For those of you that know me, you’ve probably heard me speak (ad nauseum) about my awesome gig shooting at Bonnaroo, the multi-day, multi-stage music and arts celebration in rural Manchester, Tennessee. Not only do I get to share the stage with musicians that I respect and enjoy, but I also get exposed to new bands and see shows I probably never would have gotten to see otherwise. This year was the festival’s 10th anniversary and was the first time in years that it reached capacity — something in the neighborhood of 90,000 people (!).
Typically, Thursday is considered “indie-rock” day at Bonnaroo, where up and coming bands get a chance to impress the early crowds and make a name for themselves. Many a band have started as a Thursday Bonnaroo act and gone on to bigger and better things. I was hired to shoot the entire day on Thursday, which was new for me since I usually only do the overnight shift. The day was exhausting, but really rewarding. The first band to take the stage at That Tent was Futurebirds. Their sound and showmanship owed more than a bit of a debt to the early work of festival co-headliners My Morning Jacket — not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m a sucker for any band that can pull off the classic-rock, guitar hero sound and not feel cheesy or derivative, and Futurebirds pulled it off easily much to the admiration of the early crowd. Next up were Freelance Whales, an indie band from Brooklyn. They were fine, but their polite, keyboard driven tunes didn’t really engage me.
School of Seven Bells were next. Former Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis brought the same type of Kraut-meets-shoegaze grooves with him into this group, though the presence of lead singer Alejandra Dehenza lent the show a far more feminine, ethereal presence than The Secret Machines ever had. As I shot her singing against the setting sun, I couldn’t help but develop a little momentary crush on her.
A very different male-female-male trio followed Seven Bells; the straight-up rockers Band of Skulls from England. They attracted the biggest crowd of the day thus far, and mesmerized the audience with their driving, Sabbath-y riffs and complex basslines. Brooklyn’s The Walkmen made for a slightly awkward follow-up to Skulls — their energy is very subdued and cerebral. Though I was never a fan of their records, shooting lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s passionate vocal performance did get me into their headspace for a while.
The night finished with Deerhunter, whose records I admire more than love. That being said, their live performance was, for me, unquestionably the best that I shot on Thursday at Bonnaroo. Band mastermind Bradford Cox, with his tall, lanky frame and oddball vocals, isn’t your average leading man, but then again, nothing about Deerhunter is average. The band’s surreal amalgam of Kraut-rock, doo-wop, rock n’ roll and psychedelia were invigorating in a live setting, and Cox unleashed torrents of Hendrix-ish guitar solos toward the end of the show. After the band finished its set and house-lights came back on, the crowd continued to cheer until the band returned for a well-deserved, earned encore.
Though I didn’t need to be at work until around midnight, I went into Bonnaroo Friday as a fan at around 3pm in the afternoon. The festival grounds packed, and the heat and dust (it hadn’t rained at all leading up to the festival) were downright oppressive. In spite of this, the energy in the crowd was palpable. I started my day by heading to the de facto “metal” tent, where Georgia’s indie-metal workhorses Kylesa were warming up the devil-horn loving audience. I had seen Kylesa a few times before, and their show was definitely compromised by the heat and the early time slot. Good show, but not thrilling.
Next I worked my way into This Tent to watch Brooklyn heroes Matt & Kim. Their crowd was the biggest I had ever seen at a tent (in a rare miscue, the promoters really should have put M&K on the second stage). The affable, energetic duo worked the crowd into a quick frenzy with their buoyant synth-pop, and though I was digging their set, I had seen them several times and this point and the heat inside the tent was too much to bear.
To escape the heat, I headed backstage and emerged at the front of the What Stage for Grace Potter & The Nocturals. Though they were one of the first bands to play the mainstage, the Nocturnals thrilled the giant crowd with their high-energy rock n’ roll and Grace’s ethereal stage presence. The band couldn’t have picked a more obvious song cover than “White Rabbit,” but Grace and her band more than pulled it off with swagger. These guys will return to the mainstage in the future, mark my words.
From the main stage, I worked my way back to the “metal” tent to watch legendary black metal band Opeth. This show unquestionably had the most people in altered states that I had seen during a daytime tent show. Opeth were brilliant, but for me their show was undercut by a character having an extreme LSD moment right next to me. Dude was laying in the sand in the middle of the mosh pit, making a sand-angel, screaming “bury me! bury me!” So people buried him in the sand. Then he proceeded to roll around the ground making crazy eyes at people. It was pretty hilarious, but I decided that maybe seeing Opeth during the day wasn’t doing their show justice, so I decided to move on.
I moved to the main stage to catch the end of The Decemberists and I gotta say, they were pretty darn flat. I had seen them once before and enjoyed them, but they just weren’t bringing the needed heat to a main stage performance.
I decided to wait around at the main stage for My Morning Jacket, who were making their much deserved main stage debut. Perhaps no band’s name is more associated with, and career furthered by, their legendary Bonnaroo performances. This Friday night was no exception — I consider MMJ one of the top five live bands in the world, and their set this evening was great even by those standards. The set leaned heavily on the band’s (polarizing) record Evil Urges and its most recent Circuital. All the material from these records were ace, but their supersized renditions of previous favorites, from “Anytime” to “One Big Holiday” were just brilliant. Their version of “Steam Engine” from their seminal It Still Moves record was the best live version of that song I’d seen the band do — stretching well over 10 minutes, the song, and set as a whole, were simply transcendent.
After MMJ, I tried to plow my way over to the concurrent Primus show on the Which Stage. Now, I love Bonnaroo and all and generally think their set up is really great, but they’ve really gotta do something about the Which Stage. Bands on that stage regularly pull 20-30,000 people, and yet the sound is crap unless you’re right up by the sound board. That, and the sight lines are obscured by ill-placed lemonade stands and other such nonsense. By the time I worked my way close enough to hear Primus with any clarity, they were already wrapping up with (an awesome version of) “Tommy the Cat.” I wish that Primus was handed a primo overnight set rather than a conflicted evening set, but it was cool to catch a bit of Les Claypool’s antics.
After Primus, I had to go to a work meeting for my overnight shoot. After the meeting, I snuck out into the front where headliners The Arcade Fire were about halfway through their set. After being underwhelmed by their live performance a few years back in New York and particularly by their new album The Suburbs (I know, I’m in the minority) I didn’t have much expectation regarding their set. But, man, they really proved me wrong. With a eye catching light/video show reflecting the half-remembered nostalgia of their music, and an air-tight ensemble of performers, they more than convinced me they had what it took to be a Bonnaroo headliner. Hearing 60-70,000 people sing along to the band’s “Wake Up” was the most goose-bump inducing moment of the festival for me.
After The Arcade Fire I had to transition from fan to professional, so I headed over to the Which Stage to shoot Lil’ Wayne overnight performance. I ended up being the camera in the pit, which meant I basically was tasked with following Lil Wayne around, capturing the energy of his flow, his live band, and the multiple dancers he had on stage. And though the sound where I was was so loud that there’s no way I can give an objective opinion on the show, it was pretty exciting to capture Lil’ Wayne running back and forth on the stage and finally into the crowd. By 3:00AM, my epic Friday was over.
And at around 3PM Saturday, I headed back into Bonnaroo as a fan again. The weather was even hotter this afternoon, and the dust was in full effect. People seemed pretty burnt out — the grounds more resembled Mad Max than Bonnaroo. The heat was too much to bear for me, so I dipped back stage and half-watched Deer Tick, who were okay, but nothing that really caught my attention. I kind of wandered around in a daze, catching a bit of !!!‘s early set at the tiny Sonic Stage before they headed to the tent for their evening show, and Alison Kraus on the Which Stage.
By 5PM, the heat was breaking and I headed back to That Tent to catch Portugal. The Man. I shot these guys down at SXSW and, along with this Saturday afternoon set, they’ve rocketed to near the top of my favorite current live band list. Despite the heat, the band just caught lightning in a bottle, thrilling the large crowd with their mind-boggling musicianship and showmanship. Their songs come across as somewhat traditional on record, but live, the band stretches the tunes into epic jams that pack more surprises into one song than most bands pull off their entire set. Aside from MMJ, this was my favorite show at Bonnaroo 2011.
From there I went to go check out the end of DeVotchKa, who, despite some fancy work by an acrobat that joined them on stage, fell completely flat in my eyes. I left their show feeling a little burnt and headed over to watch !!! for a little bit. I dug their set, but spent almost the whole time wondering why, with their incredible energy and compulsively dancable disco grooves, were not playing an overnight set. I left them early to catch Bootsy Collins — or at least, I meant to catch him. The legendary Funkadelic bassist was supposed to play at 7PM at The Other Tent and at 8:10PM had still not showed up. Feeling pretty pissed, I left to catch The Black Keys over at the main stage.
I was wondering how The Black Keys would hold a main stage, prime-time slot. Judging by the enormous crowd singing along to all of their songs, they were acquitting themselves just fine. That being said, though I dig their show, being near the back of the house watching their down-and-dirty garage rock just felt a little strange. When they finished, I headed over to check out the reunited Buffalo Springfield. Though I should have expected nothing less, the set was very heavy on the laid-back, old-school Springfield jams and less on Neil Young’s piercing guitar wails. In truth, I was bored by their set and, with lightning cracking in the sky, I decided it wasn’t worth risking electrocution over some Dad-rock.
When the storm passed, I headed back to the main stage to watch a bit of headliner Eminem before going to work for the night. I am not a fan of Eminem’s newer work (and his older stuff mostly hasn’t aged well) but I still had some high hopes since his reputation as a live rapper is pretty much unrivaled (this is the guy who got famous dismantling other MCs in rap-battles back in Detroit). But when Em took the stage in front of a giant, rather lame video show, it was painfully obvious how much he was relying on backing vocals and his hype man. It could have just been lousy sound, but really, the MC’s live mic should always be at least AS loud as the backing track, or else it just seems like he or she is lip syncing, which is exactly how it looked at Eminem’s show. As my friend Scott eloquently encapsulated Enimen’s set: “It’s just not what I expect from a Bonnaroo headliner” and, more to the point, “it’s mad cheesy.” Agreed.
Once again, it was time to transition from fan to professional, so I headed to That Tent to shoot Dr. John and the Original Meters. This was a highly buzzed about show around the festival, since the band was going to be playing Destively Bonnaroo, the record which lends the festival its name. Indeed, the band’s performance of the record was the exact old-school funk that the overflowing crowd was expecting. The downside is that the record is very short and that the band decided to redo its stage set-up halfway through its allotted time to bring in more performers. The set-change took almost 20 minutes and the second part of the set just seemed a bit to New Orleans-y mellow for a late night show.
After Dr. John and crew finished up the stage was reset for tweaker-fave, electro jammers STS9. After shooting The Disco Biscuits last year, I was dreading another long, long detour into this genre but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by STS9. Their undeniably catchy dance-rock and psychedelic light show was like catnip to the young, glow-stick clad crowd. Their set lasted around 2 hours, and I dug the entire thing… and then the band returned for an encore which lasted almost another hour. By the time they finished up at 5:45am, I was pretty sick of them, but the crowd was with them almost to the very end.
Sunday at Bonnaroo was my only day to be purely a music lover and not an employee, so in spite of getting almost no sleep, I headed back into the festival. The heat had finally broken and the mood inside the festival was much mellower, probably because the only people left standing were the folks who knew how to pace themselves throughout the weekend, and because super-hippies Widespread Panic were headlining the day.
First up I went to check out Swedish psychadelic folk rockers Junip, who turned out to be the pleasant surprise of the festival for me. Entertaining a surprisingly large crowd at The Other Tent, the band’s good vibes were contagious, and they seemed genuinely happy to see the audience clapping along and dancing to their head-bobbing grooves. Lead singer Jose Gonzalez thanked the crowd several times, and very likely walked away from Sunday at Bonnaroo with a lot of new fans.
From Junip I braved the large crowd at the Which Stage for Iron & Wine. I have already made my issues with the Which Stage clear, and the crappy sound and sight lines really compromised this set for me. That being said, Iron & Wine have made the odd transition from a Sam Beam-with-a-guitar folk outfit to a Sam Beam-fronting-a-15-piece-psychadelic-jamband in mostly successful fashion. Almost every song was almost unrecognizable from their recorded counterparts, and while not every new arrangement worked, it did lend the set an unpredictable energy. The nearly 15 minute version of “Wolves (Song of the Shepheard’s Dog)” was stunning. I had a great moment with some annoying, fratty bros standing next to me talking shit about the band during the slow, folky opening of the song. As the tune progressed into to an acid jazz bridge and a classic rock, guitar and sax solo-ing climax, the guys were pumping their fists and screaming “woo!” Who’da thunk, Iron & Wine would ever get that kind of reaction?
I ducked backstage and headed to the What Stage to watch the beginning of Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. I had shot them earlier this year for “The Artist’s Den” and really dug that show, but at Bonnaroo the former Zeppelin front man really brought the thunder. After opening with a few Zeppelin songs (which were intriguingly spun into galloping Americana versions) the band broke out some songs from their new record which played exceptionally well to the afternoon crowd. Of all the sets I left early, I really wish I could have stayed longer at this one.
The reason I left was to go check out Explosions in the Sky, the legendary Austin post-rockers who essentially invented the sound of music that I tend to enjoy the most. I had never seen these guys play, and it was every bit as epic as one would expect. Drawing a massive crowd outside the This Tent, Explosions unfurled many new tunes from their latest Take Care Take Care Take Care along with old favorites from earlier albums and the game-changing Friday Night Lights soundtrack. Really, it’s pretty impressive for an instrumental post-rock band to get the kind of ecstatic reception that Explosions in the Sky received. Though they finished 15 minutes early (as one of the members who came back to answer the audience “encore” cry, the band really enjoyed their time, but as good Texans, they had to go watch the Dallas Mavericks pummel the hated Miami Heat in the NBA finals), Explosions in the Sky were a fitting end to Bonnaroo for me.
I had to skip headliners Widespread Panic because I had to make it back to Knoxville before driving all the way back to New York on Monday, but this was probably my favorite Sunday of the three Bonnaroos I have been to.
On the 14 hour ride home, I have to admit, I was already looking forward to next year’s Roo, fantasizing about the bands who would play and who I might get to shoot.
Sidebar: Never eat at a Waffle House and a TGIF’s on the same day. Awful, awful idea.