Brown, the front-teethless, bizarre-o rapper who, somehow, made his way onto this year's XXL Freshman List (the hip-hop magazine's widely coveted list of up-and-coming, soon-to-blow up rappers). Not that he doesn't deserve it, but a dude who raps with a duck-quack delivery on topics like the female genetalia, Adderal, and scrapping copper piping for change in the slums of Detroit is a curve-ball to say the least.
When I caught him last year opening for indie-rap comrades Das Racist, he failed to really live up to the whacked-out persona he'd built through his rhymes. This time around, Brown is more of the same, but noticeably honed and focused. The thing is, though, his production and his beats are such weird animals in themselves, it's easy to get lost in them (or dance like you're painfully white) and miss out on Brown's words like many seemed to do.
Regardless, Brown's carved a niche. It's easy to think this guy's a novelty, a master of trolling the rap game, but if his Bonnaroo performance proves anything, Brown is seriously serious about making hip-hop weird.
Alabama rapper and Eminem understudy, Yelawolf is up next in the same tent. The discrepancy in the size and look of the crowd between Yela and Brown can't be more apparent. Brown's a Pitchfork darling and thus, packs the indie cred most rappers don't, or will ever, have. You can't help but laugh inside at two bi-spectacled white kids in overly-ironic dashikis bobbing their heads to Brown rapping about how a certain part of the female anatomy tastes like Cool Ranch Doritos. That is, until you realize you're exactly the same, minus the dashiki.
Now, and with shows in the past, Yelawolf is a snarling dog of a rapper onstage. He blends the presence of a wire-y rock frontman with the lyrical cadence of a top battle rapper to create something entirely new in itself. I could take or leave most of the watered down tracks from his latest major label debut, Radioactive, but they hold up and crush live as did tracks like "Pop the Trunk," "Trunk Muzik" and "Daddy’s Lambo" (see a theme here?) off his first Trunk Muzik mixtape. After a handful of songs, Yela and his DJ play through a melody of song snippets that have, I guess, made Yelawolf into what he is today. While long and completely unnecessary, it's hard to deny the visceral enjoyment that a 10-minute medley of everything from the Doors to The Beastie Boys brings.
The temperature drops significantly now that the sun is down. Throngs of now-sweat caked people would heat up in the tents then walk out for a chilling blast to the next set, self included.
L.A. dubstep producer/DJ Mimosa has one of the last performances of the night and walks onto the stage greeted to a tent of glowing, dance-ready bodies. Like most DJ sets, the lasers and fog and all that is, yeah, pretty awesome, but his pacing needs alot of work. Jumping from sample to sample, Mimosa knows what tracks to splice in to get the crowd moving, but can't seem to focus his efforts far beyond what's playing at this exact moment. It's midnight. People just want to move and this guy's switching the style up like an identity-starved teenager in a shopping mall. For me, Day 1 is done.
DAY 2 - FRIDAY, JUNE 11
Waking up comfortably is a feat as rare as a unicorn here at Bonnaroo. If it's not the chatter of people rallying around their 9 a.m. beers, it’s the thick heat of your tent-turned-sauna that’ll rouse you from hibernation. Add to the fact that it gets to hoodie-temperature at night then schizophrenically flips to sweltering heat in the early morning hours, and you've got a recipe for filthiness beyond anything even moderately acceptable in the real world.
My day kicks off with Merril Garbus and her cohorts who make up one of the most feverishly creative acts of the past two years, Tune-Yards. "Ho-lee-shit" Garbus says, wowed at the massive crowd before taking her place in front of her trusty arsenal of loop pedals, mics, and sundry instruments. Her voice flutters into a syncopated cadence of oscillating oohs and ahhs as she hits the loop pedal and builds more vocal layers atop. Before long there's a chorus of contrasting vocal patterns weaving in and out of each other while the off kilter drums and bass move the wild composition of "Party Can" along.
The thing that's so attractive about a figure like Garbus, especially in a live setting, is the unbridled enthusiasm and consciousness she puts forth with each song. Highlights from their 2011 LP, Who Kill, like "Gangsta," "My Country" and "Bizness" were played true to form with a few wild flourishes it seems Garbus can't resist.
After some overpriced, underwhelming lunch, I write a little more as a press panel composed of a handful of notable figures like Dax Shephard, Little Dragon, Fitz from Fitz and the Tantrums, and, I can't even type this with a straight face, the dancing Youtube dog, appear and do their best to entertain and answer the moderator's questions. It's pretty lighthearted fare and the celebrities are quickly rushed away as soon as it’s over. That dog could dance, though.
The Avett Brothers take the massive main stage around 5 p.m. and play a passable set of cutesy folk songs and anthemic declarations of love, loss, redemption, etc. etc. etc. These guys are undoubtedly solid songwriters and well-versed in conveying the raw emotion of their music in a live setting, but something inside me has had its fill of new indie-folk or whatever you want to call it. Everything's so declarative and grandiose; listening to too much of this (and there’s a fuck-load here) is like binging on too much musical barbecue after a while.
I catch a couple minutes of Feist's set afterward and am immediately blown away by how much bravado this nimble songstress gives off in a live setting. If guitars have feelings, Feist's should appear in one of those terrible Sarah McLachlan commercials with all those frail, abused animals. She ripped and roared, roused the crowd, and generally rocked the fuck out (Mastadon song) before I trekked across the field to catch Ludacris.
Ludacris is, well, Ludacris. His set's an assortment of dumb fun and nostalgic early millennium rap swaths of Gen-Xers in the crowd eat up with unbridled enthusiasm. Between more than enough Napster-era wistfulness and Ludacris asking me to make some noise for like, the 11th time, the prospect of seeing St. Vincent across the field feels all the more enticing.
And it is. Annie Clark is a force of pure, cute destruction on stage. She treats her six strings like an audible scepter, ravishing the fret board with a penchant for off-kilter, crushing riffs that ebb and flows in ways most couldn't even dream of. Then her crystalline voice comes into play and I admiringly wonder how songs so strangely haunting and beautiful – "Cheerleader," "Marrow," "Actor Out of Work" – come to fruition. St. Vincent, for all intents and purposes, is a bonafide diva in the weirdest, most refreshing way possible.
Foster the People are one of those bands worth the watch if only just to see what the massive hype is all about. As they work through the songs that compose their only LP, Torches, it's easy to see why.
Foster the People led right into Radiohead's 10 p.m. set on the main stage. As easy at is to knock, the obsessive compassion people have for this band really can't be understood until you see them live. "It feels like I'm watching a concert DVD, but I'm like, here," a comrade says amidst the flurried flow of "Idioteque." The band masterfully replicates each lush tone, each near-inaudible vocals part in a live setting is a way that is, for lack of a better word, breathtaking. Add a behemoth stage composed of raised, angled mirrors and dozens of tripped-out LCD displays, and it's almost scarily easy to get lost in the sensory feast that is a Radiohead show. The two-hour set covers an equal-opportunity expanse of Radiohead tracks throughout their career including "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," "Karma Police," "Morning Mr. Magpie" and "Kid A" with a consistent sense of fervency and passion you can't help but applaud.
As much as many of us could've easily sat and watched for another hour or five, Radiohead closes out their set a little after midnight and I venture off into the strange land that is Bonnaroo at night. Like zombies (some way more than others), everyone shuffles from stage to stage, many losing their minds to the psychotropic gods for better or horrifyingly worse.
The steamy tent that houses Major Lazer, the dancehall/reggae fused side project of DJ/producer Diplo, looks like a massive, glowing orgy in action. Major Lazer should really just be called 'Diplo featuring dancers and three hulk-sized Jamaican dudes barking commands at the crowd.' Seriously, it's fucking terrifying. "I WANT EVERYONE IN THIS TENT TO TAKE THEIR SHIRTS OFF NOW!" one of them shouts over a bass-rattling Diplo beat. A couple seconds later… "I'M SERIOUS. RIGHT NOW. EVERYONE. YOU, YOU, YOU, TAKE YOUR SHIRTS OFF AND SPIN THEM ABOVE YOUR HEAD!" which, minutes later, turns into "I NEED EVERYONE IN HERE TO TAKE OFF ALL THEIR CLOTHES. TAKE THEM OFF RIGHT NOW!" I'm pretty sure if they asked us all, we'd probably throw our wallets on stage, too, just so these guys wouldn't crush our skulls like deflated beach balls. Thankfully, it didn't come to that point and Diplo and his henchman bounce, pop, and lock us into a sweaty stupor.
By now its 2 a.m. Everyone's either chemically blasted into oblivion or just irritated and drained. Flying Lotus has taken the helm at another tent and blasts us with an apocalyptic symphony and bone-shaking bass line that wakes at least 50 people sleeping in front of us up, and brings them up from the ground to life. I've never seen anything like it. One second, it's sleepaway camp and the next, everyone is flocking to the stage like zombies toward an illuminated house.
There are DJs like Diplo and Mimosa here who boast solid strengths in their own right, and then there are DJs like Flying Lotus that completely defy convention with how far they're willing to push the limits of their art form. Much unlike his recorded material, Lotus' set is an easily digestible, but no less powerful pastiche of found sounds, pitch-shifted bleeps and stabs, pulverizing drum tones, and pop melodies churned through his audible meat grinder into near-unrecognizable form. How someone turns, or even tries to turn Lil Wayne's "A Milli" into a melodious dreamscape is a ballsy feat that just in itself proves this guy's worth his weight in the electronic music landscape. After an hour, we're worn, dusty, and tired. The mile trek back to camp feels like an eternity and my dew-soaked pillow couldn't be more comfortable after the longest day of Bonnaroo thus far.
DAY 3 - SATURDAY, JUNE 9
Evenings at Bonnaroo can be truly magical experiences. When the sun goes down, the freaks come out, the glow toys abound, and the festival reveals a charmingly depraved side of itself only the darkness could provide.
Battles is next on the same stage. I'd caught the foursome (now threesome) back in 2006 at Crowbar and still regard it as one of the best shows in memory. John Stainer's devastating drumbeats melded with the alien vocals of then-singer Tyondai Braxton and the intricate, robotic instrumentation of Ian Williams and Dave Konopka was a hypnotizing force that left a lasting impression. This time it was more of the same aside from the addition of a new album, Gloss Drop, and subtraction of a live vocalist.
They open their set with the ominous tones of "Africastle" and burst into a flurry of layered, ambient tones, pinched guitar plucks, and a breakneck drumbeat. In itself, the song is an audible adventure, bending and breaking in and out of chaos and tight grooves. Live, the sound envelopes the listener even more, a shared trait each song progressively reveals throughout their set. Numbers like "Atlas," "Tonto" and "Ice Cream" are played true to form, becoming all the more engrossing channeled through the massive sound system.
As Jimmy Fallon's house band, the group has ample time and responsibility for crafting and perfecting a multitude of different musical styles, which shines through in a live setting like this. As the sun falls, the group plows through songs like "The Next Movement," "The Fire" and an impressive cover of "Sweet Child o' Mine" with a consistent sense of energy and movement bands far younger could take a lesson from.
Skrillex is set to play a 1:30 a.m. set on the second largest stage. We arrive greeted by a swath of sweaty, eager fans awaiting the arrival of EDM forerunner and America's dear dubstep leader. We're packed in tight and the prospect of a nearby ecstasy meltdown feels all the more likely as the on-screen clock winds down to zero. It hits and the next two hours turn into a brain-melting foray in dubstep, house, and seemingly anything else Skrillex wants to pull out of the bag. The collective reaction is like nothing I've witnessed at this festival before, a sort of twisted Pentecostal church ceremony, and I'm jammed right in the middle of it. Hands raise, arms flail, sweat pours, and fog churns as we eat everything handed to us. A light drizzle begins to pour and becomes an equally loved presence as Skrillex himself.
Pumping out bits and pieces of originals and remixes (Avicii's "Levels" of course, included), Skrillex mans the booth – a quasi replica of a Star Wars TIE fighter rising to the top of the stage – like a terribly hair-styled space captain gone mad. As divisive as he's become with his newfound superstardom, it's hard to deny the worthiness of an amazing spectacle like this one.
Amazing and, in turn, absolutely draining. The rain thickens and it's time to split. Three days down, one to go…
Stay tuned for more pics from Mike Wilson along with a Bonnaroo post-op from Deborah Ramos