This year looked like one of the best lineups of the last few years, and arriving at Virgin Mobile FreeFest relatively early this year, there were already a good number of people there who agreed. But with 50,000 people forecast to show up at Merriweather Post Pavilion for the annual Freefest, the number of people during the first four to five hours of shows was manageable. This would not be true after 4pm, when Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Patti Smith, TV On The Radio, and The Black Keys were scheduled to close out the main pavilion stage, and Cut Copy, Cee Lo Green, James Murphy, !!!, Deadmau5 and Ghostland Observatory were playing on the other stages.
The Virgin Festival (in the U.S.), which is now known as the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, was modeled after the British VFest, and has taken place in Toronto, Canada and Baltimore, MD in the U.S. over the last five years. The first VFest was originally set up as a paid, one-day festival and was made into a two-day fest for years two and three. Originally set at the Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, MD, where the annual Preakness portion of the Triple Crown is, VFest moved to a “free” festival the last three years at the legendary Merriweather.
Obviously, for some, FreeFest is free – Virgin just asks for a $10 donation to “The RE*Generation, Virgin Mobile’s initiative to address youth homelessness.” But, there are also $50 “package” tickets available that included posters, etc., which is good, as the free tickets went in about 60 seconds, as usual. I was lucky to get free tickets this year, though really, $50 is still reasonable for the lineup provided, but it would suck a bit knowing other people got in for free. And, as you’re not able to come and go, once in you’re in, you’re there – everyone’s posters were completely crushed at the end of the day.
We hit the music right away, and it’s a loooong day, with the first band coming on at noon. The first set we hit was Alberta Cross on the “Festival Stage,” which, along with the “Dance Forest” stage, were both set outside of Merriweather’s main grounds (though the Dance Forest was a little close to the main “Pavilion” stage; the beats were bleeding into some sets on the Pavilion Stage.) Alberta Cross was impressive and fun, and one of the more “grungy” acts at the Fest, with lots of feedback, jammin’ basslines, and a blues rock aesthetic that comes on even harder in their live show than on their latest EP ‘Rolling Thunder”.
Rushing from one stage to the next, Bombay Bicycle Club (a UK-based band) was the first act at the Pavilion Stage, and as all of the seats under the pavilion were general admission, we were able to get seats up close for most of the acts at this time of the day. (Although that did mean camping out later on and missing James Murphy in order to be up close for The Black Keys, the VFest headliner.) Bombay Bicycle Club, actually named for a chain of Indian Restaurants in England, is a band whose music I did not know, and their quirky pop rock songs made me think of a slightly more rocking Belle and Sebastian, with falsetto vocals, bouncy keyboards and grooving melodies – music you can dance to – they were great, a pleasant surprise.
Rushing back to the Festival Stage, Two Door Cinema Club was up next, and these Irish rockers were a highlight of the show. The fans were into it, singing along with many of the songs, and the band knew they had good songs to play; there was no lacking of confidence emanating from the stage. Two Door Cinema Club has had great international success following their 2010 debut, Tourist History, though they haven’t had the same success in the U.S. – yet that is.
After Two Door Cinema Club, it was back to the main pavilion for Okkervil River, a band who I expected to have a more folk and country sound from what I had heard from their earlier albums, but this was a rock and roll show and then some. The Austin, Texas band is known for their intricate musicianship and intelligent lyrics, as well as their overall musical prowess. Led by Will Sheff, lead singer and songwriter, Okkervil River also features Lauren Gurgiolo (formerly of The Dialtones), one of the rare female lead guitarists you’ll see that kicks ass. They put on a great show and I was thoroughly impressed.
It was time to stay in one spot for a while by this point, as it was getting much tougher to get seats in the pavilion. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were up next. After missing most of their set at Bonnaroo this year, I knew this show was not to be missed. Truly, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals have arena-rock potential, with a potent two-guitarist tandem, a female bass player with serious chops, and Grace Potter’s ear-splitting vocal capabilities, which are remarkable. There can’t be more than a few people ever born with a voice like that. As they’re from Vermont, Potter also took a few moments and spoke about the recent flooding and tragedies in Vermont and how it affected them. Sometimes you can tell when a band is destined to really make it big, and that is the case with this band. With three studio albums out already, it may not be overnight success, but it’s coming regardless.
After Grace Potter, and with Patti Smith coming up next, I took a few minutes to run over to the Dance Forest to check out !!! (supposedly pronounced chk, chk, chk, in case you were wondering), and their dancey funk punk. The music was good and the lead singer, Nic Offer, was all over the stage, exuding energy and mayhem. From there, I took a few minutes to go and check out Cut Copy (shouldn’t “Paste” be added to the end of that?) and their 80s sounding synthesizers and grooves. The Australian electronic band had a huge crowd and I swear if I closed my eyes, I could have been listening to early Depeche Mode- not a bad thing.
Making political statements and railing against the government (though she did honor U.S. troops overseas) is old hat for Patti Smith, as political activism has long been a part of who she is, and she did not disappoint during this show. The Patti Smith group tours as a four-piece band, including her well-known lead guitarist, the great Lenny Kaye. She did play “Because The Night,” and a lot of kids at the show recognized the song and thought she was playing a cover, having no idea that she and Bruce Springsteen share writing credits on her biggest hit, going all the way back to 1978. Patti Smith is truly a living legend and an accomplished artist, writer, and singer/musician, and I was lucky and glad to finally see her live. The Godmother of punk lived up to her reputation, and political righteousness and great music sustained her entire set.
I stuck it out after Patti Smith to keep my good seats for TV On The Radio and the Black Keys, and missed Cee Lo Green, though he was on the big screen in the pavilion, rocking with an all-female band all dressed in black. After his disappointing set at Lollapalooza, I would have been interested to see more of him to see how his show was going and if he had the crowd with him, but I just caught two songs on the screen – he was into it then at least.
By this point, the festival grounds had also gone WAY downhill with trash everywhere, and extremely long lines for food, beer, and any bathrooms, which you would really just as soon avoid now. The estimated 30,000 people were more than Merriweather could handle and the facilities were pretty much done towards the end of the evening. Which was one more reason to just stay in my seat.
TV On The Radio (TOTR) are unbelievable, a big band with a big sound, and a mix of so many genres, which they may veer between multiple times in any given song. Punk, hard rock, blues, soul, jazz and funk all have a place at the table, and they play it LOUD. Having lost founding member Gerard Smith to lung cancer this April, TOTR has soldiered on, despite the tragically early loss. My first experience seeing TOTR was seeing them open up for the Pixies about six years ago, and they have definitely refined their stage show and made it even more powerful and overwhelming. Brilliant.
Though there were in effect two headliners with The Black Keys and Deadmau5 closing their stages at the same time, The Black Keys were the main event for most. There were no seats available in the pavilion anymore, and coming out fashionably late, the Keys kicked off the show the way I saw them back in 2005 at the 930 Club in DC – two guys on guitar and drums. It’s amazing that they have pulled off the sound and the shows that they have with just the two of them creating the bulk of the music, which sounds like a lot more people and a lot more instruments. After a few tracks, they brought out the disco ball and a bass player and keyboardist to fill out the concert sound, which also allowed them to play songs from their most recent albums.
After the Black Keys, I went over and checked out the rest of Deadmau5’s set, and as it was remarked to me by someone observing the dancing crowd and the smoke-covered stage, crazy lightshow, and a pair of glowing mouse ears floating high above the stage pumping out dance/trance music, “I think I’m missing something here…” Right.
Having gone to the first two VirginFests at Pimlico in Baltimore, this year’s Virgin Fest was scheduled at a better time of year, in early-mid September, rather than in the 100 degree heat of early August, which made a huge difference in overall enjoyment of the show. However, Merriweather, even with the expansion outside of the normal Merriweather footprint, was unable to completely handle the hordes of people as far as food and restrooms. By the end of the day, it was almost impossible to get food or drink or hit the restroom and the grounds looked like a war zone.
Regardless, with the level of bands they keep bringing in, Richard Branson should keep the FreeFest going just as it is – a little free music is one of the few things most people can still agree is a good idea.
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10
Ladies and Gentlemen, here is some music. It has blistering guitar, beautiful soulful vocals, a flugelhorn solo and more than a healthy dose of blues. I think you will love it. That is all.
…of Bonnaroo brought more heat and humidity, but it also brought some great headlining bands for the day, including The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, and Arcade Fire, who all played one after the other at the What Stage, the largest stage at Bonnaroo. Interestingly, a lot of bands that played Bonnaroo this year are part of the growing trend of bands building summer tours through festival dates, rather than the standard club/theatre/stadium tours. Last year, Ticketmaster and Live Nation took a beating as concert sales were down across the board. Festivals are way up, as more and more have sprung up in recent years and are basically supporting summer tour structures for all but the biggest bands. It’s a safer bet for the promoters and for the bands. Check out the NPR story “Summer Concert Season Gets A Reboot” here.
Arriving from the air-conditioned RV just for the tail-end of Grace Potter, I was immediately sorry that I had not arrived earlier. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals makes me think of Grace Slick and Led Zeppelin; ok, that’s a stretch, but Potter’s vocals are strong and piercing and powerful, and the Nocturnals are a really tight rock band. No wonder they have “graduated” to the main What Stage from the smaller stages they played in past years. This line-up at the What Stage for Day 2 was phenomenal, so it was the best day to stay and relax in one spot, though I did go see Atmosphere before The Decemberists at the This Tent and was definitely impressed and digging the hip-hop grooves coming from their set.
Next up was The Decemberists, who I had not seen before, but who I would love to see again. I was surprised by how great they were live and have been told by some of their hardcore fans that they have gotten much better on stage than early on in their career. Supporting their latest album, The King Is Dead and displaying their unique style of indie folk, The Decemberists played a number of songs from their new album, nailing “Down To The Water,” and some older classics like “Sixteen Military Wives” and “The Crane Wife 3.” Sara Watkins, of Nickel Creek, is on the Decemberists current tour and she provided superb back-up vocals and violin playing and sang a couple of songs, including “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga).” Colin Meloy is a relatively charismatic frontman and band leader, and shows that confidence on stage, as he daftly challenged Bela Fleck to a “pick-off” at the upcoming Telluride Festival a week later. Watch out Meloy, you may get what you’re asking for. It was fun theater on stage though, and it had the crowd roaring for the supposed contest. (Does anyone know if it happened? If you went to Telluride, let us know!) After dropping his pick at one point, Meloy called out, “Eat your heart out, Bela Fleck.”
I’ve seen My Morning Jacket five times; they are no question one of the best live bands on the planet, and while their performance at this year’s Bonnaroo was great, it was probably not one of their most inspired performances. Especially not compared to their almost four-hour legendary rager in 2008; you can download it here. Performing on the What Stage for the first time, My Morning Jacket played another great set, playing 22 songs in all over two hours, including the title track to Circuital, “Mahgeeta,” “Golden,” “I’m Amazed,” Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” “Outta My System,” And for two of the last three songs of the night, “Highly Suspicious,” and “Dancefloors,” the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who opened for MMJ on their last tour) joined them on stage for rousing, get-on-your-feet closers, followed by the guitar jam of “One Big Holiday” to close out their Bonnaroo exhibition. As usual, My Morning Jacket brought their big sound and a great show, but with Arcade Fire following them exactly an hour later, they seemed more tempered and controlled than they usually are. It was obvious that the Bonnaroo powers that be were keeping the bands on a pretty strict timetable, unless they were the last band of the night, and unfortunately even then in the case of Arcade Fire and Widespread Panic, What Stage closers on separate nights.
As Arcade Fire was coming up next, there was no need to get up and move anywhere, so I fortunately caught the horde of parachuters who dropped in from above seemingly appearing suddenly from what seemed to be just the dark cloudy night, as they filled the sky with tons of sparkly material that dropped on the crowd below. Just as quickly, they were gone, and we were left to wonder what was next. This stunt was definitely meant to appeal to a certain, um, segment of the audience.
Arcade Fire came out and took one more step towards claiming their rightful mantle of the biggest rock band in the world. Their show was a spectacle, with a light show, crazy film clips flashing by, and plenty of hits from their first and third albums. Their set ended in almost exactly an hour and a half, and either they could not or did not want to take advantage of their status as last band of the night, as they ended right on time unfortunately. I was hoping for more! Fireworks lit up the sky as Arcade Fire left the stage, which would be repeated after the Eminem show the next night.
Bonnaroo 2011 – Day 3
For the third day, we started to develop a schedule which included staying up to enjoy the late-night acts, and using the built-in generator in the RV or getting in any air-conditioned space in the early-mid afternoon hours to avoid the worst of the heat. (Make sure you go in with a full gas tank. They also allow two 5-gallon gas cans to be brought in; we only used half our gas, but we were conserving it our first day – that ended quickly.) It was still hot and humid at night, which even shows up as little dots in the pictures, but nothing like the middle of the day. This strategy meant missing a few bands in the early afternoon a few times, but to avoid the heat and humidity, and to make it through the rest of the day, it was a good way to go. There were people literally just laying around all over the place in and out of the shade in the early afternoon. Movement was pretty much too much to think about at that time.
If you enjoy acoustic music of any sort, and a great band with beautiful harmonies, then you have to see Alison Krauss and Union Station, featuring Jerry Douglas. That’s a mouthful, but Jerry Douglas deserves calling out. Union Station is an all-pro band, and Jerry Douglas is a master musician among the greatest on the planet on the dobro and lap steel. Alison Krauss herself has an incredible singing voice, and is an extremely talented fiddle player – or violin, depending on what style of music you like. Krauss has won 26 Grammy Awards, “making her the most awarded singer, the most awarded female artist, and tied for the third most awarded artist overall in Grammy history.”
Following Alison Krauss at the Which Stage was Mumford and Sons, Grammy and Brit award darlings (they won the latter, struck out at the former, but their performance during the Grammy’s raised their profile in the U.S. extensively) due to the huge success of their debut album Sigh No More. They had a HUGE crowd for their show, put at 50,000 by the Bonnaroo newspaper, and their crowd was as big as or maybe even bigger than the Strokes’ crowd on the last day. And while they were playing, Loretta Lynn and Bootsy Collins were playing at other stages at the same time. That’s rough. The crowd loved the Mumford and Sons show and they performed most of their debut album, including “Little Lion Man,” which the crowd sang along to and “The Cave.” Jerry Douglas even came out and joined them for “Awake My Soul” and Jerry Douglas and the Old Crow Medicine Show both joined them for their closer, “Amazing Grace.” Now that’s a down-home set. One of the best things about Bonnaroo is the amount of shows that incorporate guests from other acts also performing at Bonnaroo. You never know what you will get, and you’re probably missing another great guest star on another stage. As we were at this very moment. I’ll come to terms with it someday.
Buffalo Springfield played the Which Stage next. Why, I’m not sure. They should have been at the What Stage, the largest stage, but for some reason they were relegated down a tier. That was a mistake on the part of the Bonnaroo organizers there. They played a great set, and seeing the recently reformed band with Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay was a special treat. They played “For What It’s Worth,” and “Mr. Soul,” their late ‘60s rock classics. It was apparent that they had not spent much time playing as a group in over 40 years, as their seemed to be a separation and each member playing their pieces, though Neil Young did attempt to jam with Stills some, and called out to the crowd a few times. Buffalo Springfield was a very influential band, and their members were parts of Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young, Poco, and Loggins and Messina. Poco (Crazy Love) was formed from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield by original members Richie Furay and Jim Messina, and Loggins and Messina, with Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina had a number of hits in the ‘70s. Remember, “Your Mama Don’t Dance?” A lot of classic rock history was wrapped up in this set.
After Buffalo Springfield, it was onto Eminem at the What Stage. As a friend noted, Eminem’s vibe did not necessarily fit the Bonnaroo vibe. Eminem, though he put on a great set, has a somewhat more aggressive, even an angry vibe, and while that can certainly fit within rock and roll and rap, it definitely goes a little against the grain of the hippie, green, laid back vibe that Bonnaroo has cultivated. Eminem’s set was spectacular though; he was active and all over the stage. The stage performers were great and the whole thing was over the top with the light show, the video scenes playing out and the whole performance. Even if you’re not an Eminem fan, you have to respect his talent and stage skillz; they certainly pay the billz.
The late-night shows on Day 3 included another legendary jam band, the String Cheese Incident, who jammed for hours. The String Cheese Incident has a decidedly more folky feel to their jam sets than Widespread Panic, or at least they did for this show. More instrumental brilliance, and a Grateful Dead cover of “Tennessee Jed.’ Very appropriate. Although I missed the inflatable dinosaur that dropped down on the crowd during this set. You can purchase the String Cheese Bonnaroo show, and any of their other concerts, here.
Performing at the same time as String Cheese Incident were the Scissor Sisters at the This Stage and Dr. John (a 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee) with the Original Meters and Alain Toussaint at the That Stage, performing their 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo, the album that inspired the Bonnaroo name. The Dr. John / Meters / Toussaint show was great, with one of a number of full-on New Orleans blues sets at this year’s Bonnaroo. I hit all three shows and got a piece of each. The Scissor Sisters upped the sex quotient for Bonnaroo as Ana Matronic told the crowd that there were a lot of women at Bonnaroo who had dressed up like whores, and that was good. She then proceeded to tell everyone in the crowd to remove at least one article of clothing, which a lot of people did. And the sexual innuendo continued throughout what I saw of the set. Talk about loosening up!
Bonnaroo 2011 – Day 4
There was an exodus starting in the early afternoon on the last day, and everyone was asking each other, “when are you leaving?” “What have you heard is the best time?” A lot of people tried to watch a show or two, then take off, and beat the crowd and they seemed to be pretty successful doing that. But, to do that, you had to miss Iron and Wine, Robert Plant, Gregg Allman, The Strokes, Explosions in the Sky (they were great), the Annual “Super Jam” which this year featured Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys with Dr. John, and Widespread Panic. Are you kidding? I can see wanting to beat the crowds, but that’s a long way to come to miss all that. We did see some sulking among some groups that took off early, when not everyone was on board with the early exit.
I missed the Smith Westerns as they were one of the first bands of the day, and that was too bad as I really like the pop hooks and Beatlesque sound of their latest album Dye It Blonde. The first band of the day for us, Galactic, with their ninth Bonnaroo appearance, is an fabulous P-Funk influenced New Orleans soul-funk band. I’ve wanted to see Galactic for a long time, ever since I first picked up Crazyhorse Mongoose and their show was excellent, with rousing horns, killer backbeats and the powerful vocals of Living Colour’s lead singer Corey Glover. Really, Galactic is just a great, get up and dance kind of show, and Glover’s been joining them a lot recently. Maybe a full-time gig?
From there, it was off to see Iron and Wine, a band that I have just recently come around to. From the Decemberists, to Bon Iver, to Fleet Foxes, The folky hippie is definitely making a comeback in 2011, and you can add Iron and Wine to that list. The last album, Kiss Each Other Clean, has been much more accessible than Sam Beam’s earlier stuff, and the full folked-out countrified show his band put on was fantastic. Iron and Wine recorded a live album from Bonnaroo in 2006, and this marked their third Bonnaroo appearance. With this performance, they have definitely earned another spot.
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy seems a bit of a coup for Bonnaroo, though one of many in the festival lineup, and as Robert Plant said, “Most of us live near here anyway,” as several members of the Band of Joy live in Nashville. Once again, they were a fabulous act, with songs from the Band of Joy album, including “Angel Dance,” and a number of swamped-out reworked Led Zeppelin classics, leading off their set with “Black Dog.” The Zep versions sound so different, that for several songs, the crowd did not know it was a Led Zeppelin song until they heard the lyrics. One person actually said, towards the end of the show, “I wonder if they’ll play any Led Zeppelin.” Meanwhile, five Zeppelin songs had already gone by. Check out the Musichord review of a recent Robert and the Band of Joy show in Washington, D.C. here.
Before Robert Plant had even finished his show, I took a walk to check out The Strokes, a bit of a different band for the day, as few Strokes songs even touch four minutes, but they have that Ramones look and Albert Hammonds Jr.’s grab-you-by-the-balls rockin’ guitar licks and Julian Casablanca’s swagger which makes them a band not to be missed anytime anywhere. They played a number of tracks from their first album, which were clearly the songs that the crowd knew the best. When the Strokes get a crowd going, they get them going, the whole crowd was singing along for “Last Night” and they put on a good old fashioned rock show.
Sunset started to fall so I went from the Strokes over to see the Texas instrumental band, Explosions In The Sky, as I had been told not to miss them, and I was able to see why. At this point, I was employing the “hit-every-show-for-half-an-hour” methodology, so that I could experience some of each of the acts, before it was all over and time to go home. Explosions in the Sky had a Britpop turned to alternative hard rock sound, heavy on the guitar reverb, and keyboards and synthesizers, with a powerful instrumental show that made me want to pick up some of their albums asap.
The Super Jam with Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys was great. As Auerbach said, and I had imagined, “We had a great time working up these songs this week together, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.” How much rehearsal goes into a Super Jam must change every year, but the Super Jam is more of a commitment for the band members that play in it, as they can’t play with their regular bands, or play their regular sets. They have to work out what they’re going to play and how it’s going to work ahead of time, and I imagine sometimes it goes more smoothly than other times. It looked as if it had gone off without a hitch during this set, with the raw blues style of Dan Auerbach, and the New Orleans delta blues style of Dr. John melding into a great southern blues set. Auerbach’s slide guitar sounded awesome. Joining them were My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan and there was a surprise appearance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Widespread Panic, a Bonnaroo regular, closed out the show, and as usual, they put on a great jam band performance, playing a pretty diverse selection from their 11 studio albums, and closing out the show and Bonnaroo 2011 with “Love Tractor.” Bruce Hornsby, who played with his own band, came out and played keys on several songs and the crowd roared “Bruuuce!” when he came out. Widespread Panic was great, though this last show of the festival ended on a bit of a downer, as Widespread Panic played one encore, and then ended right on time, per the Bonnaroo schedule, which the fans did not expect. As the lights went on, they finally realized it was time to head out. And decide on whether to buy tickets for Bonnaroo 2012.
Oh, and check out youtube for performances from most of these acts, a ton of them have been posted, so go take a look, you may find it!