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Memorable moments from Bonnaroo X

by Ryan Snyder

Blackbird McKnight and Bernie Worrell join Bootsy Collins for the funkiest show of the weekend.

I wasn’t much of an Arcade Fire fan before my first time seeing them perform when they headlined Friday night on Bonnaroo’s main stage; I guess as far as indie-rock bands go, their hugeness has become counterintuitive to the chimerical idea of what indie rock has always been. Never mind that, because there’s such a sense of ecstasy that emanates from them when they perform that it seems unfair for Ben Ratliff of the New York Times to have described them as “music for the deaf” in his Coachella review. It wasn’t hard to see where he was coming from though, because it’s clear that much of their onstage aesthetic is a little manufactured; band members sing off into empty space with no mics to catch their voices and excessive amounts of physical exertion are put into creating inconsequential elements of their sound. It looks great, and for the hard of hearing among their fans, it sounds good too.

It’s a shame that most only know the Scissor Sisters from their 2004 single “Take Your Mama,” or as simply a GLBT band and won’t give them a further listen because of it, but this band is a live juggernaut. The hyperkinetic stage presence of singers Ana Matronic and Jake Shears is a key component, but instrumentally, the band combined scuzzy club beats with searing rock guitar that turned This Tent into a Los Angeles disco. They’re heroes in the gay and lesbian community, but their latenight set was one of the most diverse and fun atmospheres of the weekend. Straight couples boogied next to tall drag queens as Shears and Ana dropped hilarious one-liners in between jams like “Filthy/Gorgeous” and a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” The best tweet of the festival originated from the early morning hours after their show, reading “leaving Scissor Sisters’ set feeling hornier than I’ve ever been before.”

Headlines the morning after Eminem’s set gushed over the rapper’s debut on the Bonnaroo main stage late Saturday night, but suffice to say the festival’s top-billed act might have been one of the worst headlining acts in all of its 10 years. It felt vaguely like I was being yelled at for 90 minutes while Eminem videos and promos played over the gigantic What Stage LCD screens, backing tracks filled out his scant band’s sound, and the impossibly unnavigable crowd threw middle fingers in the air during every song. It was an ugly scene for a time that’s traditionally been reserved for the utmost positivity. The set list was heavy on the hits, but when it came to material from The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, he was content to mash them into a medley. The frail-looking Eminem took shortcuts elsewhere, including dropping whole verses from “I Need A Doctor” and “Stan.” Rumors that Dr. Dre was soundchecking the day before turned fruitless, as his set with high guest potential only turned up Royce Da 5´ 9".

The Bootsy Collins show might have been most reflective of the Eminem-ization of this year’s Bonnaroo crowd, as the set originally set for 7 p.m. was already pushed back 45 minutes after the previouslyscheduled Devotchka showed up late. It took another 40 minutes after that to get the funk rolling because of a stage nazi incessantly demanding more wedges in Bootsy’s monitor and another stagehand forgetting a mic for the trombone player. To be fair, setting up his 10-piece band that included fellow former Parliament-Funkadelic mainstays Bernie Worrell and Blackbird McKnight was a labyrinthine challenge, but the rambunctious crowd was hurling expletives at the stage five minutes after the newly promised start time. Boos turned to “Bootsy!” the moment the lights dropped, and the Funk U-Nity rolled through one of the weekend’s best shows with 90 minutes of costume changes, earthrattling bass and a set list that touched on everything from “I’d Rather Be With You” to a volcanic “Flashlight.” You had to give up on seeing the Black Keys to get to that point, but in the words of Bootsy, “It ain’t no thang, bobbles.”

Judging from Big Boi’s set list, it seems completely possible that he was whetting our appetite for the return of Outkast sooner rather than later. More than half of the best hip-hop show of the weekend was comprised of songs by the ATL duo, with the rest rounded out by multiple songs from his last solo album, a few thumping instrumentals by his phenomenal backing band, and one of the weekend’s unofficial weekend anthem, Purple Ribbon All- Stars’ “Kryponite (I’m On It).”

It was hard to hear the Buffalo Springfield’s Saturday night set and not think it was anything more than another Neil Young-fronted band. The legendary rocker was the point man for almost all of the evening, with Stephen Stills hanging back and injecting the occasional lead vocal or guitar solo. The reunited band’s only festival appearance even ended with the Neil Young classic “Keep On Rocking In the Free World.” Then again, it was really kind of hard to hear the Buffalo Springfield show at all. The sound on the Which Stage was turned down so low that they were but a blot in the Venn Diagram of cross noise in Centeroo, but that was a recurring issue with more than a few sets and in this case it did lend a folky ambiance. Still, hearing the old timers tear through “Mr. Soul” and the weekend’s other unofficial anthem. “Hot Dusty Roads.” was special, as was hearing Neil preface “For What It’s Worth” as “their hit.”

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School of Seven Bells play a moody Thursday afternoon set.

It was a little disheartening to walk out to Dennis Coffey’s main stage-opening Saturday afternoon set and see more photographers in the photo pit than people in the crowd. Along with Eminem, the iconic studio wiz bookended the day with the sounds of Detroit, and his heavily instrumental set was swanky Motown funk bliss that included his classic “Scorpio” and a new track “All Your Goodies Are Gone” with Kendra Morris stepping in for Mayer Hawthorne.

J. Cole’s national coming out party looked to be on track, as the amazingly fluid MC from Fayetteville delivered on every expectation. He knocked the latest leak from his forthcoming debut album out of the park, paid sincere homage to Biggie and Tupac, and just generally poured himself into his show the way any first rate performer does. That is until comedian Donald Glover came along immediately after and blew him out of the water. Maybe it’s because expectations for Glover’s Childish Gambino persona weren’t as astronomical, but he showed that his hip-hop aspirations weren’t nearly the novelty many believed it to be. Possibly the first rapper ever to perform in a Garth Brooks T-shirt, Glover took a page from the Chilly Gonzalez playbook with a violinist backing him up, and another from Gucci Mane’s by coming off as just a little bit nutty. The skills are definitely there, but until he makes his own beats, Cole’s ceiling will always be a few floors higher.

The Comedy Tent was the best reprieve from the dust storms swirling around outside, and the show by Henson Alternative’s Stuff and Unstrung could temporarily make you forget that the biggest music festival in the country was happening outside. With a camera set up on a 10-foot tripod in the center of the stage, the group holding hot dog puppets aloft cracked jokes on Anthony Weiner as they played a “Remote Control”-style game with suggestions from the audience. Topics included mimicking the “Jersey Shore” set in Alaska and a Fox News lead story on floating babies caused by “Democratic big spending.” Some shows weren’t up to snuff though, as the set by Workaholics was even weirder than their Comedy Central show, and an ever-inflating Ralphie May littered his set with six-year-old material.

Psychedelics are in no short supply at Bonnaroo, but there’s no need for extracurriculars to experience a higher state of consciousness at a Black Angels show. Their fuzzy ’60s garage style is inspired as much by the music of Charles Manson and the Velvet Underground as it is a taste for austere, seismic lighting and grueling headtrips. Photographing the band proved near impossible, as what wasn’t washed out in green light was alternatively underexposed or overexposed to the Nth degree. Sonically, it was pure dark bliss.

As evilly hallucinogenic as the Black Angels were, Ratatat’s set was their feelgood counterpart, though the need for Dramamine at their show was just as urgent. The duo of Mike Stroud and Evan Mast created more complex sound by themselves than any other act at the festival, looping synths, guitar, bass, drums and anything else in the pile of instruments onstage to create a sublimely ethereal sound that was relentlessly funky at the same time. Their stage show was arguably the best of the weekend, with a ghostly string section appearing on two massive holographic projection screens that flanked them at times. Other times, it was a swarm of creepy, wide-eyed birds doing the tweaker twitch undulated to the beats.

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Dr. John casts his voodoo magic over the crowd in his third Bonnaroo appearance.

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