The 13th annual Bonnaroo marked my third consecutive trek down to a 700 acre Tennessee farm to cut loose for a long weekend of music from arguably one of the most eclectic lineups in musical festival history. Though Bonnaroo’s past few lineups boasted such legendary acts as Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Paul McCartney, this years additions of Jack White and the extremely controversial return of Kanye West overshadowed them all. But it’s not just the outstanding music that has made this festival a tradition for me. The mishmash of people from all walks of life from hippies to hipsters to crust punks (well maybe not crust punks), and the over the top antics like the silent disco parties and late night R.Kelly singalongs are the reason that all year round I look forward to 4 bizarre days in June.
Make no mistake, there were an overabundance of amazing acts, besides the headliners, from every genre: Vampire Weekend, Elton John, Arctic Monkeys, Nick Cave, Mastodon, Tedeschi-Trucks Band, Cake, The Flaming Lips, Phoenix, and comics like Hannibal Burress (and that’s still just scratching the surface). From the first moment I pulled into the farm it was obvious everyone was thinking about Kanye’s return. Looking at the walls outside Centeroo while setting up camp it seemed the Roo’s “Radiate Positivity” slogan that the farm has branded over the years became secondary to the #FuckKanye sentiment spray painted on just about every inch of the free wall space. But we’ll get to that later.
With the 12 hour drive and the minor blowout I had with my girlfriend (after she admitted that she didn’t pack any of the tent poles) behind me, I woke up refreshed under the makeshift canopy/mosquito net we haphazardously erected the night before. Being a Roo veteran I knew it was best not to drink until at least noon, but I cracked a beer open anyway. It at least made it easier to break the ice with the neighbors.
We headed into Centeroo around 5 to make sure we could get tickets to the 7pm Hannibal Buress show in the air conditioned Comedy Tent as a way to ease ourselves into the long weekend. The wait was hot but worth it as the show was hilarious. Unfortunately, I exited about 10 minutes before the end of Buress’ set and missed it since there was no reentry allowed and none of the volunteer bouncers were buying the story that I was diabetic and needed to use my insulin outside because it was too dark in the tent.
Next we headed over to “That tent” (yes that’s what it’s called) to catch sets from Cherub and White Denim. Cherub went off without a hitch, jamming out their immature but funky brand of club kid electro-pop. With White Denim only a set away we figured we’d camp out in order to grab good spots to catch the Austin-born progressive indie rock outfit, which seemed like a great idea.
Enter Omar Souleyman. I don’t want to say it was awful because people were dancing around us and seemed to be enjoying it, but mother of god was it awful. The group was comprised of Omar, who seemed to be the Syrian version of the Macarena guy with all of the stage presence of what you’d imagine a glorified wedding singer would have, backed by Rizan Sa’id, a keyboard player whose musical chops included one thumping kick drum beat and a single keyboard tone playing techno versions of what I imagine had to be middle eastern riffs. The set was mainly Omar Souleyman yelling in Arabic while alternating the keyboardist’s schtick, occasionally goading the crowd into slowly counting to 3 before this process repeated. My only guess as to why I was seemingly the only visibly annoyed person in the crowd is that I was the only one not on ecstasy. It’s the only logical explanation I could come up with.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity in the annals of world music techno hell, White Denim came out to rock in full force. The complex melody driven riffs coupled with a bassist working his ass off to create the perfect earbleach needed to resurrect my desire to dance and cap off the first night.
Even the daytime lineup on Friday was stacked; Greensky Bluegrass, Dr. Dog, Danny Brown, and many more, but everything I was concerned about was on the mainstage. I got in early enough to camp near the pit and caught the end of renowned jam band Umphrey’s McGee, whose breed seemed lost in a sea of EDM groups for a fest that was once founded on jam bands (blame it on the molly).
Though I had no expectation for what stood between me and two artists who collectively held down the #1 and #2 spots for 2013’s album of the year, Janelle Monae killed. After being wheeled out in a straight jacket, Monelle belted and danced her way into my heart with one of the most energetic and all around enjoyable sets that I never expected.
Following Monae proved to be a hard thing to do as critical darlings Vampire Weekend came out and simply failed to turn it up. They played a balanced 18 track set spanning their career which was enjoyable, but seemed to be lacking the energy I’d seen from them in past live performances.
Next up on the main stage, the make or break moment of the festival was about to arrive, the much-debated Kanye West performance. In order to fully understand the controversy, we need to revisit his 2008 Bonnaroo appearance. At that performance, Kanye had his 8pm spot moved to late night to accommodate his Glow in the Dark tour’s light show, causing veteran musicians like Phil Lesh, to cut short their sets, pissing off a ton of people. Even worse however was the Mr. West then left fans waiting upwards of 3 hours, starting to perform after the sun started to rise. For what it’s worth, Kanye himself blames Pearl Jam’s late set, and a protracted load-in for the delay, which might be valid, but also carried approximately zero personal accountability on his part. So yeah, there was a good reason for the anger.
With that in mind, understandably people were expecting something amazing from the show and with it’s monolithic 300 ft. LED screen towering over the crowd the tension was palpable. Kanye came out 7 minutes late and you could already hear people groaning. It seemed like most audience members came out to this set simply to hate it, despite likely not having been at the 2008 debacle. But as the towering screen began to glow bright red and the bass line for “Black Skinhead” tore through the crowd, all the bitching faded away. From the pit I can tell you it was an amazing show, maybe the best hip hop show I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to compare to other acts in hip-hop when no one else in the genre is doing anything like it. The insane bass and the giant blaring solarized and masked visage of West was a disorienting assault on the senses. It was over the top, in your face and unapologetic. Even after rocking feel good hits like “Stronger,” “Touch the Sky” and “Good Life,” West had no problem killing the moment and stopping the set minutes in to some tracks to rant and rave dropping quotes that would echo the rest of the fest like “WHERE THE PRESS AT NOW!?” and “I’m the greatest rock star alive!” The closest thing we saw to him acknowledging the situation was addressing the “Fuck Kanye” graffiti on the port-o-potties and telling the crowd “we’re going to piss on them this year.” I left the set feeling elated, not sure anything else over the weekend could top it.
I followed up with the Tedeschi Trucks Super Jam, the perfect relaxed instrumentally stellar yin to West’s megalomaniac hip-hop yang. It was my first real experience of Susan Tedeschi and it was extremely impressive. In fact all of the moving pieces that formed the jam were a perfect fit whether it be Taj Mahal, Ben Folds getting funky on Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” or the outstanding vocals of Chaka Khan on Zeppelin’s “What is and What Should Never Be.”
I also saw some of Skrillex—for more information take MDMA and watch this SNL sketch.[insert link]
The dreaded hangover found an easy cure on Saturday: the beautiful vocals and twangy slide of the Swedish sisters that comprise Americana-country crossover band First Aid Kit. After dipping in the Tedeschi-Trucks kitty and loving it the night prior I had to check them out again, so I departed First Aid Kit shortly after a beautiful cover of Paul Simon’s “America.”
I basically walked into the pit of the main stage to check out what I now consider to be the best woman in blues coupled with one of the world best slide guitarists. Susan Tedeschi’s tiny shyish banter between tracks makes her powerful rusty vocals all the more impressive. Derek Trucks was pretty cool too.
I sat tight and enjoyed the set, and waited for Damon Albarn to take the stage. I didn’t have any expectations and wasn’t very familiar with his work outside of Gorillaz and a few Blur tracks. The set was an unexpected treat as I not only thoroughly enjoyed his solo material but was in awe of the range of musical diversity up Albarn’s sleeve. At different points in the set he was accompanied by a myriad of musical guests including a small but powerful 4 piece vocal choir, a 7 piece horn section, De La Soul came out for Gorillaz hit “Feel Good Inc.,” and after a bit of anticipation after Albarn declared, “This might sound smug but…” and Del the Funky Homosapien jumped out to rock Gorillaz crossover classic “Clint Eastwood.” This set was like Monae another unexpected festival highlight.
Later, after a bit of r&r, I headed back to the ‘What Stage’ to camp through the end of Lionel Ritchie’s set, just in time to catch a mash-up of the Commodores’ “Brick House,” his iconic/ironically funny as of late “Hello…” which with Richie’s stage prowess turned out to be an enjoyable set.
Imma let you finish Kanye, but Jack White had one of the best Bonnaroo sets of all time. What I witnessed was simply put a legendary musician at the top of his game. And it wasn’t only Mr. White at the top of his game—every single person in his band destroyed it. I’ve never seen a sweet theramin solo (Who does that?!) until that set. White covered his entire career from opening with the White Stripes hit “Icky Thump,” peppering in his well-received solo hits like “Missing Pieces” and “Freedom at 21,” along with Raconteurs and Dead Weather tracks as well. Pausing briefly a few times during the set, White talked up other Roo performer’s like The Arctic Monkeys and Nick Cave, while also taking a shot at Rolling Stone proclaiming, “We are the ones that make the music!” If playing and closing with Led Zeppelin’s “Lemon Song” wasn’t enough, his encore lasted a full 45 minutes over his allotted time slot. Finally finishing with the guitar riff to end all guitar riffs “Seven Nation Army,” I can’t recall ever experiencing anything more magical at a live show than hearing the band drowned out by thousands of people humming the iconic bass line. Outstanding.
I followed this up by rushing late (however satisfied) over to catch a bit of Frank Ocean’s set arriving just in time to catch a bit of Channel Orange highlight trip-hoppy” Pyramids” and the soft beautiful melody of unreleased track “Wiseman.” Perfect end to a perfect day of music.
Sunday was a day of no expectations. Sure I saw Elton John’s first US festival performance, and got to check out the Arctic Monkeys, Fitz and the Tantrums and The Avett Brothers. Each of whom’s sets were energetic and very enjoyable in their own ways, but outmatched by everything that preceded it. I think I hit the proverbial wall and just needed a shower and a bed.
After 3 years of coming to this festival, it feels a bit like home. Aside from an astounding musical lineup, there were 2 things that overtly stood out this year over the past few.
1) There was almost too much to do. Reading this review you’re only getting the music, there was also a Cinema tent that featured a Q & A with the Farrelly Brothers and a live show of Drunk History, an amazing Pulp Fiction inspired food menu by a collection of vendors, a delicious Brewer's craft beer tent, Yoga lessons, artists signings, green gardening classes and many many other things. Even just going to see shows was daunting in that you had to make cuts and haul ass to catch everything. Admittedly a first world problem, I know.
2) The smug attitude of Bonnaroovians. There was nothing more annoying than watching self righteous festival attendees constantly slamming Kanye West. Yes, Kanye blew it 6 years ago, when most of them likely weren’t there to see it, but holy shit you’re not here as part of the peace corps to save the world because you’re better than people outside of the festival. You’re here because you’re able and willing to cough up the money to come. If you don’t want to see a show, skip it, don’t show up to just talk shit, boo, and ruin it for other people around you. You’re not at Woodstock, we weren’t there to protest anything. You went to a festival sponsored by Ford Motor Company and a slew of other giant corporate entities. I know a lot of you were proud that you were clever enough to circlejerk a 4 year old South Park joke, but for the sake of preserving a pro-music festival get off of your soap boxes and focus on having a good time.