There were upward of 75 performances a day at Bonnaroo, across two main stages, three fairly large tents and several smaller stages scattered throughout the park. I’ve already covered shows by the festival headliners and larger acts, but there were so many more bands constantly playing throughout the park that mentioning only those everyone knows seems kind of worthless. Or, at the very least, in violation of the spirit of the festival.
Yeah, the Police were all right and Tool kind of blew, the White Stripes were loud and Wilco was awesome. But are you at all familiar with Gogol Bordello or Ween? Cold War Kids or Dr. Dog? No? Well, then allow me to enlighten you.
I had this set schedule of everyone I planned on seeing, and it lasted about 10 minutes after walking onto the grounds. So here we go on all the smaller bands I spent much of my days at Bonnaroo pinballing around between.
Band I would never in a million years have paid to see on its own:
New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars – When we got to Bonnaroo, we had trouble determining whether we were in the Eastern or Central Time Zone. In light of this confusion, we showed up for the National’s show an hour and a half early. With time to kill, we headed over to watch the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. Traditional Hebrew music mixes with funky beats in the service of a sound you’ll probably never hear performed by anyone else. I didn’t have any idea what the hell was going on, but sometimes that’s a good thing.
Band that most needed a smaller venue:
Cold War Kids – That Tent was packed for Cold War Kids’ 1:15 p.m. show Friday. And while the show was all right, people began to file out after 20 or 30 minutes. The music rocked plenty, minus some of the minor technical difficulties that plagued the first two days, but the vibe just wasn’t there. Many of the indie rock acts at Bonnaroo seemed somewhat dominated by the setting, but most were able to maneuver and make do. Maybe CKW’s crowd was just too big. Something about their set left a bit to be desired, though.
Band that got an aching morning off and rolling:
Old Crow Medicine Show – After spending most of Saturday morning drinking water and attempting to whip my mind into shape, a few songs with Americana’s biggest band got the head back on straight. There are worse ways to spend your early afternoon than lounging under a shady tree with a soft pretzel and the press tent’s free water while listening to Old Crow pick and grin in the distance.
Band that, if there’s any benevolent force in music, is about to explode in your face:
Dr. Dog – Holy crap these guys rocked. I ducked out of Old Crow early to catch the second half of this set, and my old buddy Tony was right all along: Dr. Dog is one of the best indie rock bands going right now. Meaty psychedelic jams and a sadistic-with-his-kit drummer proved that early in the day isn’t necessarily a bad time for rocking, no matter what the temperature. Get involved as quickly as possible. I shudder when thinking about how many months I might have wasted not doing so when I first heard about them.
Band that proves music doesn’t need a definition:
Gogol Bordello – Two friends convinced me that, though I had never heard anything by this band, I simply had to see it. Again, I got by with a little help from my friends. Gypsy punk and awesome moustaches ruled the afternoon in This Tent. Female back-up singers in ridiculous costumes came and went, a rapper jumped on stage from time to time, the violin player looked to be 50 or so with pipes like Stallone, the lead singer had more energy than anyone I saw other than Manu Chao, and Gogol Bordello unleashed a wild, intensely entertaining and out-of-control set on those lucky enough to see it. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the Hendrix-like accordion flourishes. You read that correctly.
Band that made Bonnaroo safe for shoegazers:
The Hold Steady – Saturday afternoon is such an insane time at Bonnaroo, with so much to see and hear, that maybe it's best not to stare at your shoestrings and think about life. The Hold Steady’s songs about being young and sad say otherwise. Though the band has a devoted following of passionate admirers and its sound at times resembles Springsteen, anyone listening to the lyrics no doubt got a little bummed out. The Hold Steady seemed to me like the downer friend at a party, guaranteed to bring up something heavy when everyone else is having a good time. That said, the tent was pretty crowded, so what do I know?
Band I most wanted to see but missed out on:
Spoon – I only got into the rockers a few weeks ago, but their music is pretty great and Britt Daniel’s insouciant press conference performance convinced me I needed to give them a shot live. However, I was hypnotized by another show happening at the same time, and even when I tried to walk away and head over to Spoon, I couldn’t break the spell and trudged back from where I came. I got caught up in the web spun by…
Band you don’t need any kind of mind-altering substance to trip out to:
Ween – These guys are insane. Literally, I’m pretty sure. The guitarist, Dean, absolutely smoked, and the band’s tent overflowed on all sides. They played for over two hours, and almost no one left. I made it as far as the glass-blowing tent a couple hundred yards away before turning around and heading back to see how things wrapped up. I don’t have any idea what it is about their music that is so intoxicating, but it’s worth checking out if you ever get the chance. It might be the ridiculous songs, it might be the psychedelic-pop vibe. Something about them makes it nearly impossible to turn away once you’re hooked. Awesome.
Single loudest band:
Wolfmother – No surprise here. We could hear this show out at our campsite. We were close to the side entrance, but we weren’t that close. We never heard anyone else so clearly. I could hear every note and every word until I got up the energy to head in and see for myself. I can’t imagine what being up on that speaker was like. I figured beforehand that Wolfmother would languish in its early-Sunday afternoon slot. I was wrong.
Band that fostered the most comfortable show:
Elvis Perkins in Dearland – The big summer rock fests are recalibrating their process to accommodate guys like this. The vibe could not have been more chilled out. People as close as the second row were sitting down. One guy behind me yelled, “The way you play your music makes me really happy,” to which Perkins replied, “I love you too, stranger.” Juxtaposed to Wolfmother’s noisy destruction, these guys were perfect for a Sunday afternoon, with their pleasant indie-folk, including a cover of a Civil War ballad. Alec Ounsworth from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! was in attendance with the band and guested on a song, showing guest spots aren’t just for jam-bands. I saw Perkins three times over the weekend in some form or another, and each time left me smiling. Welcome to the party, indie kids. Get comfortable, you're going to be here for a while.
Time to go purchase every Widespread Panic bootleg I can get my hands on. Coming some time tomorrow: the worst (or most mediocre, as there’s really nothing too bad about Bonnaroo) of the weekend. 'Til then, adieu.