The most consistent sensation at Bonnaroo not pertaining to heat or dehydration is the constant pendulum-swing from “Oh wow, this band is playing right here!” to “Oh no, that band is playing way over there!” As is the case when there are approximately 47 stages going at once, you will not see every last band you came to see. Acceptance of this tough fact will lead to a much better time. Plus, if you strategize, you’ll catch many of the best acts, assuming you have the good sense to duck out of a few sets early enough to catch something else. Here are the results of said strategizing:
Thursdays at Bonnaroo instill a false sense of order. The two largest stages are kept dark, as they’re being prepped for the headliners who will perform on them over the next three nights. The grounds are densely populated, but not yet at the point where it’s impossible to move in any direction. (This is because a good third of festival-goers are off in the distance, still waiting to park their cars and set up tents.) Since it wasn’t insanely crowded and the number of stages was limited, it was possible to see nearly everything going on Thursday night/Friday morning. The sensation didn’t last.
J. Cole was the meat in a hip-hop sandwich served up Thursday night, performing after The Knux and a couple hours before Childish Gambino, a.k.a. Donald Glover. This is at least the third year in a row Bonnaroo has slated an up-and-coming MC with a primetime slot on a Thursday night. Two years ago, it was The Knux. Last year it was Wale—at the peak of his hype—coming off a string of inspired mix-tapes, but before the release of his disappointing studio debut. This year’s up-and-comer, J. Cole, is sitting on a buzz bigger than Wale and The Knux’s combined. With Jay-Z for a mentor, he’s released at least three songs calling himself Simba, as in the son of the Lion King. During his whirlwind, chest-thumping set, Cole flowed over Kanye beats (“Last Call,” “Devil In A New Dress”) and cuts from Pac and Biggie (“I Ain’t Mad At Cha” and “Hypnotize,” respectively). Yet he received as much love for his own cuts, which have made him the new Biggie or Jay in the eyes of his young fans: “Who Dat,” (even Odd Future wasn’t too cool to rap over that one) and “In The Morning,” his slow-jam with Drake, which amazingly wasn’t shelved as a single for his major-label debut.
J. Cole is to Jay-Z as Donald Glover is to Tina Fey, and Glover, in the form of his rapping alter ego Childish Gambino, has received as much flak as Cole for name-dropping his famous mentor. Also like Cole, though, he’s coming into his own as a rapper with no mentor-provided training wheels needed. (Not that Tina Fey would have much to do with Gambino’s rap-writing.) Gambino’s raps often take on the almost uncomfortably confessional tone of Kid Cudi at his most emo. But unlike Cudi, he has punchline after punchline to bring the mood right back up. (It helps that Glover’s day job has involved writing actual punchlines, for 30 Rock, Derrick Comedy, etc.) Gambino’s breakout track, “Freaks And Geeks,” absolutely slew the crowd, and a couple of the better bangers from his Culdesac EP thumped along nicely as well.
Elsewhere on Thursday, Wavves’ Nathan Williams brought out the heavier-sounding stuff from King Of The Beach, then went over to watch his girlfriend Bethany Cosentino (Best Coast) from the sidelines during her set. They weren’t the only rock sweethearts in attendance on Thursday. Karen Elson performed earlier in the day, with Third Man Records ringers like The Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence backing her up. Elson’s husband Jack White stood stage left, singing along to every song, just one day before announcing their apparently amicable—and party-worthy—divorce.
Friday is when the familiar, frightening Bonnaroo began. By early afternoon, the full brunt of festival-goers had streamed into Centeroo, the festival’s security-checkpoint-dotted hub, from which all the stages could be accessed. ’Rooers scattered in every direction—the beer tents, the Comedy Theatre—to stake out spots near the main stage, in anticipation of later back-to-back shows from The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, and Arcade Fire. Or maybe they just wanted to sit in the shade. The shade this year was sponsored by State Farm Insurance, which offered large oscillating fans, comfortable couches, and free ponchos, plus the chance to check out their Life And Accident Assurance policies.
Matt & Kim offered the day’s first blow-out performance, looking giddy to be playing their first Bonnaroo before the thousands who squeezed into This Tent to hear them. Fans didn’t so much crowd-surf as they burst like popcorn kernels to the top of the dense crowd. As security tried to pull them out, Matt played the keyboard line to Alice Deejay’s Eurocheese-classic “Better Off Alone” while Kim threw out bags of balloons for the crowd to inflate. Matt thanked the crowd for taking their Bonnaroo virginity: “Your first time isn’t supposed to be the best ever, but I don’t know how any Bonnaroo could ever fucking top this.”
From Matt & Kim, I headed over to Florence + The Machine, walking by Warren Haynes on the way. He was playing “River’s Gonna Rise,” which has a chorus astonishingly similar to Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” It’s from his Man In Motion album, which came out in May, five months after Adele’s 21.
On to Florence + The Machine. Normally, I’m extremely suspicious of anything remotely associated with Glee. Still, I went to see Florence with the intention of getting some good photos, and I came away pretty impressed with the music. In addition to being one of the 2011 Bonnaroo lineup’s most gifted singers, Florence Welch appeared to be one of the festival’s most seasoned performers. With her flowing red hair and nü-Stevie-Nicks attire, she has true stage presence. “Drumming Song” probably sounds thrilling on its own, but with hundreds singing along to every word, including girls in the front with tears in their eyes, it was otherworldly.
At 8 p.m., Bonnaroo OGs My Morning Jacket took the main stage for a two-hour (short, by the band’s standards) performance that encapsulated what has made it one of Bonnaroo’s most reliable spectacles over the past 10 years. After playing almost every Bonnaroo since 2003, MMJ took a break from the fest the last two years, but in 2011, it sounded like they’d never left. Jim James’ axe and Tom “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship’s bass rippled out over tens of thousands of hippies, hipsters, and hired hands. Arcade Fire matched that bombast an hour later, with an elaborately trippy visual experience playing onstage. “Wake Up” was always meant to be heard in the company of 90,000 others, all singing along.
But for all the day’s blazing guitars, the dude we all wish had never picked up a guitar owned the night. Earlier in the day, there was a rumor circulating that Lil Wayne had been arrested in Tennessee en route to Bonnaroo. (It was probably spread by the poor guys in Shpongle and Ratatat who were on opposite Wayne.) But after the great Mannie Fresh warmed up the crowd for half an hour, Lil Wayne took Which Stage at 1:30 a.m., blazing through a set that was reminiscent of Jay-Z’s titanic headlining appearance at All Points West two years ago, or Bonnaroo last year. Like Mr. Carter, Tha Carter seemed to drop one banger right in the middle of another, with little regard for whether they were from mix-tapes, albums, or one of Wayne’s countless collaborations with other MCs. “Look At Me Now,” Diplo and Afrojack’s distorted computer-blip masterpiece, didn’t need Breezy or Busta to sound like a bloodbath. Ditto with Gucci Mane’s absence on “Steady Mobbin,” or the lack of Rozay on “9 Piece,” “John,” and “I’m On One.”
The Bonnaroo lineup on Saturday featured some of the most frustrating scheduling conflicts of the entire festival. In some cases, the overlaps seemed to make counter-programming sense: There probably weren’t that many diehard Mumford & Sons fans who were also in Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang. Loretta Lynn opposite Bootsy Collins’ Funk University and !!! was trickier, though. Bicycles are (sensibly) prohibited at Centeroo, and the grounds are too big, densely populated, and hot to run anywhere, either. But most music festivals are about hard choices—not to mention heat, high food prices, unfamiliar odors, lack of bathrooms, terrible cell reception, and vast distances between stages.
However, for many of these shows, I was in the photo-pit, where they kick you out after the first three songs, so I was able to see Wiz Khalifa’s introduction and a couple of songs before heading over to Mumford & Sons. Just a year ago, Wiz Khalifa was wearing an Alfred E. Neuman grin and tipping his cap back on the cover of XXL’s 2010 Freshmen issue. A year later, he was not only one of the festival’s headliners (a good 10 to 15 spots above fellow 2010 Freshman J. Cole), he was on a bigger stage than Lil Wayne—though Wayne, on the second-biggest stage the night before, easily had more festival-goers in attendance. Wiz and his DJ, with no stage setup to speak of, looked awfully lonely on that giant main stage. Still, a beat like “GangBang,” off Wiz’s Cabin Fever mixtape, rippled out with oomph to spare. (Thank Lex Luger, whose bangers could turn an inanimate carbon rod into a hot MC.)
After Wiz Khalifa, the two biggest headliners on Saturday evening were Mumford & Sons and The Black Keys, Bonnaroo Class of 2010 alums who graduated from tents last year to the two biggest stages this year. Judging by the sprawl during their performance, Mumford & Sons could have easily played the Main Stage as well, having cultivated what appears to be a vast, irony-free, adoring fan base. The band members aren’t even close to being from the American South, and one of them is apparently the son of a hedge-fund millionaire, but their musical co-opting isn’t any more egregious than that of many other acts. And while Marcus Mumford doesn’t seem genuinely humbled by the band’s whirlwind success during between-song banter, his mock-humbleness is convincing.
The Black Keys don’t even bother with stage banter, moving straight into rock-mode and rarely pausing for a breath. Their Bonnaroo 2010 set was a late-night gig in a tent, with Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney in almost total darkness as they played cuts from their then-new LP Brothers. A year later, The Black Keys invited a couple of other players onstage to back them up, but it was still basically the Dan And Patrick Show. The only thing different was that Brothers has gone gold and won a couple of Grammys, and there were about eight times as many people in the crowd as there were last year. Not that the Keys seemed to notice. Their sound has always been ready for stadiums full of people, and it was heartening to see them face that crowd while playing like they were still in Akron.
Speaking of people playing like they’re back in their hometowns, hungry and with something to prove, it’s awesome to hear Eminem starving again. At his packed 11 p.m. mainstage set—perhaps the most heavily attended performance of the festival—there was a weirdly specific generational gap running through the crowd, which was split between fans of Marshall Mathers LP-era Eminem and “Airplanes”-era Eminem. To put it another way: The Slim Shady of 2011, Tyler The Creator, talks about stabbing Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus; the original Slim Shady just did a song with him.
Still, for those willing to politely zone out during “Lighters,” “Airplanes,” and “Not Afraid,” it was a pretty fun set. Eminem’s rekindled relationship with Royce Da 5”9 has energized both of them, and Royce coming out to do “Fast Lane” (on which he massacres Em, for the record), off the upcoming Bad Meets Evil EP, was one of the highlights of the set.
“We’re going to play a fast song right now. Nah I’m lying, it’s a medium one,” said Cullen Omori, the featherweight singer-guitarist of Smith Westerns, before launching into “All Die Young,” one of many medium-speed dreamy-sounding rockers off Dye It Blonde. Cullen and his brother Cameron look like young Ramones, with similar black mops of hair covering their faces when they hunch over their guitars, and even paler skin. Steven Hyden called Smith Westerns’ sound “the Bay City Rollers as produced by George Harrison,” and they fulfilled the promise of that comparison in their early afternoon set on Bonnaroo’s last day.
A stop over at the Comedy Theatre uncovered one of the strangest pairings of the weekend, even by Bonnaroo standards: The Gregory Brothers, a.k.a. the Auto-Tune The News crew, and trash-film auteur John Waters. Also Tig Notaro. The Gregory Brothers occupy a small echelon of online-comedy groups who have produced enough material and found enough repeated viral success to have actual greatest hits to perform. (Okay, it’s basically just them and Lonely Island.) As such, they performed faithful—though Auto-Tune free—renditions of some of the more popular Internet phenomena they’ve capitalized on through song: a salute to Charlie Sheen, a song about the Double Rainbow guy, and their smash hit “The Bed Intruder Song.” It was enjoyable enough musically, if not quite as funny outside of its original context. John Waters, who along with Henry Rollins had prominent billing on the Comedy Theater’s lineup despite not technically being a comedian, still probably had the funniest set I saw all weekend. (If Donald Glover’s standup set was as good as his Childish Gambino set, I would have easily given him the top prize.) Waters’ A-material seems to be just reading the absolute filthiest sex act definitions he can find, delivered with a “Boys will be boys” tone, as if he were describing the Little Rascals getting into monkeyshines, but why tamper with a winning formula?
I made zero effort to catch a sleepy-sounding acoustic set from Greg Allman, and instead headed over to Robyn, who, sporting a West Point football jersey for some reason, unleashed the best dance music heard all weekend. With twin digital drum kits thumping, she flailed around the stage with a grace that vintage platform sneakers should not afford, doing Salt-N-Pepa-style ass-shaking to “Fembot,” “Bad Gal,” and the single clubgoer’s anthem “Dancing On My Own.”
The Strokes, on at the same time and on the same stage as Phoenix last year, received the honor of playing during the final golden sunset of the festival. They were a good 20 minutes late to go on, not because their champagne hadn’t been adequately chilled, but because they were facing a scheduling dilemma like every other Bonnaroo-goer: They were on opposite Beirut, so they caught their first couple of songs and headed over after.
Those who didn’t try and beat the traffic (impossible) stuck around and were treated to a 3-hour-plus set from Widespread Panic, enjoying their 25th anniversary this year. (And really enjoying it next year, when they plan to go on hiatus.) The band has played a few Bonnaroos in the past, including a headlining appearance at the very first one in 2002. For many, especially the old-timers rocking their tie-dyed 2002 Bonnaroo lineup tees, the set was a nice bookend to a decade of fun in the (excessive) sun.