THE BONNAROO 2014 FIELD GUIDE, PT. 1
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As more and more debutante music festivals emerge to cater to increasingly drilled-down audience subsets, the more the focus on the mothership festivals atop their patrilineal hierarchy sharpens. Mammoth weekenders like Bonnaroo or Coachella can either be scorned for their populist and corporatist bloat, or they can be praised for creating these pressurized spaces where seekers are pushed toward their next great personal discovery at all times, in any direction.
Heading into its 13th year, there remains little room for ambivalence regarding the Bonnaroo Music Festival for the culturally invested. The four-day-long ritual itself is marked by a series of events leading up to it “” lineup release, artist additions, schedule announcement, promoter AMAa; those preceding movements infiltrate everything from the most widely read music blogs to specialized online communities to local record stores. CFBG created an event back in February around the slick Taran Killam-starring lineup announcement video, with sales on records by any artist who had played the festival. Thus Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Beach House, Aimee Mann, James Blood Ullmer and Jay Z all could have or did sit in the box by the register. It attracted a rather cozy crowd to watch it according to co-owner Jack Bonney, half of which had never been in the store before. Not bad for a festival that’s seven hours away, though its universality curtails that barrier substantially.
Even as the CamelBak’d bros in warbonnets and neon shades have eaten up the festival share of narcotized hippies in velour patchwork pants, its remains as disparate in its overall vision as any music festival running. It caters to those who are content to jump from one corner of their musical identity to another for as long as their feet (or the heat) will allow. The biggest challenge, however, isn’t weathering 80,000 among the spectrum between the above-mentioned types, or the Tennessee Valley heat and snap thunderstorms of June, it’s making the most of the four days amid its myriad offerings.
THURSDAY: 1:00 – 4:00 P.M.
Basically taking place in a repurposed cow pasture, Bonnaroo isn’t the idyllic setting of festivals like Primavera Sound or Basilica “” very early forecasts suggest it’s going to be hotter than a Nelly video “” but every year begins with a pointed environmental message. That comes this year in the Cinema Tent via a Q&A on conservation with the chair of the Tennessee Sierra Club, Scott Banbury. Which, considering that the population density is more than one and a half times that of the city of Manila, it’s not a bad idea to instill an eco-friendly mindset, even if in only a minute percentage.
While most are sitting in traffic or setting up camp, Nashville songwriter Alicia Bognanno will have the honor of breaking the music cherry in the On Tap Lounge with her four-piece Bully. A former intern of famed engineer Steve Albini, Bognanno’s music borrows the grungy lo-fi aesthetic of his best works, but favors a bit sunnier approach. She’s succeeded in that space by the Unlikely Candidates, the first in what amounts to be an unprecedented amount of foot-stomping, uplifting folk-rock cheese that occupies the bottom quarter of the lineup. It’s as if festival promoters have compiled ample evidence that most people don’t especially gravitate toward the smallest stages, and instead stock them with vaguely joyful, but practically anonymous white noise. Presented with the alternative of a cat video film festival in the Cinema Tent, the choice is clear for the early arrivals, though Aussie soul-rock the Preatures offer a stylish introduction to the immersive stage experience.
4:00 – 9:00 P.M. The Forest City, N.C.-born songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s days as a member of the underrated rock duo Muscadine with Benji Hughes are long since in the rearview, but his current life as a world-traveling West Coasty is bearing better fruit. Last year’s Fanfare was not only a sumptuous buffet of psychedelic folk, it also came on one of the highest quality vinyl releases one might ever own. Its creamy white wax was housed in a gatefold that paid homage to biblical frescos on the outside and radical Dadaism (rather scandalously) on the inside. His sets are similarly sprawling, as noted by the masterful three-hour performance he and his band gave at the Cat’s Cradle a few months ago, though he’ll have to present his desert rock visions more compactly in the hour he has at This Tent. If not, those craving a more succinct early intake might find kinship with EDM bon vivant Robert DeLong, who weaves dance symphonies out of a drum kit, MIDI controller, synths, loop station and the most random assortment of idiophonic gadgets ever thrown together.
After a few years of dormancy, Bonnaroo’s resurrection of the Superjam in 2011 “” and 2012’s surprise performance by D’Angelo with ensemble cast “” secured the Superjam phenomena as the festival’s crown jewel. The trio of incredible eclectic Superjam’s are in and of themselves wizardries of booking (or cat herding), but there’s a preliminary event that could easily qualify as one anywhere else, even if it didn’t receive that designation. The afternoon showing of director Martin Shore’s new film “Take Me to the River” “” a spiritual successor of sorts to a 2008 album of the same name featuring the greatest Stax singers “” isn’t your average screening. It will accompany a performance by unsung soul men William Bell and Bobby Rush, along with Three 6 Mafia affiliates Frayser Boy and Al Kapone. They’ll be backed by a band assembled by the film’s cowriter, Talking Heads drummer Jerry Harrison, which includes house band greats the Norman Sisters and the Hi Rhythm Section, Bar-Kays founder Ben Cauley leading the horns, and engineering legend Boo Mitchell on keys. It’s not a Superjam in name, but it certainly feels like one.
With that said, it can be a challenge getting into the air-conditioned Cinema Tent to begin with, and if a pop-up storm manifests, nigh impossible. Outside, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist ZZ Ward offers knockoff soul. At best, her positioning is ideal for getting a good spot for indie rockers Real Estate, whose new record Atlas is among the best received of the early part of 2014. Its vibe is 100% laid back, though the band’s nervous energy live gives it new, evolving shape. They’re up against one of the evening’s buzzier bands, New York dream pop duo MS MR, whose cachet was established almost as soon as they formed with their brooding single “Hurricane” being used as the centerpiece for a Gucci campaign last year.
9:00 P.M. – 2:00 A.M. The often suffocating Thursday night crowds can feel like a bad omen for the weekend to come, but without the two largest stages open until Friday, the audience has to go somewhere. Savvy seekers might still check out the sequestered What Stage on the oft chance there’s a sound check for Friday taking place, like last year’s surprise Paul McCartney appearance where he played a mini set with “Eight Days a Week” and “Magical Mystery Tour”. It feels unlikely that Friday night headliner Kanye West will do the same, but there’s precedent for someone to step up. Bonnaroo’s hippie roots often materialize in the hippie dance music it enjoys, and trap-soul duo Cherub and beat savants Break Science are two fine examples, but Thursday’s tertiary role as an industry showcase positions electro-pop singer Banks as the American heiress to the Ellie Goulding/Jessie Ware crown. It’s good music, but they’ve tried this before with Charli XCX. A more interesting choice would be Omar Souleyman, who turned Syrian wedding music into a pulsating electronic phenomenon. The best remaining Thursday night picks include the unadulterated rock-and-roll of J. Roddy Walston & the Business (who are actually visiting the Triad later this summer); Virginia Beach rap icon Pusha T, whose solo work rivals that of his defunct duo Clipse; and closer Ty Segall, whose explosive garage rock can incite the most tired bodies.
FRIDAY: 12:00 – 5:30 P.M.
With every stage operating, the festival grounds open up like a Georgia O’Keefe painting on Friday, with the noon reverie sounded by Michigan string juggernaut Greensky Bluegrass. Otherwise, jazz prodigy Jon Baptiste & the Stay Human Band could very well pay a personal visit to everyone still snoozing in their tent and march them back to their set at This Tent. His incredible charisma before a nearly snowed-out Valentine’s weekend crowd at the High Point Theatre showed a performer who forges a rare level of intimacy with his crowd, no matter the size. He’s a soulful dude, but even he can’t match the next “it” band of soul music, the Triad-bound St. Paul & the Broken Bones. They look like a group of algebra teachers on the surface, but frontman Paul Janeway has arguably the biggest voice of the entire festival, with the texture of Sam Cooke and a range to match.
Janeway is rivaled in pure vocal ability by the emergent superstar Sam Smith, whose vocals on Disclosure’s smash hit “Latch” are going to be a radio fixture in perpetuity. His just-released album In the Lonely Hour tones down the emotional fireworks a tad. That said, his heavenly voice, elegant romanticism and stellar set of torch songs put him in a position to become the biggest gay male musical icon since Freddie Mercury or
Bonnaroo’s closer, Sir Elton. Plus, his acoustic version of “Latch” is actually superior to the original.
There’s slight overlap with a set that’s a bit of a bleed-through of Bonnaroo promoter Ashley Capps’ pet festival, the eclectic Big Ears Festival. Jazz provocateur-turned-punk arriviste Marc Ribot gave two highly disparate performances there and here in the Cinema Tent, he’ll indulge the score he wrote decades post-facto for Charlie Chaplin’s classic “The Kid”. Later, he’ll join a group of frequent collaborators that include drummer Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin and Wood fame, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, and DJ Logic as the core backing unit for one iteration of Sufi trance institution, the Master Musicians of Jajouka. They aren’t to be confused with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, whose schism from the original unit that collaborated with Ornette Coleman and Brian Jones in the ’60s is among the more rancorous band break-ups you’ll ever read about.
5:30 P.M. – 12:00 A.M. Visiting the What Stage in the harsh light of mid-day is a fool’s errand; if the shadeless 90-degree heat doesn’t get you, the inevitable thunderstorm and the mud bath its expanse becomes will. Robot R&B queen Janelle Monae’s late afternoon set, however, is right in the sweet spot for manageable temps, serene lighting and access to the raucous good time that the main stage area becomes in the evening. There’s far less transience than the tent stages, and oftentimes neighbors end up becoming friends by proxy.
Artist-fan intimacy is hard to come by there, however, but not so with a band like the Orwells at the On Tap Lounge, whose Letterman performance earlier this year will go down as boasting the single most inebriated lead singer in the history of late night TV. Frontman Mario Cuomo (for real, that’s his name) was so deep in the throes of substance that he took a seat beside Dave and spaced out for a solid minute while his band played the bridge over and over, before picking up like nothing ever happened. It was part of the trifecta of memorable performances this year “” along with Future Islands and Lake Street Dive “” that seemed to make Letterman care about music again. Their spunky brand of rock is actually great when performed competently, particularly their new record Disgraceland.
Schedule conflicts at Bonnaroo are more inevitable than death and taxes, but organizers are almost giving a middle finger to the hippest subset of its audience by scheduling Vampire Weekend, CHVRCHES, Neutral Milk Hotel and Phoenix all in the same block. That, or mercifully diffusing the inevitable concentration of looky-loo concerteers that would have otherwise concentrated at Kanye West’s headlining set and made Outkast’s Coachella reunion look like the Constantinople Riots. Kanye’s notorious, now-forgiven disaster show in 2008 (the “F- — Kanye West” graffiti will hopefully still be there) didn’t even warrant a mention in the ostentatious recent critical anthology, The Cultural Impact of Kanye West, but that’s not to say it won’t be brought up once or twice. There’s still a pair of noteworthy omens surrounding his return: Not only will it come on Friday the 13th, but it’s also baby North West’s first birthday.
12:00 – 3:30 A.M.
The first night of Bonnaroo’s famous late-night scene presents its own set of challenges: opt for West Coast rap legend Ice Cube and his inevitable group of guests in round one, or join the crush of people at Disclosure’s set, where Sam Smith will surely appear to sing “Latch”, along with the great possibility of a Mary J. Blige appearance (she just joined Smith on stage in Philly to duet). What about the first official Superjam, whose rhythm section has recorded more albums than every artist that day combined?
James Gadson is arguably the most celebrated session drummer of all time, while Willie Weeks’ bass playing is so tremendous that Donnie Hathaway felt compelled to immortalize Weeks’ hometown of Salemburg, N.C. on this 1971 live album while introducing him. Add to that mix Derek Trucks, Taj Mahal, Chaka Khan, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Susan Tedeschi, Ben Folds and the promise of “and more”, and it has the potential to become the wettest of dreams for a classic rock fan.
Round two further delineates the listenership, with Skrillex’s absurd spaceship stage production on the Which Stage pulling in the P.L.U.R.s, Swedish extreme metal gods Meshuggah playing maybe the heaviest set the festival has ever had, and Die Antwoord redefining weird with the addictive South African rave rap-cum-dream pop of their new record Donker Mag.
Check back next week to read part two of the Bonnaroo 2014 Field Guide. !