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Bonnaroo did it again. This year marks the music and arts festival 10th anniversary and they succeeded in rocking 90,000 plus patrons yet again. It’s a bit surprising that an event held out in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee plagued with dust storms and populated with disgusting Port-A-Johns and 100 degree weather could convince people to camp out for five days, but those normally unbearable aspects always prove to be worth it. Posh, upper class concert goers attend Coachella and Lollapalooza, the population of New Orleans goes to Voodoo Experience, but none of these festivals feel like the global community that Bonnaroo attracts. The farm is the only place where hipsters smoke bowls with hippies, freaks befriend frat boys and movie stars mingle and walk among the general population. Only at Bonnaroo…
That general population may be unique, but it’s a fitting byproduct of the eclectic and brilliant line-up. This year’s bill numbered well over two hundred and featured headliners Eminem and Arcade Fire. Both brought the farm into an uproar, but neither played an exemplary show like the ones that grabbed a slot on my top ten. Famous bands like The Black Keys and Buffalo Springfield also killed with their sets, but good just isn’t good enough. Like music in general, there are always those who play good shows, but the ones that transcend the stage and become a memory, are the ones worth noting. This year’s line-up saw jazz musicians, pop singers, bluegrass stars, jam bands, late 60’s psychedelic rockers, blues artists, and even rappers participate in the weeklong party, but only ten proved worthy to me.
After 5 days on the farm, I saw 28 shows. Obviously there might have been bands that I did not see who could have been better than the ones on this list, but these are my favorites and the ones I believe deserve to be called: “The 10 Best Acts Of Bonnaroo 2011.” Here they are:
Bonnaroo is normally a staple for jam bands like Widespread Panic; so, it made a lot of sense when festival organizers announced they’d be given the cushy, Sunday night closing slot. You may remember they gave the same honor to another jam band, Phish, in 2009, but the Trey Anastasio-led quartet’s efforts paled in comparison to what fans were given this year. Widespread Panic pulled out all the stops with an amazing live set that included famous numbers like “Surprise Valley”, “Red Hot Mamma” and “Tall Boy”. If ever a jam band lived up to all its genre implied, it was Widespread Panic on this particular night. With a loving dose of guitar solos and a set that well eclipsed its promise, their performance not only turned me into a fan, it made me appreciate the art of jamming a lot more. What a pleasant surprise to end the weekend.
While Lil’ Wayne was performing, from what I hear it was an underwhelming show, over at the larger Which Stage, Big Boi and his entourage rocked it at the smaller but still grand The Other Tent. Not only did the other half of the Andree 3000’s Outkast pull deep into his back catalog of songs like “Ms. Jackson” and “The Way You Move,” the rapper also put together a live ensemble which included a full rock band, dancers wearing uniform jumpsuits and his children. It even had the “beautiful ladies” in the audience come on stage for some booty shaking and dirty dancing; you know the typical rap stuff. Any other time I would snark at these trivial attempts to entertain a crowd, but Big Boi really pulled it off quite well. Not only did he have the entire crowd dancing and gyrating into a drunken daze, but he also had the stereo bumping so loud, my ears hurt the next morning. With Lil’ Wayne going on at the same time, I’m glad I watched the best hip-hop set of Bonnaroo 2011.
Have you ever listened to Jefferson Airplane or Fleetwood Mac? How about hard rock legends Black Sabbath? If those three bands would join together for a jam, it would sound like Grace Potter and the Nocturnels. With hard guitar riffs, psychedelic rock influences, and the vocal stylings of Stevie Nicks, Grace Potter heralds as a band that puts on quite an eclectic show. To be perfectly honest, I was quite skeptical at first. When the band started I was a bit underwhelmed, but as soon as they performed a great rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” the set took off. They started in with sprawling guitar licks, and Potter’s otherworldly voice sounded as infectious as Grace Slick’s. I finally understand the image this band was going for. They are not indie. They are not hard rock. They are simply Grace Potter and the Nocturnels, transcending the genres other bands stick to so affluently.
Among all the bands that play at Bonnaroo each year, one of the highlights for many is the Comedy Tent. Not only because it’s air conditioned, which is definitely needed in the hot Tennessee sun, but because there are some quite amazing acts that go through the circus tent. Yes, it’s a circus tent. Henry Rollins was the best this year had to offer. Sure, Lewis Black puts on a hilarious set like he always does, but there was something about the ex-Black Flag singer that kept the crowd stimulated. Instead of dosing off to sleep, Rollins kept you awake with his growling loud voice, yelling at the top of his lungs. It’s fitting too, because he played only one set for the weekend, and kept the audience astute the entire time. He never let up. Performing Thursday night, Rollins delved into philosophy and the very meaning of what a music festival does to our society. He was thought provoking and a necessary start to a great weekend. Like Henry Rollins said about music festivals: you meet friends for life, share book lists, participate in intellectual conversations, and most importantly share a definitive moment with 90,000 other people. Only Henry Rollins and his punk rock yell could deliver a show like that.
The fabled SuperJam has been a Bonnaroo staple for years, but for unknown reasons the special “jam” was not around for some time. This year was different, for the 10th year anniversary of Bonnaroo, festival planners brought it back and better than ever. Not only did they have Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys up on stage busting out insane guitar solos, but blues legend Dr. John joined him for some impromptu jamming unlike any during the festival. When the roadies were doing their sound check, everyone was wondering what they would play. But then it soon became apparent that the hyped set would stick to the 60’s and 70’s blues songs that Dr. John and other artists made famous. Fitting, since the Bonnaroo arch had Dr. John’s hat from the Desitively Bonnaroo album cover perched high on top. My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan joined the jam to drink beer and bang bongos, while the Preservation Hall Jazz Band also made an appearance. All in all, it was a stellar show that threw back to the songs that undoubtedly influenced Auerbach’s work with The Black Keys, and gave Dr. John one last chance to wow the festival. It was completely worth the wait all weekend, I left with the blues when it was over.
Rap-Rock is a hard genre to define. Bands like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park are mediocre at best, yet they’re a significant part of the genre. That is all about to change. We all know Donald Glover as Troy Barnes on Community, but he also has a rap persona so large, it’s childish. Childish Gambino is his rap moniker and he plays the role perfectly. Bringing on stage his live band and donning short shorts and a Garth Brooks The Cat in the Hat t-shirt, Glover certainly didn’t play up the rapper persona, and it wasn’t indicated at all in his music. Unlike sampling famous indie bands on his records, his live backing added a somewhat punk rock vibe to the show that brought a rush of energy to the audience, and coupled with the rapping of the comedian, it created a genre mashing that was pleasant and fresh at the same time. During the late night set, he played from 11:30pm to 12:30am, Gambino and his drones rocked the house and put on a stellar show of rock and rap that should not be over looked. If you don’t know what Derrick Comedy is or have never seen the show Community, you will know who Childish Gambino is soon.
Many people think Primus is weird, probably because they are. Even after 3 years in hiatus and 12 years between their last album and the newest, this band still rocks. Les Claypool plays the bass like its nobody’s business. As he slaps away to his funky jam, the rest of the band flawlessly follows along in his footsteps, and in the process, creates an epic show that puts other acts to shame. Sure, more people were watching My Morning Jacket at the larger What stage, but Primus put on the most memorable show of the evening. Pulling out fan favorites like “Harold On The Rocks” and “American Life,” Claypool catered to the immature kid in all us stoned fans. During their performance something odd happened, even odd for a Primus show. These electronic gliders came out of nowhere in the sky, and literally let loose thousands of blue lights that slowly trickled to the ground as the band was going into a heavy psychedelic jam. While these lights were slowing gliding down to the ground, the stage lights cascaded through these groovy electronics, creating a silent audience entranced by this new, otherworldly experience. Only at a Primus show.
Graveyard is one of the most unknown bands that played Bonnaroo this year, but hopefully that will change. Playing a Friday afternoon set can be harsh because of the heat/sun. Not only were the festivalgoers watching this show sweating balls, the Swedish band was assuming the same position of heat exhaustion as well. Some compare them to Black Sabbath and early Led Zeppelin, and those influences are obviously there, but to categorize them as such, would be an understatement. Their live show is so enthralling; the heavy drums and guitar riffs put chills down your spin. Singer Joakim Nilsson sings like a true metal god, even though when he talks to the audience his Swedish accent protrudes. The breakdowns to their songs are infectious and made every audience member attending their early Friday show dance and sway like there was no sun beating down on their heads. Before the last song of their show, the lead singer informed the audience: “It’s great to be back in America.” Well sir, were glad to have you.
Words can’t describe a Portugal. The Man show. Every single concert they play is different, changing up the set lists as they play from city to city, never having one show sound the same as another. Some bands try to emulate the sound of their album to set the live show in similarity, attempting to achieve the audience’s approval in associating their songs with the album it comes from. Portugal says “fuck that” and changes every single song from its album version into a long winded rock jam that begs the question: How the hell can a band from Alaska be so damn good? Bonnaroo 2011 was no exception to this. When the band came on stage they started off with the fan favorite “Aka M80 The Wolf” and from there, just when you thought the song was almost finished, they went into a sprawling jam unlike anything anyone has ever heard in the indie scene. Is it Progressive rock? Is it Psychedelic rock? No, it’s just Portugal. The Man. Instead of talking between songs like other bands, seeing if the audience is enjoying their show, singer John Gourley played all the way through their hour and fifteen minute set and only spoke briefly, letting the music speak for itself. Their show was epic. To prove it even more, the people at Bonnaroo asked the guys from Alaska to play a special late night set of their sprawling progressive rock after the Preservation Hall Jazz Band parade. Check it out: Late Night Set.
Sure, I ranted about how epic Portugal. The Man’s show was, and even though they were one of the finer concerts of the weekend, Portugal’s show holds no water to Ratatat. As their set began, I had no idea what to expect. I never listened to their music before, and all I had heard about them was that they were an “electronic rock” band, whatever the hell that means. Aren’t all rock bands electronic? Anyway, when they entered the stage, behind two glass panels that their roadies put up earlier, it all finally made sense. An ethereal light show began and psychedelic fireworks started to glitter the panels of glass and the projector behind them started to display images of birds transforming breads, and faces melting into one another. If what I just described makes no sense to you, it’s because it really made no sense to me either. Yet, it was perfect for that time and place, especially for the drug induced audience they were playing for. Later after doing some research, I found out that they played some of their more famous songs like the appropriately named “Drugs,” “Necklace,” and “Wildcat.” The genre this duo heralds cannot really be described. They’re a mix of rock, trance, techno, house, and on occasion world music. Ratatat can only be described as superb. One of the main reasons why this band was so good was that it brought me back to the very same place when I first started to really listen to music. When I was first introduced to Pink Floyd, it was a fresh experience unlike any other. Something, shall I say, spiritual awoke in me. It was like I found something in life that was not old, but could be explored thoroughly without ever feeling trite or hackneyed. Isn’t that why we listen to music? To find out something new, not only in the music, but within ourselves too? Ratatat brought that old feeling back to me, and when I heard the first song cascade from their speakers Friday night, it prepared me for a weekend of great music.
And that is why Bonnaroo is such a special festival. Because you can listen to music from all walks of life and still find something new among all the bands that kept us thinking music is no longer unique. Music is unique my friends, you just need to know where to find it, and Bonnaroo is that place.
Honrable Mentions: The Strokes, Eminem, The Black Keys, Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons, Mavis Staples, Lewis Black, Shpongle Presents: The Shpongletron Experience, Opeth, Atmosphere, Warren Haynes Band, Girl Talk, Dr. John with The Original Meters, Gogol Bordello, The String Cheese Incident, and Galactic.
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