I can honestly say that it’s a pleasure to be back in the hills of Manchester, PopWatchers, where the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival is underway for its seventh year. Was talking with a friend tonight and we decided everything just sounds better on these stages, even certain overhyped Afropop bands comprised of preppies from the Eastern Seaboard; plus, I think being surrounded by so many people encouraging me to recycle and do yoga and wear/eat/smoke things made out of plants is good for my crabby little soul.
As I wound through the back roads of Tennessee on my drive in, I spent some time remembering last summer’s trip, and wondering if there’s any way the four days ahead can top my first Bonnaroo experience. Then I missed a turn and got horribly lost (something of an annual tradition, it seems), and snapped back to reality. Eyes on the road! There’s so much goodness to come! Metallica! Chris Rock! Pearl Jam! How on earth to pace myself? How to put it all into context? How to keep my tendencies to ramble under control? Frankly, I’m not sure I can, or should even bother trying. You’d think, coming into my fifth music festival of the year, I’d be sick to death of this stuff. No chance, pocket friends. Still, I saw nine bands today, which really is plenty– and Thursday’s sets don’t even start until 5:45 or so. Tomorrow I’ll be up and running by noon. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being a little worried about my sanity already. I’m gonna need more Diet Coke.
After the jump, Day One — featuring What Made Milwaukee Famous, Newton Faulkner, Grand Ole Party, Vampire Weekend, an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band (NOTE: NOT LED ZEPPELIN), and Nicole Atkins, who put on the kind of show that makes hauling my tired butt around field after field completely worth it.
So yeah, I went about twenty miles out of the way this morning, but still managed to get credentialed and checked into my lovely little B&B and back out to the festival in a far more punctual fashion than last year. Last year, I accidentally spent a frightening hour circling the entire Calcutta-like campground in my car. This year, I opted to walk a lap around the grounds instead, noting the wonderful Silent Disco and the DJ academy and the "Hugaroo Deli" (hugs, not sandwiches, which bums me out since I don’t like to be touched). Then there’s the mini-Flatstock and the crazy sculptures and the hula-hooping and the live-band karaoke tent and the "Bonnaroo Barn," whose purpose I have yet to determine… I suppose if you’re going to trap your attendees on site for the weekend, the least you can do is give them activities to help pass the time. Batting cages, puppetry workshops– one could probably enjoy the hell out of Bonnaroo without seeing a single band. That would be ludicrous (and require a love of street fair culture I don’t personally possess), but one could do it.
To kick off my all-music-no-street-fair festival, I checked in on What Made Milwaukee Famous, an Austin four-piece that I first caught a couple SXSW’s ago. Based on the loving reaction from the crowd today, they’ve grown quite a bit in stature (and comparisons to Spoon) since then, and they even came with their own monogrammed beach balls to thwack out into the crowd. Grinning sheepishly, Michael Kingcaid led the group through "Cheap Wine" and "Sultan"; I’d have stayed longer, but the power ballad surge of "Self-Destruct" sent me wandering east towards That Tent– oh, those crazy Bonnaroo stage names– and something new.
Newton Faulkner, to be precise (get it? new? ah, nevermind), who’s essentially England’s answer to that dude in your college dorm who played guitar at parties. Except Faulkner’s a) talented and b) kept the dreads, which droop in his eyes as he focuses on the complex scales and hammer-ons and percussive rhythms he coaxes from his instrument. He’s a natural storyteller and a bit of a ham, tossing out a ridiculous cover of Dead or Alive’s "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" before his beautiful take on Massive Attack’s "Teardrop," and working the phrase "anal probe" into a song about aliens. That tune, "UFO," also featured his most impressive vocal trick, the human theremin, during which a teenaged boy wearing a handmade "I’m from Kentucky" t-shirt collapsed on my feet, hollering, "I watched What Made Milwaukee Famous, and it changed my life!" "We saw a couple songs," said his friend, trying to rouse him from the ground. "This guy’s better."
A quick swing through Superdrag– still not broken up again yet!– led me over to Grand Ole Party, a trio I’ve been meaning to catch for a while now. What’s not to enjoy about anything described as "like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, if Karen O played drums"? I’ll be damned if that ain’t accurate: Drummer/frontwoman Kristin Gundred has the exact same disco-hipster vibe as her fellow sweaty brunette, but pours all her flailing afterparty energy into the beat instead of gold lamé. This band’s got some work to do before they stop sounding like everyone else, but Gundred’s talent is fascinating. Next it was time for an air-conditioned break in the "Somethin’ Else – New Orleans" tent, where under a faux-pressed-tin ceiling, NOLA’s Soul Rebels were engaged in a brassy hip-hop call-and-response with a too-small crowd. More from Louisiana land later, I hope, as I’ve been promised special guest alerts throughout the weekend (including, possibly, members of Pearl Jam and Metallica), and the idea of bringing the best of that town’s still-vibrant music scene up here to hang with the in crowd was a genius one. I am also praying that they will not be out of jambalaya tomorrow, because that was a huge stinkin’ letdown come dinner.
Here’s your Show of the Day, PopWatchers: Nicole Atkins, a singer-songwriter from just outside Asbury Park, New Jersey, who I’d never heard of prior to about 8:35 p.m this evening. If you’ve got Jenny Lewis on one end of the spectrum, and Alanis Morissette on the other, Nicole has no use for your spectrum. She’s dark and sultry and her band is killer, and when she gets her voice up and running, she damn near pummels the notes into your gut. I was completely taken by her. And it seemed she was taken with us: Thrilled to be playing "in front of more than 40 people," she tried out some "epic" numbers, including a cover of Patti Smith’s "Pissing in a River" that almost made me forget the original. About halfway through Atkins’ set, a man appeared next to me, eyes wide. "Who is that??" he gasped. "She just kinda drew us over here." Of course these things always sound different on tape, but give her a shot, PopWatchers, see what you think. I hear Springsteen’s a fan, and that dude knows a thing or two.
Dinner (at 10 p.m.) was enjoyed to the washboard stylings of self-confessed "dirtbag nobodies" the Felice Brothers, whose rootsy clatter just made me that much more eager to see Two Gallants on Saturday. After downing my jerk chicken rice platter thingy, I moseyed over to catch the end of Battles (speaking of clatter), where the air was so thick with smoke you couldn’t see more than five rows into the crowd from the stage. Pretty much every single one of those people stuck around for Vampire Weekend, who, as I alluded to before, really sounded very good; "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" and "M79" (before which Ezra Koenig encouraged both punks and hippies to yell together) had my little toes tapping against their hype-averse will. I can’t say the calypso sound carried into the fields– just outside the center of the tent, everything got a little thin and easily ignoreable– but from the photo pit, I was impressed for the first time by their musicianship, if not their fashion sense.
And then… well, what can I say about Lez Zeppelin, except that the key to Lez Zeppelin is that they are not LED Zeppelin, misleading Bonnaroo press releases be damned? No, they are four women, and they rock in a way that is eerily identical to the band from whence they’ve stolen their shtick: Sarah McLellan’s wail at the top of "Immigrant Song" was totally aggro, "The Ocean" was rhythmically tight, and Steph Paynes did indeed play an extended guitar solo with a vioin bow amidst "Dazed and Confused." The whole effect was so spot-on that I cannot complain about a single thing, except that they are not LED Zeppelin. Thus, when they started playing "Sunshine of Your Love," I didn’t feel bad about heading for my car. (It seemed a bit much to watch a cover band cover another band’s song, plus I squicked myself out trying to come up with what the all-girl Cream cover band’s name would be.) The obvious talent of these ladies aside, I’m not here to revisit the past, remember? Eyes on the road! Full steam ahead! Dammit, now it’s 4 a.m., and this was supposed to be my easy day!
All right, PopWatchers: Anybody watch any online footage from this thing today? Anyone got band suggestions for tomorrow? And based on yesterday’s vote, have we decided as a group that I am not in fact bothering with the Kanye? Is someone going to help me talk through my martyr complex/workaholism so that I can skip his set without all the accompanying guilt?