BONNAROO 2013 IN REVIEW
Paul McCartney’s marathon Friday night performance at Bonnaroo is being called the greatest headliner performance in the festival’s 12-year history by basically every major outlet with boots on the ground, but it’s going to be hard for anyone to ever top the entrance made by one Robert Sylvester Kelly.
As only the genius/madness of Kellz is able, the conceptual grandeur of his debut was only exceeded by its impracticality. A crane lifted the melismating R&B king high above the towering Which Stage, the festival’s second-largest performance installation, just before midnight on Saturday as a 40-strong choir in dazzling robes sang and clapped in praise. Two spotlights hit the crane’s litter to reveal Kellz towering more than three stories above the tens of thousands spilling into his range from the just-finished headlining set, and the idea was ostensibly for him to be lowered back to earth to take the stage amidst the fanfare following his electrifying unveiling.
Only it didn’t happen quite like that. The choir finished their duties and looked around at each other a bit confused before dispersing, meanwhile, the lift containing the show’s star was making an agonizingly slow descent. What seemed like an eternity of dead air was broken only by playful heckling, and then drum and bass builds to drown it out. It’s not all that difficult to imagine how the planning conversation might have gone down, particularly for anyone who has ever been subject to unreasonable requests by Very Important Persons.
Robert: “This is how I’m going to make my entrance.” Production staffer: “I don’t think that will work like you think it’s going to work.”
Robert: “Well, you’re gonna f*cking do it anyway.”
Production staffer (head hanging): “Okay.” And then someone gets fired. Kellz ultimately put on one of the weekend’s best shows — 90 minutes of glitzy production and smooth gangster jams — and dozens of inflatable doves that were released during “I Believe I Can Fly” — amidst one of the festival’s most contested blocks. His inclusion atop the lineup served to emphasize the thread of hero worship that sewed it all together, if only because it skewed that way due to the presence of Sir Paul (and the solid that Jack Johnson totally did the festival by stepping in to headline Saturday following Mumford & Sons’ last-minute cancellation).
Yet, the highlights and top placements indicated that Bonnaroo 2013 was indeed all about the leading men and women. Tom Petty played closer on Sunday with an entirely cherry-picked set of hits and choice covers. Billy Idol sneered and snarled for the cameras, his synthetic punk cheekiness rubbing off on John Oates, who tried out his new look during a solo performance at the Sonic Stage on Sunday. Even the McCartney seed James received a decent billing in the booze tent, though his cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man” didn’t quite garner as much sympathy as he might have expected. David Byrne and St. Vincent offered selections from their mutual effort Love This Giant, but material from their respective solo catalogs evoked by far the strongest reactions. Then there was BjÃ¶rk, who in proper diva fashion shut down the photo pit entirely and arrived on stage looking something like a Clive Barker cenobite ready for a night at the disco.
Lesser cachet didn’t necessarily equate to diminished swagger.
Thursday night’s set by ex-Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman under his Father John Misty moniker pushed the idol idiom deep into the idiosyncratic early in the weekend; the gaddish persona he built behind the kit during his time with the band translated into that of a dashing country rogue behind the mic. He slinked, he sauntered and he provided a deeper understanding of his wooly songwriting via his demonstrative mannerisms.
Outside of Action Bronson arriving on stage with a joint the size of a Swiss Cake Roll, Killer Mike preaching the dangers of trusting the government in one of the weekend’s finest efforts and MC Ride unleashed like a rabid animal, this year’s excess of outstanding hiphop array was buoyed by its greatest group of all time in the Wu Tang Clan. Though it has evolved into a collection of dynamic personalities molecularly linked by conjoined thumbs and fanned fingers, it’s sincerest acknowledgement came from the crew of sign-language interpreters the festival employs equally for the awesome novelty of seeing a filthy hip-hop track signed and for reaching the deaf and hard of hearing. Method Man (and Killer Mike earlier) noticed the work one particular signer put in and went out of his way to make her feel especially appreciated.
“Weird” Al Yankovic’s surprisingly great set also brought out a horde of fanatics dressed in homage to his classic videos, luring their hero out, accordion in hand, with chants of “Let’s get weird!” The Weird One broke out his best Cobain, Amish Coolio and Jedi costumes in masterfully sending up a decent cross-section of pop culture through song and expertly re-edited videos showing him lambasting Megan Fox’s entire career with her approval and browbeating a sniveling, neurotic Eminem while the band transformed into their next mark.
Though the king of comedy rock never saw the inside of the actual Comedy Tent, Bonnaroo celebrated 10 years of presenting A-list comedy by spackling it into every nook and cranny. Ben Garrant and Thomas Lennon high-fived their way into the Cinema tent on Thursday in full “Reno 911!” character to deliver a futile anti-drug message, as everyone in the room lit up the minute the clock hit 4:20. Michael Winslow of “Police Academy” fame christened the Saturday night Rock ‘N Soul Superjam in full Jimi Hendrix regalia with a spoton “Star Spangled Banner” as only he is able (patriotism was en vogue, as R. Kelly offered his own version from the Which Stage only minutes later).
The weekend’s trio of Superjams in no small way defied the apotheotic refrain that played throughout the weekend, if only because they brought together so many beloved figures into a unified front. Calling themselves the “Greatest Wedding Band of All Time,” the John Oates-led team of Jim James, Larry Graham, Zigaboo Modeliste, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and a revolving cast of guest vocalists tore through an easily identifiable playlist. The best of the O’Jays, John Lennon, Prince, Sly & the Family Stone, Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield mirrored, though not necessarily surpassed, last year’s D’Angelo resurrection.
James was already warmed up after stepping in to join Pres Hall during their 10 p.m. set, turning the traditional ballad “St. James Infirmary” into a campfire ghost story, before channeling Sly for “Hot Fun In the Summertime.” It’s best moments, however, were the fulfillment of the unexpected. R. Kelly joined the band after the conclusion of his set for so-good-you’ll-cry turns on Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come” and “Bring It On Home to Me”, and Billy Idol popped in immediately after to scowl through T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong.”
As remarkable as its execution was, it had trouble topping Bonnaroo’s first hip-hop Superjam on Friday night, which had equal potential for disaster. The part-time Boston funk massive Lettuce provided the groove (mostly thanks to the indefatigable Erick Coomes on bass), Chad Hugo of the Neptunes provided the musical direction and DJ Jazzy Jeff brought the je ne sais quoi for one of the festival’s all-time great sets. It was an opportunity for the cornucopia of rappers the band had up its sleeve to not only spit their best bars, but their favorite lyrics, period. Schoolboy Q gave a shout-out to Nas with “New York State of Mind pt. II” and later, a rip-roaring drunk RZA paid homage to his fallen comrade with “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.”
Aside from the band’s instrumental interstitials like “Apache,” the Wu Tang dominated the set, with U-God and Ghostface Killah joining Solange on “A Family Affair” and Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Bonnaroo was in a way the coming out party for Solange, who is both her sister’s sister and so much more likeable than Beyonce — that she was willing to essentially be a cog in the wheel for the huge undertaking that is Superjam is a testimony to her humility. She’s no doubt in possession of the skills, looks and genes to be immensely famous, she’s just not demanding to be hoisted with her own petard (yet).