Times they are a-changin’: An in-depth look back at Bonnaroo #11

Written by Cal Roach / Photos by Rex Thomson

June 26, 2012

 

Ten years ago, late on a hot Thursday night, tens of thousands of Phishheads, Spreadheads and other adventurous counterculture-types (and bewildered cross-country truck drivers) parked their vehicles on a stretch of I-65 just outside of Manchester, TN as the people of that town scrambled to figure out a way to cram them all into the first Bonnaroo.

Many people unrolled sleeping bags right on the asphalt as ten hours or more passed with very little forward progress. Backs, necks and legs were stiff and cramped from squeezing bodies and gear into the smallest car possible for a long drive, but spirits were high; the music hadn’t even started but already this was a happening unlike any our generation had experienced before.

 

 

Eventually the cars all tumbled haphazardly into a big grassy field, people started pitching tents and stretching tarps between vehicles and trying to squeeze in a nap before the music began in The Ballroom (The Other Tent in modern parlance). The deck was stacked against us for this inaugural attempt at a peaceful antithesis to Woodstock ’99; the heat was oppressive and the general state of disorganization meant that clean water was sometimes hard to come by, and at certain times the portable toilets were positively overflowing. The closest thing to a shower was to huddle over a spigot as water dribbled out in order to pour pitchers of icy goodness over your head and into your shorts.

Every time an ice truck pulled in, the mad rush was like an autograph line at a Star Trek convention. By Sunday night, lack of sleep, heat exhaustion, dehydration and over-partying had reduced much of the crowd to dozing on the lawn by The Stadium (yep, that’s What Stage) waiting for Trey to come on.

Still, you didn’t see many frowning faces. Many of us had sacrificed a lot just to get there, and more than anything we were counting on The Music to make it all worthwhile, and The Music delivered.

The scene was still recovering from the revelation that Phish may or may not ever play again, as well as the news that Widespread Panic guitarist Michael Houser was fighting a losing battle against cancer; he would play only a few more shows. The community needed to gather together and create something positive in the face of uncertainty, and that’s exactly what happened.

Ten years and eleven events later, that particular community no longer exists. Bonnaroo is a massive neon-lit advertisement for itself, with showers, well-kept porta-potties, tight security and all the popular bands of the day, but this is only a reaction to what has happened in the wider world, as well as what may be an honest endeavor to make the festival experience as comfortable as possible for the fans. We even got an added bonus this year: the most absolutely perfect weather imaginable, unheard of at ‘roos past. With headlining sets in store from Phish and Radiohead, the deck was stacked decidedly in our favor…

 

TOP  SETS OF THE WEEKEND

 

Bizarrely, this list was incredibly easy to narrow down. Just like every year, Bonnaroo was bursting with great music (and for the love of God, keep in mind: A person can only be in one place at a time), but five artists stood head and shoulders above the rest of the performances that this particular writer witnessed. In chronological order:

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (Thursday, The Other Tent)

●Unless this show was a fluke, big things are in store for this band.

 

The band’s 2011 debut album It’s A Corporate World is a bright, clever and uplifting collection of pop songs, but it doesn’t exactly scream “killer live band,” particularly since it’s all basically done by two guys. But anyone inclined to scoff at the Wikipedia assertion that “The group is known for high energy live performances” surely hasn’t seen Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. live. Unless this show was a fluke, big things are in store for this band.

After an already solid afternoon of music at The Other Tent, there was a sizable crowd assembled for the men of Dale to welcome darkness with a set that touched on most of Corporate World but featured some significant reimaginings (if you will) of the tunes; in particular, the title track and “When I Open My Eyes” managed to dance the fine line between creepy and uplifting to an Animal-Collective degree. But it was the well-chosen covers that provided perhaps the most moving moments; a nod to Sunday performers, The Beach Boys, yielded a soaring rendition of “God Only Knows” that culminated in a Phish-esque harmonic vocal jam, and a completely unexpected tribute to Whitney Houston (presumably) appeared in the form of a powerful and deferent “I Will Always Love You” interlude that developed out of “If It Wasn’t You…”  The penultimate song was Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit,” which DEJJ has completely made its own, and if you weren’t bouncing gleefully to this anthem you must’ve had lead in your shoes.  By 8:15 on Thursday it seemed like the best set of Bonnaroo might already be in the books.

 

White Denim (Thursday, The Other Tent)

…a dizzying display of musicianship.

 

We’re not in the business here of giving numerical rankings to the greatness of apples and oranges, so it’s impossible to say whether DEJJ or the band the followed it, White Denim, was better; suffice it to say that there was no better one-two punch of rock and roll all weekend. White Denim released another of 2011’s best albums, D, and many songs from it were woven into the band’s nonstop segue fest in truly astounding seamlessness. The precision with which this band plays its complicated proggy tunes and jams them out puts Denim on a pedestal shared by Umphrey’s McGee and not many others. There are strong elements of King Crimson, The Mars Volta and the more guitar-based strains of Krautrock, definite Zappa-isms as well as eclectic rootsy fare, and the overall blend is frequently intoxicating even on record.

Most bands that do prog this well don’t exactly jam. As such, it was the improv of the set that truly bowled the audience over; it was frequently hard to determine where one composition ended and the next began, as mind-bending walls of noise and full-band noodle soups emerged between nearly every song. It was a dizzying display of musicianship; the tightness of the band and the overall intensity were off the charts as Denim barely gave the crowd a chance to breathe.  The set began with the superb opening trio from the new album and never let up for a moment, dropping jaws over and over.

The myriad of styles gave virtually every music fan something to latch onto; a performance this good reveals White Denim as the rare band that can blend all those styles into something definitively its own.

 

Radiohead (Friday, What Stage)

…a far cry from the depressive Radiohead of old, but equally moving.

 

Radiohead’s first appearance at Bonnaroo was in 2006, and that show, replete with a generous complement of not-yet-released songs from the forthcoming In Rainbows album, was instantly branded a classic. At that point, the festival was just beginning its transition from hippie-centrism to an ever-increasing focus on indie and alt-rock, so this was a key crossover moment for Radiohead, and word of the band’s live prowess spread to a huge new segment of the show-going public.

Six years later, expectations were through the roof for the most universally revered band in the world. Fans purely hoping for 90s classics were the only ones disappointed.

Should Radiohead play more oldies? Based on this performance, no; if there was a low point to this show, it was “Karma Police,” which can be a great live song but Thom Yorke and company clearly find no inspiration in it anymore, which makes it all the more puzzling that they keep playing it with so many great alternatives at their disposal. This and the band’s single from last year, “Supercollider” (dedicated to Jack White: “We’re not gonna tell you why… but you’ll find out,” quipped Thom), were definite lulls. Everything else was stunning.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the show was Jonny Greenwood’s merciless pummeling of his guitar. Much has been made in recent years of the band’s focus on electronics over rock and roll, but despite the dearth of conventionally guitar-based songs, Greenwood found ways to inject vicious licks over and over. His demeanor onstage was that of a man possessed, while Thom played good cop and expressed nothing but gratitude and goofiness. It was a far cry from the depressive Radiohead of old, but equally moving.

Highlights were too numerous to cover, but they included the sublime pairing of the two tracks from Radiohead’s most recent single, “Staircase” and “The Daily Mail,” which are better than almost anything on last year’s The King Of Limbs LP. But the tracks from that album were almost all expanded and improved, augmented by more improvisation than Radiohead has been known for in years past (but still, not much).

“Morning Mr. Magpie” was ten times more intense, even in its relative brevity, with Jonny positively sawing at his guitar. Along this line,  “Lotus Flower” and “Feral” became vehicles for a hyper-danceable sound collage.

The recently reintroduced “I Might Be Wrong” and the recently problematic “Idioteque” sounded incredibly fresh and kinetic on this night, driving the crowd ballistic, and the required “Everything In Its Right Place” featured a beautiful “True Love Waits” introductory tease and a somewhat more organic, expansive exploration at its ending than is usually par.

Thom’s somewhat annoying re-sampling habit has finally evolved into a real vocal experiment, less obtuse and reliant on technology; even without rock, Radiohead has clawed its way back from its digital obsession to a very human sound that’s impossible to classify.

There weren’t any surprises, exactly; only two songs from OK Computer (including the bombastic “Paranoid Android” that ended the show) and nothing from prior albums, but regardless of whether or not the band will ever rediscover any enthusiasm for their oldies, they wouldn’t have fit into this particular model. Radiohead has always been about pushing forward and ignoring the past to an extent, and no band in pop music history has done it so well for so long.

 

Kenny Rogers (Sunday, The Other Tent)

 

See below, under “BONNAROO MAGIC” to read how this set became “emotional way beyond nostalgia.”

 

Phish (Sunday, What Stage)

…a thoroughly engrossing four-man musical conversation.

 

Bonnaroo always reserves the final headlining slot for jam band heroes in what is now a cursory nod to the origins of the fest. Trey Anastasio has appeared at this festival more times than anyone else, having headlined the inaugural year and most recently in 2009 as part of Phish’s triumphant return from nonexistence.

This band’s reputation at festivals other than those it curates alone has become somewhat of an albatross among hardcore fans; those who crave improvisation generally leave a festival set disappointed or skip them altogether. Still, some had reason to believe that of all stages, What Stage was more likely than the others to inspire greatness. More than any other band, expectations predetermine people’s enjoyment of Phish.

When all was said and done, there wasn’t much to malign about this show. Fans bitched about repeats from the tour’s first two nights, lots of “greatest hits,” and a relative lack of jamming; but in comparison to other festival outings (including Bonnaroo ’09), this was an outstanding Phish show in all respects.

In the modern era, merely trotting out “Tweezer” in the first set and actually engaging in a complete departure from song structure is a strong statement; it wasn’t some mind-bending epic, but it was a thoroughly engrossing four-man musical conversation that began quickly and reached a satisfying conclusion. The first set also ended with a surprisingly interesting take on “Backwards Down The Number Line,” a tune which rarely gets anything but the joyous guitar solo treatment lately.

Set two began promisingly with TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age,” although this modern-day surrogate of “Crosseyed And Painless” failed to take off as a vehicle tonight. The menacing crunch of “Carini” heralded the night’s centerpiece, a gnarly dirge that swiftly separated from normalcy and dove into destructive ambience. It was during this concise exploration that the 2012 (so far) dynamic showed itself: bassist Mike Gordon and chairman of the boards Page McConnell have reawakened to aggressive creativity relative to the past couple of years, while Trey has regained some patience and subtlety, allowing his melodic cohorts to lead jams again.

Drummer Jon Fishman has been frustratingly reluctant to deviate from prescribed beats over the past three years, but he seems to have loosened up in 2012, allowing improv to blossom more quickly into spontaneous creativity. Sure, it’s too bad that he and Mike couldn’t keep the groove flowing as they segued into the first performance of “Shafty” since 2003, but this was still a glorious moment for the assembled fans.

There were brief moments of transcendence in the ensuing “Rock And Roll,” “Light” and even the painfully cane-yanked “Harry Hood,” but there was also undeniably impressive playing during “Alaska,” “Character Zero” and the encore trio of “Show Of Life,” “Julius” and “Tweezer Reprise,” always an earth-shaking climax to a show.

These more tangible blasts of jukebox heroism don’t please tourheads, but Phish didn’t build its fanbase by catering to anything but the whims of its members, Trey in particular, and few in the audience were disappointed by this feel-good finale.

However scripted it may have been, regardless of any potential ulterior motives, it was a rousing rock show with just enough meaty improv to satisfy most of the scattered diehards in the crowd.

 

MILD DISAPPOINTMENTS

 

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Plenty of Blood, Sugar & Sex… but magic?

 

The biggest crowd of the weekend assembled Saturday night for Red Hot Chili Peppers’ headlining slot. Yep, that’s right: not Radiohead. Red Hot Chili Peppers. It seemed unfathomable at first, yet it was quickly apparent that somehow, RHCP aren’t the alt-rock oldies act you might think; they are a very popular band. The crowd was singing along to tunes from last year’s I’m With You as fervently as with any of the older material if not more so. And by “older material,” we’re talking about Californication and Blood Sugar Sex Magic and that’s about it. Unless you count Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” which appeared on 1989’s Mother’s Milk, the Peppers pulled a Radiohead and completely ignored what many consider to be its classic material. And again, fans will have to grudgingly admit that this is for the best; singer Anthony Kiedis has undoubtedly developed into a decent singer over the years, but he’s lost the ability to bark–much less bite–which pretty much rules out most of RHCP’s 80s catalog. He seems to have shaped RHCP into a “serious” band, which would have been inconceivable even in the mid-90s. And for this reviewer, the new direction just isn’t convincing.

Props go out to new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who is obviously determined to jettison the band’s history and make the Chili Peppers his own. He certainly deprived fans of some classic licks in favor of his layered, shoegaze-like approach, but he deserves a lot of credit for asserting his own stylistic voice so quickly. The rapport between him and bassist Flea is obvious, and the two led numerous impromptu jams with impressive energy — even if they were generally predictable. At this point, though, the band might as well not bother with cuts like “Give It Away” and “Suck My Kiss,” because Kiedis sounds silly and disinterested singing them and Klinghoffer clearly would rather be somewhere else during them. But they’ll need to write some better songs some day if the Klinghoffer era has any chance of staving off irrelevance.

 

Punch Brothers: Victim (of the sound guy) or the Crime?

 

Punch Brothers are a really, really good band. Their new Who’s Feeling Young Now? is one of this year’s best albums so far, and their performance at last year’s Summer Camp Festival, for instance, was nothing short of mind-boggling.

The term “progressive bluegrass” doesn’t do justice to what these acoustic wizards are capable of, but on a lazy Saturday afternoon at Which Stage, they didn’t seem to have quite enough energy to captivate the crowd.

This stage had probably the worst sound all weekend, not horrible but it wasn’t dialed in well enough to project the delicate intricacies of Punch Brothers’ music. It was still a good set, and their spot-on cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” captured everyone’s attention for sure, but either they didn’t muster the fire that they emanate on a good day or they weren’t mic’d properly enough to convey it.

 

A man without his TOOLs: Oh, nineties where art thou?

 

Maynard Keenan co-headlined Bonnaroo in 2007 with his most famous band, Tool, and returned this year with his tongue-in-cheek side project Puscifer. Apparently there was some sort of miscommunication between the band and the Bonnaroo brass, as a half hour rolled by past Puscifer’s scheduled start time before the band appeared onstage. By that point, many curious folks had wandered off, and in the end they may have been better off for it.

Puscifer is as much a visual animal as a musical one, and in broad daylight, the screens and light show were ineffectual. Keenan and co-vocalist Carina Round sounded great, but their onstage movements were tough to discern and the whole spectacle ultimately fell flat.

All of Maynard’s work dares the listener to decide for him or herself how sincere the man is actually being, but the challenge seemed pointless in this setting. Thus far Puscifer has been Keenan’s least intriguing project on a purely musical level, and the theatricality of the performance demands darkness and an intimacy that couldn’t be achieved here.

 

THE MARGINS

 

One odd thing about Bonnaroo this year is that it actually got a little less diverse than its trajectory had previously indicated. The rising popular acceptance of metal and continued popularity of hip-hop have yielded bigger and bigger names from these scenes… until 2012.

Ludacris was the most notable mainstream star in the rap category this year, and although he is well past his peak years on the charts, he was a perfect choice for the modern ‘roo crowd, bringing a party atmosphere that reaches across generations (thanks, Girl Talk!) and can’t fail to bring a shit-eating smile to your face at some point.  At one point, he even led the crowd through a singalong of most of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in one of the weekend’s biggest WTFs. Too many loud-crowd games hampered the flow occasionally, but otherwise the set was a booty-shakin’ good time.

Late nights also featured some godfathers of modern hip hop in the reunion of Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) for Friday night and GZA performing his classic Liquid Swords on Saturday night with Latin funksters Grupo Fantasma as his backing band, but after a marathon day, staying up until 4 a.m. isn’t always in the cards, nor is getting from the main stage to the tents in a timely manner.

These cats warranted more accessible time slots, end of story. All told, though there wasn’t a plethora of choices (The Roots also played Saturday at What Stage just prior to the Chili Peppers), on paper at least the quality was top notch.

Saturday turned out to be the de facto “heavy” day (mostly centered at That Tent), with some of the oddest choices possible for the fest and varying results (see also: Puscifer, above).

The day began with Pelican, a superb atmospheric instrumental metal band from Chicago who has veered close enough to Mogwai-esque post rock to attract fans outside the metal world. When people lament that nobody’s come up with a decent riff since the 70s, it’s always a good idea to point them in the direction of Pelican’s excellent 2003 debut Australasia, and while the band hasn’t quite reached those heights since, the new Ataraxia/Taraxis EP contains some of its best songs yet. This career-spanning set was a gut-churning wakeup call for the day, as the twin guitar attack of Trevor de Brauw and Laurent Schroeder-Lebec shook the tent poles with divine sludge.

Later on, it was the hardcore/reggae hybrid of Bad Brains that drew headbangers to the tent. The punk rock review of this set would go like this: They sucked, it was awesome. You would’ve thought singer H.R. had never sung into a microphone before; he was unintelligible, even on the reggae tunes, but the band stuck mostly to its loud-fast material and it was sloppy, blistering and pure fire, as if all the breakups and reformations had never really happened and we were still in the 80s.

Speaking of the 80s: Glenn Danzig was a late addition to the Bonnaroo lineup, making this the final night of his Legacy tour. The man is basically the Steven Seagal of music–totally badass and completely lame. Well, maybe not completely; he might be the least self-aware dude ever to sing punk rock, but his work with The Misfits is pretty much unassailable, and as the set rolled through the various stages of Danzig’s career (Danzig the band>Samhain>Misfits>Danzig solo), it was tough to argue against the awesomeness of most of it. The man is a showman, and that distinctive voice is still intact, and particularly when guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein emerged for the Misfits numbers, it was impossible not to get caught up in the raw energy and the sincerity with which Danzig belted out his classic material. The puzzling omission of “Where Eagles Dare” was the only miscalculation; by encore time there was a sizable moshpit stirring up a cloud of sand to Glenn’s obvious delight, and for the small crowd of headbangers present, this had to be a highlight of the weekend.

 

BONNAROO MAGIC

 

The fragmentation (if not outright disintegration) of the jamband scene has its benefits: Folks discovering other kinds of music is a good thing. But the biggest gaping hole in the Bonnaroo 2012 experience was the collaboration between musicians, something that defined the thing from the beginning and was essentially codified in the Superjam idea. The missed opportunities outweighed the magic by a ton this year, and this more than anything contributed to the overall disappointment felt by many ‘roo vets.

Who could have predicted that Kenny Rogers would account for the most notable guest appearances of the weekend?  No one, that’s who. Rogers may have been a tad oblivious to what was honestly going on at this festival, but his set was a sterling collection of the few songs you know by heart and lots of oh-yeah moments (“What?  Kenny Rogers wrote ‘Ghetto Supastar??’”  “No dude, it was the Bee Gees.”), played and sung with all the charisma you’d expect from The Gambler.

Things got emotional way beyond nostalgia as Rogers sang his inspired take on the John Hiatt-penned “Have A Little Faith In Me,” and then a handful of Manchester officials came onstage to present Kenny with a key to the city; never seen that before at Bonnaroo! But that wasn’t the end; it was time for “Lady,” and who should stroll onstage but the man who wrote the song, Lionel Ritchie? Might as well do “All Night Long” next!

To be honest, the rest of the afternoon was kind of a drag after this impromptu dance party; golden oldies and indie rock don’t have the same kind of pep. But it was perhaps only a little bit of a surprise when Kenny emerged again for the final show of the festival, singing “The Gambler” along with a visibly delighted Phish.

As mentioned, Trey is one of the originators of Bonnaroo, so it was fitting that he, at least, was able to scare up a guest for his band’s set. The disappointing thing was that this was all we saw of Trey all weekend. This is the guy who, in 2006, played a set here with Oysterhead on Friday, opened for Tom Petty with his solo band on Saturday in Maryland Heights, MO and then high-tailed it back to ‘roo for the Superjam that same night. Phish had Saturday off this year, yet no one from the band was interested in popping onstage for a mini-thrill at any point?

Downright shocking was the fact that Flying Lotus played his fantastic late night set right after Radiohead’s and Yorke, a well-known FlyLo fan and collaborator, never showed up. Even on paper this was a loogey in the face of the original Bonnaroo spirit.

The actual Superjam featured, for the second time, The Roots’ ?uestlove on drums, which had been announced in advance (which in itself is a lame development; doesn’t anybody like to be surprised anymore?). He spent the first hour just talking (okay, that’s a gross exaggeration; it only felt like an hour) leading up to the big reveal: D’Angelo! Now, this was surely a coup for ‘roo in terms of buzz and, let it be said, musical talent, but in terms of a Superjam… not so much.

This was basically a second Roots set with some of D’Angelo’s touring band thrown in. The elusive crooner’s first live appearance in the U.S. in twelve years was a big surprise, no doubt. There’s nothing even worth criticizing about the music; it’s just that the thrill of unknown potential pretty much vanished with the revealing of the band.  “We’re tight because we know each other,” ?uestlove remarked, trying to reassure us that this was a jam, which it occasionally was, but all told it was more of a history lecture.

There were other notable late-nighters that were quasi-Superjams in themselves: The Word, a gospel-jamband composed of the North Mississippi Allstars plus John Medeski and Robert Randolph, has played only sporadically since its initial 2001/02 run but landed the midnight-to-1:30 slot on Friday night at The Other Tent.

Medeski popped up again the following night opposite the Superjam with Spectrum Road, a fledgling group comprised of guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Cindy Blackman as a tribute to the music of Tony Williams (got all that?).

But again, playing Six Degrees of John Medeski will turn up so many potentially amazing collaborations between people at Bonnaroo; apparently this just isn’t a hip pastime any more.

The only other notable guest appearance came when Big Gigantic showed up at the scheduled end of Umphrey’s McGee’s late-night set to announce that there’d be a second set following a quick Gigantic interlude to take us all the way to sunrise. It probably wasn’t a shocking revelation to many, but it was evidence of that lost art of giving and then giving some more, doing something that’s not penciled in, and not being afraid to let a friend steal your thunder for a moment. There’s a reason Umphrey’s gets invited back almost every year: the band rises to the occasion every time.

Apparently Umphrey’s is one of the last remaining bands in tune with the adventurous ‘roo spirit; this festival used to be a platform for the special, the unusual, and now it’s just good bands playing regular sets, just like all the other festivals that sprang up in its wake.

This accounted for, it very well may be fact that the Bonnaroo’s inherent knack for maintaining an air of mystique may be gone for good. The remaining constant though, continues to be that  Bonnaroo is and always has been what you make it. There were people — who continue to frequent the summer’s increasing amount of festivities — that swore off the event way back in ’02. Taking all things into consideration and solely in regards to its eleventh presentation, if you were there, you probably made it a good time this year. That is, unless you hate good music, good vibes and pleasant weather.

 

Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from Bonnaroo by Rex Thomson / Rex-A-Vision

To catch up with writer, Cal Roach, head over to www.You-Phoria.com or follow him on Twitter