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The funk-tacular guide to the 10th annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival

by Ryan Snyder

J. Cole (courtesy image)

Ill-advised MTV jokes aside, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has returned to its sold-out ways for the 10th year. The hype around the anniversary is as big as the event itself with Eminem, Arcade Fire, Buffalo Springfield and the Black Keys sharing the headlining duties. Navigating the conflicts is an unenviable task (at least that’s what those who get shut out will say), so this primer offers a highly danceable cure to the option paralysis blues.

J. Cole — By the time August rolls around, J. Cole is going to be the biggest name in hip hop. After a series of stellar mixtapes, Fayetteville’s own Jermaine Lamar Cole is set to release his debut album on Jay-Z’s imprint sometime this summer, and judging from the first few tracks, it’s going to be a good one. The multi-talented MC and producer is the consummate showman, and with his full band in tow, this show could be the jumping off point of the next great hip-hop career.

D’am-Funk & Master Blazter — A word of caution: This rundown is incredibly biased in favor of funk, but for good reason — there’s going to be a lot of it. D’m-Funk might as well be the reincarnation of Roger Troutman with the way he rocks the keyboard and talkbox. Usually performing as a solo act, he’s packing a new arrangement called Master Blazter that rivals the Zapp Band in hellified gangsta funk.

Ben Sollee — If there’s a possibility of a show becoming something completely unexpected, it belongs to cellist Ben Sollee’s early Friday afternoon set. The timing is simply just too good. The solo Sollee can certainly entrance an audience with his classically inspired roots-pop sound, but snuggled in close proximity to sets by Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck leaves the possibility of an impromptu Sparrow Quartet reunion. Of course, that’s only three of the four, right? Nope. Violinist Casey Driessen is also an unannounced guest for Fleck’s show with the Original Flecktones.

Wanda Jackson — The Queen of Rockabilly had been nearly lost to antiquity before Jack White helped to introduce her to an entirely new generation of fans with his work on her 2011 album The Party Ain’t Over. White isn’t on the bill himself, but with his wife Karen Elson performing late Thursday afternoon, you have to acknowledge the likelihood that he makes a couple of surprise appearances, Jackson included.

Gary Clark Jr. — Young, black and bluesman isn’t a description of an artist you hear often these days, but the 27-year old Austin guitarist Gary Clark Jr. is maybe the closest thing there is to a “Frosty”era Albert Collins in 2011. On Saturday afternoon, his set time and location isn’t exactly befitting of his abilities, especially considering the tens of thousands he blew away at the Crossroads Guitar Festival, but the small stage means it shouldn’t be too hard to get up close with the blues.

Dennis Coffey — There’s really an absurd amount of rare groove to see and hear in the festival’s 10 th year, and guitarist Dennis Coffey is like a living encomium of classic funk. This distinctive wah-wah is heard on more classic tracks than you can count, including Edwin Starr’s “War,” the Isley Brother’s “It’s Your Thing” and the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” And that sample on Young MC’s “Bust A Move” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Renegades of Funk”? That’s Coffey’s “Scorpio.”

Dr. John with the Original Meters and Allen Toussaint — A Dr. John show alone is enough to draw a big red circle around that time on the schedule, but for his Saturday late-night set, he has friends. Those friends just so happen to be the other two names in the New Orleans Holy Trinity, and they’re playing the album that gave the festival its name. It’s like an entire season of “Treme” packed into one 90-minute set. It’s just too bad that it’s also a part of the worst conflict of the entire weekend…

Bootsy Collins & the Funk University — You can go with this, or you can go with that. The festival gods truly have a sick sense of humor putting one once-in-a-lifetime show directly opposite another, and rumors that the Star-Spangled Bassman will be retiring soon make this scenario all the more maddening. There’s practically no info out there about what kind of band that Bootsy, baby, is bringing — only that it’s related to his online funk school. A quick rundown of the faculty list that includes Les Claypool and Meshell Ndegeocello opens up a world of possibilities, however.

Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub — Part of the fun of festival preparation is the debate over the best instrumentalists on the bill, and as far as drummers go, there’s little question it’s Black Dub drummer Brian Blade. The personal skin man of the living legend Wayne Shorter, Blade is often hailed as the perfect storm of innovation and ability on the jazz kit, but this isn’t exactly an abstract jazz quartet. Songwriter/producer Daniel Lanois newest project with scintillating contralto Trixie Whitley is a melting pot of gospel, dub and blistering rock & roll. The band only has one release under its belt — which includes an anthemic cover of the late-great Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm” — but Lanois’ casts a long shadow over this festival, and that includes producing Buffalo Springfield front man Neil Young’s latest album.

The Dr. John & Dan Auerbach Superjam — Forget Explosions In the Sky, forget the Strokes, hell, forget Robert Plant. The late Sunday afternoon clusterfreak is an easily resolvable puzzle. Look back to the magical, rainy Sunday evening in 2004 when one of the worst conflicts in the festival’s history presented itself with Bill Laswell’s Material opposite something then ethereally known as “Superjam.” Well, that was the last Material set in the United States, maybe ever, and the Superjam is one of the more peerless jewels to be mined from archive.org. Those opposing the Son of Superjam in 2011 don’t carry nearly the gravitas of a Bill Laswell show, so the choice is easy.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

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