American Songwriter At Bonnaroo: Reports From The Field
We’ll be blogging the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee all weekend. Keep checking back for coverage of your favorite bands.
ALO | This Tent | 12:30-1:30 p.m.
ALO recently released Sounds Like This, the band’s fourth major label album. For this show they mostly stuck to songs off of that record, which sounded great. It’s a more sonically ambitious record than anything else the band has done, and that ambition translates to the live performance. Guitarist Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz showed fans a more experimental side to his playing. Fortunately the sense of pure joy that permeates his playing was still present.
In fact, joy is what this band is all about, and there was plenty of it during this set. Everything from singer Zach Gill’s wry, lighthearted lyrics to the band’s setlist seemed crafted for fun. A highlight came when ALO launched into “Time Is Of The Essence,” and jammed straight into Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years.” A little bit cheesy? Yes. Incredibly enjoyable? Certainly.
The Beach Boys | What Stage | 3:00-4:30 p.m.
Nostalgia was in the air for The Beach Boys performance on Sunday evening. Fans, old and young, gathered to sing the lyrics to songs we’ve all grown up with, and the band seemed to be just as sentimental about the subject.
The guys can still sing, and even Mike Love’s used car salesman persona didn’t detract from his incredible lead vocals. But the highlights came when Brian Wilson sang lead, and songs like “Heroes and Villains” did not disappoint.
The new material didn’t go over as well, and fans talked loudly over the songs that weren’t huge hits, but overall the set had great energy and incredible musicianship. If there is one thing The Beach Boys proved, it’s that you don’t have to be modern to be relevant.
The Shins | Which Stage | 6:30-8:00 p.m.
James Mercer is known for his well-crafted pop songs, but The Shins stepped outside of that box Sunday evening, and showed fans they can do weird as well as they can do whimsical.
In comparison to Phish, who played directly after the band, The Shins’ extended jams seemed about as long as most 60s pop songs, but Shins fans were blown away.
Of course we were treated to the hits as well, but much of the material was from the band’s new record. Perhaps it’s because of the rotating cast of musicians, but The Shins seemed as enthusiastic and energetic as they did 10 years ago.
Dawes | Sonic Stage | 1:30-2:00 p.m.
When Dawes took to the Sonic Stage, Taylor Goldsmith seemed genuinely surprised at the size of the audience. (Not that he should have been, after the spell-binding set Dawes put on Friday.)
He confessed to the crowd that he was expecting something small and that he’d crafted a slower setlist. “You’re going to hear Dawes-lite for awhile,” he joked.
But Dawes’s Sonic Stage set was anything but subdued. One of Goldsmith’s talents is the ability to perfectly capture the emotion of his lyrics in his voice. This served the band well on songs like “A Little Bit Of Everything,” which if possible was even better than the rendition the band did the previous night.
After the show it was announced from stage that Dawes had drawn the biggest crowd the Sonic Stage had ever seen. The band celebrated with an encore and left fans with a special Bonnaroo memory.
Jukebox the Ghost | Café Where | 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Café Where had one of its biggest crowds of the weekend for indie-rockers Jukebox the Ghost. Fans were literally spilling out of the sides of the small tent as the band launched into a set that spanned all three of its albums. Despite the fact that Safe Travels, Jukebox’s new record, hadn’t come out yet, that didn’t stop fans from singing ever lyric to the new songs.
This was one of those sets that you could tell was as special for the band as it was for the audience, and Jukebox played to that sentiment.
Jukebox seems primed to follow in the footsteps of bands like Dawes and Cage the Elephant, and graduate to a stage next time the members are invited back. A tiny café could not contain the energy and excitement at this show.
My Bonnaroo experience yesterday was typically wonderful and strange. After putting the July/August issue of American Songwriter to bed, my companion and I hopped in our car and took the hour and a half drive from Nashville to Manchester — stopping on the way to sample the famous, Guy Fieri-approved bbq at Martin’s in Nolensville (verdict: it’s ridiculous). Weighed down with pulled pork, we pulled into our camping spot and set up our tent, as the strains of the Avett Brothers’ folky set (and the fans who adored them) wafted through the trees. We made it through the gates in time to catch the first notes of Feist’s show, which the hippy dancers showed up for in full force. Having never seen Feist perform live, I was unprepared for how feisty she was. Midway through her Metals-heavy set, she took time to tease the crowd in the back, who she said clearly showed up late and were just there to sample. “Don’t shake your head so dissaprovingly, guy in the Radiohead t-shirt,” she scolded an audience member who took umbrage with her monologue. But it was all in fun; she admitted to having her own Radiohead shirt on underneath her dress; and when she had the crowd sing in four part harmony, everyone felt included.
We then headed over to the swelling This Tent to catch Ludacris, who was cooking up a spicy set of Southern fried hip hop with an energetic and funky live band. Hits like “Move, Bitch” and “What’s Your Fantasy” were expected; the cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not (no holograms were employed, but Kurt Cobain’s voice was sampled, making you wish he could have played the festival). Luda’s set was ADD in the best way; as soon as one ode to weed or women ended, another began. “You guys are smoking some of the best weed I’ve ever smelled,” he joked. “It’s like Woodstock up in here.”
There was no time to catch St. Vincent as planned (from all reports, she was freakishly great), but we did have the obligatory Aziz Ansari sighting as we made our way over to the What Stage to have our minds blown by the instrumental guitar duo of Rodrigo y Gabriella. Their flamenco-rock-guitar-percussion fest is best experienced live, and when they’re on, they’re arguably the best band at the festival. As they jammed with backing band C.U.B.A., we decided it was time for dinner before Radiohead. Little did we realize that our attempt to get back to our prime position in front of the What Stage was going to take on Mission Impossible proportions. But we used our ninja skills to sneak past the photo pit and the and make our way back to the soundboard area, where we hopped into the waiting crowd. Chris Thile of Punch Brothers was there, no doubt plotting the band’s next cover.
The first few songs of the Radiohead’s reinvented, post-Amnesiac set (the majority of the songs were written after 2001, including two brand new ones) felt like an aural dose of ecstasy. The only real nod to the band’s early days as an epic rock group was the final encore, “Paranoid Android.” The rest of the two hour-plus set was all about the double drummer skittery art pieces. And in the year 2012, that’s what make Thom Yorke’s pony tail bounce the hardest.
We fell asleep to the soothing lullabies of Major Lazer, a dancehall reggae act, and awoke at 8:30 in the morning to hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or someone who sounded exactly like them, sound checking “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.” It was the most surreal thing that happened to me all morning. Now I’m in the Starbucks up the road, sitting across from the lead singer of Dawes. It’s going to be a good day.
- Evan Schlansky
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. | Sonic Stage | 12:00-12:30 p.m.
After rocking a huge crowd at The Other Tent on Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. cooled down at the Sonic Stage with a breezy noon set.
Fans who turned out were treated to another side of the hook-heavy dance pop group when, in the tradition of the Sonic Stage, they went acoustic. And it was great.
Sure, they played some of the same songs they played the previous day, but the arrangements were so different and unique that it didn’t seem to matter.
Any band can be good in its element, but it takes talent to adapt, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. has plenty of it.
Sam Bush | The Other Tent | 4:00-5:00 p.m.
Sam Bush fans already knows why he is hailed as the “Father of Newgrass,” but casual observers seemed a bit perplexed. Newgrass, for those not familiar, is a style of music that applies traditional bluegrass instrumentation to contemporary musical arrangements. In other words: Sam Bush can do shocking things with a mandolin. Fans that showed up expecting bluegrass were treated to something that was at times more like Umphrey’s McGee than Earl Scruggs, but in the end everyone was dancing just the same. [Ed note: after his show, Sam Bush could be found checking out Ludacris' set from the hospitality lounge.]
Dawes | The Other Tent | 6:00-7:00 p.m.
Dawes is often compared to classic acts like The Band and Jackson Browne, but that doesn’t mean the band‘s sound is aged. The comparisons comes from the songwriting as much as they do from the instrumentations, and Taylor Goldsmith is one of the best songwriters around.
Whether they were nailing rockers like “If I Wanted Someone,” tugging heart strings with tender ballads like “A Little Bit of Everything,” or debuting brand new material, the band members know how to keep a crowd entertained. Toward the end of the set the crowd started to thin in anticipation for Radiohead, giving the fans that stayed an incredible view of an incredible performance.
Dawes is the total package and this was easily one of the best shows of the weekend. So if their sound harkens back to The Band in any way, it’s because Goldsmith and co. write timeless songs that stand up with some of the very best in American music in any decade.
Black Star | That Tent | 12:30-1:30 a.m.
Live hip-hop is hit or miss, and Black Star’s show proved that just because your music is good doesn’t necessarily make your live show good. Mos Def and Talib Kweli cut one of the most brilliant records in hip-hop history, no doubt, but that was over a decade ago. Since then the members have gone on to have successful solo careers, but perhaps this union has run its course. Or maybe they were just having an off night. Okay, maybe Mos Def was having an off night.
While Mos might be the stronger MC of the two, his delivery was off and many times he was reduced to screaming lyrics out-of-key over Kweli. I feel like I could’ve turned the album on and had a better experience. Perhaps more live hip-hop acts should take a cue from GZA and just hire a band. I hear Questlove is down for just about anything.
Water Knot | Great Taste Lounge | 4:00-5:00 p.m.
During any music festival, even the most eclectic of listeners are prone to some down time. It’s not a bad thing either; if you didn’t, you maybe wouldn’t discover one of your new favorite bands.
And while I can’t yet say if Water Knot is one of new favorite bands, it is definitely a band that drew me in. And apparently I wasn’t the only one, as the Great Taste Lounge was fuller than usual. The New York quartet brought high energy to its set, which combined a Floydian space rock sound with eerie, ripping guitar solos.
It’s hard to say how I would have felt had I checked this band out before Bonnaroo, but I’m glad I stumbled upon Water Knot.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. | The Other Tent | 7:15-8:15 p.m.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. crafts pop music that is danceable and fun, but without feeling cheesy or obnoxious. Channeling Hall and Oates, the band writes surprisingly earnest songs given its name, and live, the band members take it to the next level with their energy and fervor.
If one thing is obvious about this band‘s live show, it’s that the members have fun on stage. If there were any complaints to be made it was that the bass was a little bit too loud. But at a dance party like this, that’s more of a compliment.
Moon Taxi | That Tent | 8:30-9:30 p.m.
Moon Taxi has been one of Nashville’s best kept secrets since its formation in 2006. But if Bonnaroo is any indication, the secret is out.
Fans who turned out for the band’s Thursday set were treated to the best of both worlds when the band combined its jam-band ethos with the newfound radio friendly pop of its 2012 release, Cabaret, to craft a powerful setlist.
Fans were chanting and screaming for the band before the members even took the stage; and when they did come out, the response from both longtime and newfound fans was tremendous. Not bad for a band who was on the bottom of the initial lineup announcement, and certainly not bad for some local boys from down the road