In mid-June, rural Manchester, Tennessee, becomes the music capital of the United States. The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which debuted in 2001, has garnered a reputation as a genre-jumping, impeccably curated and run music festival. In a typical ‘Roo day, you could see indie rock, hip-hop, bluegrass, world, jam and funk bands, all usually at the top of their games.
For the past two years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend Bonnaroo as a fan during the day, and then work as a camera operator during the festival’s celebrated overnight sets. (Be sure to check out my work at the Thievery Corporation set on Fuse, debuting Thursday, June 17th at 7pm. Check listings on fuse.tv for subsequent airings).
These are my impressions of Bonnaroo, 2010:
After a day and a half of driving from Brooklyn to Manchester, we finally made our way through the campgrounds, the incredibly chill security checkpoints, and the signiture Bonnaroo arch and were ready for some music. At around 5pm, I made my way to This Tent to check out the critically lauded metal act Baroness. Baroness, though I’ve never heard their records, turned out to be a very standard metal band. When they kept things fast and crunching, they sounded like a younger cousin to High on Fire (a good thing). When they slowed things down, they sounded an awful lot like latter-day Pelican (not a good thing). To mix things up, we headed over to That Tent to check out Local Natives. I found myself relaxing, sitting in the grass behind a large standing crowd, and the passing cloud and warm weather definitely mellowed me out. That being said, I spent most of my time wondering if the band was intentionally mimicking The Fleet Foxes or if they were just really derivative. From there, we caught a few songs from Miike Snow, an electronic rock act which reminded me a bit of Kenna or Erasure. The set was hampered by some uncharacteristic, for ‘Roo, poor sound, but the band was intriguing. To break from music, we headed to the Comedy Tent to check out Margaret Cho, whose set was more raunchy than I would have ever imagined. Finally, for our late-night music fix, we headed to The Other Tent to check out Lotus. Now, I’d never heard of Lotus, but their cathartic, propulsive instrumental dance rock reminded me of a jammier Holy Fuck. A dude in front of me was dancing like there was no tomorrow, and another hippie with dreds began juggling glow in the dark balls much to the delight of the mostly stoned crowd. The band was totally awesome, and one of my favorite sets of the whole festival.
We started our extremely hot Friday afternoon camped out in the shade of a tree by The Other Tent, where Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes and Dr. Dog played pleasant but unmemorable sets of indie-rock. I left Dr. Dog early to check out The National on Which Stage, one of my most anticipated sets of the festival. They did not disappoint. I haven’t been a huge fan of The National until their latest, “High Violet,” which I think is easily their best album. And what sounds mopey and gray on record is quite anthemic and rock n’ roll in person. This has a lot to do with front-man Matt Berringer, who goes back and forth from silky baritone to throat-shredding screams, walked into the crowd several times, and even crowd surfed during the band’s signature tune, “Mr. November.” After The National, I dipped backstage and around to the pit of the main What Stage, where Tenacious D was finishing up their set. They were pretty great, but disappointingly ended early and, more crucially, did NOT bring out Conan O’Brien for a rumored cameo. From there, I trekked back to The Other Tent to catch just enough of Les Claypool to get me excited for the Primus show I bought tickets for this summer at the Williamsburg Waterfront.
I elected to skip headliners Kings of Leon entirely (though I did hear them covering a Pixie’s tune faintly from my resting spot, just under the ferris wheel) to prepare for my long night of work. I got to That Tent expecting to shoot The Black Keys, but the band elected at the last second not to have their set filmed. Because of this, I was able to run over and catch a bit of The Flaming Lips. The Lips were playing a set of their own music before launching into a late-night set covering Pink Floyd‘s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Maybe it’s just how far away I was — the crowd was massive — but I felt an uncharacteristic amount of indifference and even hostility toward the Lips (people were shouting “play Dark Side!” during the band’s original songs). And though it was great to see songs of the band’s masterpiece “Embryonic,” I felt like the band was kind of spinning its wheels before the “Dark Side” set. I had to head back to work at this point and shoot two hip hop acts, Kid Cudi (surprisingly decent) and B.O.B (pretty terrible). At 5 am, I left the ‘Roo for the night.
We walked into ‘Roo and headed to the What Stage after getting shut out of Conan O’Brien‘s set at the Comedy Tent (definitely the most in-demand set of the weekend… wish it was on a stage as opposed to the finitely seated comedy/film tents) we headed to the What Stage to catch just a bit of Big Sam’s Funky Nation, which was exactly what you’d expect but still pretty cool. From there, it was off to my other most anticipated set, Isis. Isis is, in my opinion, the best metal band of the last 15 years (I did name this website after one of their albums, after all) and the news that they were breaking up made my heart heavy. I’d seen the band a half dozen times before this, but they seemed energized by their unusual setting, and as gray clouds crested the hill during “In Fiction” from “Panopticon,” the band had the large crowd in the palm of its hand. Following the mighty Isis were the legendary Melvins, who played to one of the smallest crowds of the weekend (surprisingly) but still impressed the hell out of me. They were one of the few bands I’ve ever seen not only pull off having two drummers, but to absolutely rely on it. I can see why they were Kurt Cobain’s favorite band.
After my metal fix, I made my way to the What Stage to catch Jack White’s other, other band, The Dead Weather. I’ve always been skeptical of The Dead Weather, why do I want to see one of the world’s best guitarist’s playing drums, but their set had a bluesy crunch to it that was hard to deny. And Jack did come out from behind the kit to shred on the guitar for three songs, which was definitely a treat. I then fought my way through an incredibly packed crowd watching Weezer to try to catch a little Jeff Beck. I only caught a song or two, and decided I better beat the crowd and head over to Stevie Wonder. In spite of going on 20 minutes late, and my worry that his set would lean harder on cheesy balladry than funk, Stevie brought it hard. At the most crowded set of the entire weekend — he united all the stoners, hippies, indie-kids, hip-hop kids, indie rockers in one place — Stevie Wonder proved that he was a legend.
I was forced to miss Jay-Z to get ready to work, though I heard he was fantastic. Again working at That Tent, the first band up was Thievery Corporation. With a rotating crew of internationally flavored vocal talent, a huge crew of musicians (bongos AND sitar), and an eye catching visuals, the set was one of the weekend’s strongest. At the end of the set, one of the MC’s anchoring a hip-hop/reggae tinged tuned called for all the ladies in the house to join him on stage. From behind me, over the pit barricades, came a tidal wave of eager fans, all but crushing security on their way to stage. It was something else. Next up were the Disco Biscuits. Listen. I get why people like The Disco Biscuits. I do. They’re great musicians, and if I was on a few pills of ecstasy, I wouldn’t mind that their songs are incredibly repetitive and 45 minutes long. But shooting them for 3 hours (from 3 til 6 am) was quite the chore and by the time I hit the car at 6:30am, I was wiped.
The early part of Sunday is a haze of heat (it was 99 degrees) and exhaustion. We attempted to watch Regina Spektor at the Which Stage, but the heat got the best of us. We retreated into the cold comfort of a fruit smoothy and stood away from the crowd. I floated from the Which Stage to the What Stage to catch a little John Fogerty. I’m sure he was saving his Creedence stuff for the end of his tent, but in spite of the excellent blues band backing him, I found myself drifting away from his set to get over to They Might Be Giants. I’ve always heard good things about TMBG, and these rumors were true. Playing to a crowd of indie-rockers, hippies and 5-year-olds, TMBG’s played one of the weekend’s most feel-good, enjoyable sets. After this, we floated around a bit, catching a bit of Ween while we ate dinner (they were very cool, I wish I had seen more). We watched some of Pheonix after that and, to me, it was one of the weakest sets of the whole weekend. The band’s songs all sound the same to me, and in a live setting, it was even more apparent. We slipped away from the huge stage to the tiny Troo Music Lounge, where funk band Orgone just ripped it up during their short set.
From Orgone we followed the surging masses toward the What Stage, where Dave Matthews Band was set to finish off the weekend. I realize I may have my hipness-card revoked for saying this, but DMB was definitely one of the best sets of the weekend. Though they expectedly got lost in a stray jam or two, DMB focused more heavily on the rock n’ roll, really highlighting their incredibly strong musicianship and delighting the crowd with one barn burner after another. Special points to saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who just absolutely destroyed his epic solo early in the set. The band’s two and a half hour set, buoyed by a truly impressive light/video show, raced by, and by the time the band closed with “All Along the Watchtower,” it was hard to believe that Bonnaroo, 2010, was already over.