…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!
Are there really any other serious contenders for the title of ”Coolest band in the known universe”?
The Strokes This is It was released in 2001, and has since become something of a classic record, which is perhaps not surprising, as it kind of always had a very classic kind of vibe. With a late night, decidedly retro, simplistic and hugely stylish sound comprised of duelling guitars, solid rhythms and Julian Casablancas incredibly cool, I-really-couldn’t-care-less leather jacket and sunglasses attitude powered vocals, This is It is largely seen as the high water mark for the band
Since then however, reception has been varied, with recent albums seeming less coherent (although not really any less cool). Angles, the band’s 4th Album is perhaps the most confusing record I’ve yet encountered by the New York quintet. Stylistically, it’s all over the place, with some tunes showcasing everything that is great about the band, and others just leaving me a bit confused as to where we were actually going.
The first Single, Under Cover of Darkness feels like a forgotten track from This Is It -with pumping basslines and sweet guitar interplay that just screams “This is the Strokes!” and then at the other end of crazytown, we have things like Gratisfaction – a jaunty, 70′s rock tune that is all hot soft light Thin Lizzy, or Status Quo, with it’s big harmony chorus kick “You’re never gonna get my love!”. Also, Call Me Back, which has Julian phoning the lyrics in over some indulgent noodly, Brian Ferry style guitars. In a way the whole album has a kind of a “Rock Band:The Strokes” vibe to it – except that all of the obscure 70′s and 80′s tracks are played by the same band, wearing big hair wigs in one video, and skinny leather ties in another. On first listen, It’s all kind of head-scratchy.
One thing it isn’t though, is boring – The record does deliver a lot more to enjoy than more recent efforts, and the slightly kooky feel to the album just adds to the bands coolness. On Taken For Granted Julian sings – “You’re so gullible, but I don’t mind” – I can’t help but think he’s singing to his fans.
Which is one of those things about coolness – if you are actually cool, you just do whatever the hell you want, and that makes you cooler.
Musichord Rating: 8/10