The Bonnaroo 2013 user’s guide
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As the east coast half of the United States’ Big Two music festivals, Bonnaroo doesn’t need the benefit of 10th anniversary positioning to put on its biggest event ever in its 11th year. It ponied up the estimated $4–5 million required to secure Paul McCartney and still managed to form a festival that would be the envy of the concert industry without him. The four-day party in the fields of Manchester, Tenn. is still a gauntlet at the very least. Its schedule is populated with names both familiar and esoteric, decisions and opportunity costs, and as the name says, the promise of a good time. There’s no wrong way to Bonnaroo, so long as someone points you in the right direction.
12 – 6 p.m.: Arriving early at Bonnaroo requires about the same level of perseverance as getting up early on a holiday, but one also runs the risk of getting oneself stuck with a campsite way out in the sticks (check the map of the new 5K for scale, there’s a lot of walking to be done). The reward this year, however, is the opportunity to catch mirthful Nashville psych-rocker Ri’hie, a hybrid Eddie Money on goofballs and Foot Locker fetishist who writes great, tongue-in-cheek numbers about playing basketball at night and riding the Gravitron, and is backed by Jessica Lea Mayfield’s crew. An hour earlier, Dave Grohl’s much-praised documentary on a legendary, if unknown, studio plays in the cinema tent; it’s a must-see, but Ri’hie is one of a kind.
In the latter half of the opening salvo, “Too little, too late” is one way to describe the trippiest act currently on Stones Throw playing immediately before two of Reno’s finest go on a futile anti-drug tangent — the Stepkids live show is an eddy of soulful psychedelia, both visually and aurally. If anything, the upshot is an enhanced and cheekily disingenuous Just Say No rally.
6 – 10 p.m.: It’s a miracle that Dipset beatman Araabmuzik is expected to make it to his Thursday set after he was shot in an attempted armed robbery earlier this month, forcing him to cancel a swath of dates with concerns that his whole tour was in jeopardy. He stood tall and kept his chain and watch though, and “You’re now listing to Araabmuzik” will ring out from his late afternoon set that will completely bury the notion that even the best DJs and producers are just pushing buttons, because even Mozart was just pushing keys, right?
The true option paralysis begins at 8:30 p.m. with the grungy girlpower duo Deap Valley (check out the absolute banger “Gonna Make My Own Money”), all teeth and nails and drums and overdrive, opening a block that includes chilly Hot Chip spiritual kin Django Django and the gorgeous screwed, but not chopped, electronic duo Purity Ring, whose ever-expanding stage show is in breathtaking compliment to its sound. Don’t get too caught up in the tent scene, because Wake Owl offers Tallest Man On Earth-quality songwriting at a far lower premium.
10 p.m. – 6 a.m.: Formerly known as Jonny Corndawg, underground country-rock hero Jonny Fritz is as good of a reason as any to blow off overhyped power-punk duo Japandroids, and Pretty Lights mentee Paper Diamond (known also as Alex B) will bring Thursday’s best light show, but there are an unbelievable amount of good things happening in the Cinema Tent late. How about Tim DeLaughter’s acid choir the Polyphonic Spree performing the score to The Rocky Horror Picture Show before a midnight screening of the film itself, followed by a 2 a.m. “Trapped In the Closet” sing-along? R. Kelly seems to be free that night and he will be onsite two days later. R. Kelly isn’t going to do anything that R. Kelly doesn’t have to do though, but a girl can dream, can’t she?
In tent land, most will flock to see Alt-J’s exhausting, periodically pretentious indie-rock buffet, or to experience one of the best emcees alive in Dirty South patriarch Killer Mike, but jam band survivors ALO get the always exciting “with special guests” tag. Who could it be? How about tent opener Nicki Bluhm, who regularly performs sets of country and Whitney Houston covers with ALO and producer/Mother Hips front man/her husband Tim Bluhm? More importantly, is it worth missing DJ Jazzy Jeff for?
Friday, 12 – 6 p.m.: Friday is when the schedule opens up like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, with the two main stages and two smaller stage stages opening, along with a litany of smaller diversions making themselves available. That said, spending time under the oppressive midday sun at the What Stage is a fool’s errand, even to see Trombone Shorty’s stage-christening set. The stage’s impersonality has swallowed many a great act under those circumstances, and Troy Andrews is someone you want to second-line right alongside when he plays the Sonic Stage later. The Which doesn’t quite exact the same penalty, but Trixie Whitley’s epic pipes could consume everything in earshot (see the piece published on her in this space from February). Fridays are best eased into via new discoveries like the pandemically infectious indie-pop outfit Reptar, who are bringing along Greensboro’s own Walter Fancourt and Sean Smith, sax and trumpeter players for the Brand New Life respectively, and right after, the amazing desert blues guitarist Bombino. If it feels like the festival has stepped it up in the cinema tent also, it has. Case in point: DJ Thomas Golubic, the selector savant responsible for the peerless soundtrack of “Breaking Bad,” re-scoring The Road Warrior at 2:10 p.m.
The jewel in the mid-afternoon wasteland of twee and preciousness is Fatoumata Diawara, a Malian singer whose closest American artistic equivalent might be Lauryn Hill (without the tax delinquency), and Big KRIT is among the best self-produced rappers alive, his beats harkening a revival of UGK-bred southern funk and Outkast’s gritty country realism. If there’s one other set to catch besides Grizzly Bear, it’s John Oates interview and performance set — a rare opportunity to hear the bluesier half of the greatest pop duo ever sing them his way.
6 – 9 p.m.: The dearth of great, straight up jazz in the past couple of years (Steve Bernstein’s MTO Plays Sly notwithstanding) is absolved with the inclusion of John McLaughlin & the Fourth Dimension. The longtime Miles Davis sideman made a bit of a power move a few years ago by trading the Hadrien Feraud, arguably the world’s preeminent under-30 bassist, for playing too out in front for the more subtle presence of Etienne Mbappe. The quartet is a powerhouse nonetheless, with drummer extraordinaire Gary Husband actually on keys, an instrument that the legendary Billy Cobham believes might even be his best. It’s a shame that this set is lined up directly against Bonnaroo hero Jim James’ solo set, because Regions of Light and Sound of God is one of this year’s best works and demands a close live appreciation. Otherwise, there’s always the scintillating possibilities provided by “TBD” at 7:30 on the Solar Stage (hint: the name will rhyme with Saul McCartley, maybe).
It’s practically an honor for chime-y Charlotte folk-y, pop-y husband-and-wife-and-brothers outfit Matrimony to be the only alternative to the close of Sir Paul’s three-hour headlining set, and under-attendance won’t be a problem thanks to the latenight opportunists. Matrimony are a band that exist in a state of pure childlike energy when they’re on stage, reconstituting into really nice, regular people the second they step off who will probably book it with everyone else at their set to see ZZ Top.
12 a.m. – 6 a.m.: Since the cherry has been popped on the Old Dirty Bastard hologram with the announcement that Russell will appear with the Wu Tang Clan in ethereal form at Rock the Bells, Bonnaroo is as good of a place as any for the dress rehearsal. There’s also a chance that only U-God and the Hillside Scramblers could show up. ZZ Top, on the other hand, are as steady and middle of the road as they come, and the glaring hole in the lineup where That Tent should be and some recent, puzzling tweets by Ashley Capps suggest that surprises could be in store. For the EDM crowd, the Other Tent is home to two rather amazing DJs in Wolfgang Gartner, whose towering lighting installation promises some of the weekend’s best eye candy, and Chapel Hill wunderkind Porter Robinson, author of beats that will dominate EDM for years after the supposed bubble bursts.
Saturday, 12 – 5 p.m.: Is it ever too early in the day for solid EDM? To be clear, the Clockwork that’s spinning a lunchtime (breakfast?) set on Saturday is not the Italian duo responsible for deep, soulful house, but the one who puts out electro-bangers on the Mad Decent and Dim Mak imprints. His beats are somewhat of a guilty pleasure, but so are the doughnuts and coffee that David Lynch is supplying in the Cinema Tent a few hours before and Clockwork doesn’t need you to get up before noon.
You know, the Beatles’ kids could form a pretty decent band — Sean Lennon, Zak Starkey, Dhani Harrison and Saturdayafternoon Lounge performer James McCartney, with Nora Jones as spiritual advisor. McCartney’s inclusion is purely of his own accord, not as a courtesy to his dad, no sir, but it’d be shocking if Sir Paul wasn’t present at the festival’s most intimate stage for his son’s performance. His prior history at US festivals suggests that his son’s won’t be the only one, either. Worst case scenario: He’s instead in the cinema tent pooh-poohing the sneak preview of “Low Winter Sun” for not being as good as the British original.
If it’s not too early in the day for EDM, then neither is it for the hardest of hardcore rap. The animalistic MC Ride makes Brotha Lynch Hung look like Lil Dicky, and the electronic noise and relentless blast beats of Death Grips are the closest thing Bonnaroo has to great, truly shocking punk music this year. It’s best taken in small doses, however, and Two Gallants’ criminally overlooked 2012 folk-rock standout The Bloom and the Blight is the foundation for an uplifting, just ripping good time at their coinciding set. Solange “The Better” Knowles is an option, but her inevitable guest spot with the Dirty Projectors offers far greater potential.
Not much has been said about the Comedy Tent thus far, simply because the options have usually been superior to sets by the left-field Chris Gethard, the grating Daniel Tosh or Michael Che’s vaguely original spin on old jokes. That changes with Ed Helms’ “Whisky Sour Radio Hour,” which actually isn’t even comedy. Somewhat like Steve Martin, Helms takes his bluegrass very seriously, though his Whisky Sour variety show is a hodge-podge of picking, funny asides and surprise guests — he’s had Will Ferrell and Benmont Tech of the Heartbreakers show up unexpectedly (Tench is playing on Sunday, but will be in Indiana that day). The Comedy Tent can become rather inaccessible due to some performers, and that might be the case for David Cross’s Saturday set, thanks to this obscure show called “Arrested Development” that a handful of people are watching on Netflix. It will be vulgar, offensive and hilarious, and he might offer an answer to his question, “Do I like barter?”
5 – 11:30 p.m.: The brunt of the schedule-related conjecture has focused on the mysterious Very Special Guest (Interview & Performance) on the Solar Stage at 5 p.m., which, if it’s not Jim James performing My Morning Jacket tunes with former tourmates the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (they’re scheduled there immediately beforehand, and they’re both joining up later in the night for Superjam), it would be a shock. The opportunity cost is missing David Cross and the Dirty Projectors.
If it weren’t crystal clear that there’s a lot of stuff to see, how about avant diva Bj’rk competing with country royalty like Dwight Yoakam or dance music king A- Trak? The setting sun will surely diminish the amazing visual experience that Bj’rk offers, not that it really matters, while Yoakam remains one of the best live acts around (caught him at the Ryman last month — amazing). A-Trak, on the other hand, created some of the best hip-hop/ electro mixtapes of the past decade in Dirty South Dance 1 & 2. Like Fat Tony says, listen to your heart.
What’s been said about the next three hours on the main stages that haven’t been said about the KFC Double Down? Giving little alternative to the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons is a crime against nature, but there isn’t exactly zero alternative. While huge crowds are soaking in the sounds that inspired the most recent wave of advertisement knockoff tracks, JD Simo is going to be annihilating his fretboard Stevie Ray-style. It’s a wonder the Nashville guitarist isn’t more famous than he is right now; the 27-year-old wields rock, free jazz and electric blues like a Renaissance master, but his travel might be limited by the fact that his glassy tone is in high studio demand. Sandwiched in between Simo and another guitar master in William Tyler is Michael Winslow’s Cinema Tent set — yes, that Michael Winslow, Police Academy’s Officer Larvelle Jones, master of all the Space Invaders SFX and badly-dubbed Kung Fu voices you’d ever want to hear.
11:30 p.m. – 5 a.m.: There may be no more anticipated set at this year’s Bonnaroo than the man who disappointed so many people at Ziggy’s back in January, but R. Kelly will not be there simply for the stogies and Champagne poppin’ off. This is the Pitchfork Festival overall headliner Kells in all his baby-making glory, and also leading off a block of the damnedest conflicts all weekend. The Bonnaroo Superjam Industrial Complex breeds higher and higher expectations every year, and it would be almost impossible to top D’Angelo’s return to the US last year. There’s potential to come close, however, with Jim James backed by Pres Hall, John Oates and the legendary Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, and very likely more. The billing says the setlist will be dominated by rock and soul classics like the Curtis Mayfield covers Oates and MMJ shared last year. The rub? It’s right in the line of fire of a pair of can’t miss novelties in ’80s icons Billy Idol and “Weird” Al Yankovic. Idol is an especially curious case because there are certainly a lot of people who were shocked to discover he’s still alive. He hasn’t released any work since a 2006 Christmas album, but his stage show, like his face, is nonetheless perfectly preserved by the miracle of science.
About the time someone is overheard saying that sleep is for babies, Aussie synth-pop/performance art ensemble Empire of the Sun will fire up their behemoth production for the scant hour they’re given. It’s an overwhelmingly visceral experience that pales even that of one of the world’s top DJs in Boys Noize, whose set could actually see the sun come up. He may not be the only one, however, because cover supergroup Bustle In Your Hedgerow have Led Zeppelin’s entire catalog to work with, and the jam veterans Marco Benevento, Joe Russo, Scott Metzger and Ween’s Dave Dreiwitz are intimately familiar with protracted sets.
Sunday, 12 – 5 p.m.: The last day offers another chance to catch John Oates, so seriously, do it. Wilson, NC’s own Lee Fields is worth braving mid-day exposure after at the main stage; he’s a soul man whose raw physicality resembles no one from this era. He’s chiseled from rock with a plaintive rasp that recalls Joe Tex or Don Covay and moves like JB. Fields precedes the last chance to catch David Cross, or possibly a production of “John Beard’s To Entrap a Local Predator Bonnaroo Edition: Super Creeps,” who will no doubt spend his 45 minutes vocalizing disgust over everyone he’s encountered that weekend and their incessant barrage of “Arrested Development” jibes. But Bob Saget (it’s Bonnaroo: ’80s Edition)? Don’t underestimate America’s favorite TV dad. He’s stupid funny and as vulgar as a frat boy.
5 – 11 p.m.: In a day of relatively gentle music for the worn and weary, Swans are the equivalent of a Mortal Kombat finishing move. Michael Gira’s arty industrial rock outfit made hay in the ’80s on generating the kind of volume that some statutes might consider assault, and its MO is still to create noise on top of noise on top of noise, enough to blow a grown man off his feet. Earplugs are absolutely necessary. Not so for Ed Helms’ “Bluegrass Situation,” who has the benefit of having three-quarters of the Sunday schedule laid out to cherry-pick participants — new Yep Roc signee Aoife O’Donovan, Grammy winner John Fullbright, Delta Rae, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Noam Pikelny and his band, even Kacey Musgraves, Black Prairie and Matthew E. White have something to bring to the table. Game recognizes game, and Ed Helms is a true player.
Still, it’s a tough call between the scintillating electro-rock supergroup Divine Fits and the promise of Talking Heads tunes from the great David Byrne & St. Vincent. A$AP Rocky’s set also portends an appearance from Kendrick Lamar, who’s incorporated tracks from LONG.LIVE A$AP in his sets all year, though there’s a better chance that Rock appears on the main stage with Lamar instead. The festival is a marathon, not a sprint, and that it will go out on two hours from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers suggests that those who made it that far deserve a victory lap.