Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bonnaroo - Sunday, June 14

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
In the first of what turned out to be many fruitful half-sets I caught Sunday afternoon, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists brought the weekend's best gracefully-aging melodic punk to The Other Tent, and they brought it hard. Busting out mostly new tracks interspersed with old favourites (I've never listened to a Ted Leo album, so this is purely judging by the reactions of the into-it dudes and dudettes around me), Ted and his band covered everything from simmering midtempo jams to more standard punky-pop blitzkreigs. Plus, when introducing "Even Heroes Have to Die," he explained, "The point is, everybody is human...that's not usually the point, but I thought it was appropriate for Bonnaroo."

The Dillinger Escape Plan
Sunday's lineup at That Tent was likely a Bonnaroo first, consisting exclusively of metal bands. Oh how quickly things change. It's not clear whether this new direction paid off, as the crowd gathered for Dillinger's theatrical math metal was noticeably sparse compared to other midday acts – though the pit seemed to be in a fine form. I was mainly there to see lead vocalist Greg Puciato jump into/on top of the crowd, which indeed happened on their epic closer. And boy can they shred!

Brett Dennen
For the last couple years, I've kept Brett Dennen at arm's length, expecting to quickly bore from what I assume to be a body of heard-it-before work hidden below his satisfyingly unique voice. And yet, I found Dennen and his California boys' somba-inspired khaki rock to be danceable and enjoyable in the non-ironic kind of way. I have to agree with an equally impressed attendee beside me, who announced to a friend, "This guy's got some soul!" That, and it was more ska than folk. Go figure.

Erykah Badu
Despite being just the second – and first officially scheduled – act to play the What Stage on Sunday, it wasn't until a half-hour into her scheduled set that Badu's band opened with "A Milli"' followed by an utterly pointless intro funk track. That chord progression sure got tiring after a dozen repetitions. When Badu finally strutted onstage sporting a cool-as-fuck tophat and Public Enemy sweatshirt, the real show began, showing off her off-kilter harmonies and power-woman sensibilities. For the most part, the crowd seemed to really enjoy it.

Andrew Bird
Bird is one of those artists with a big enough fanbase and praise for his live show that his albums should be a safe bet. I even had a "holy shit what music is this this is great" moment midway through Armchair Apocrypha working late one night last fall, yet further pre-Bonnaroo listens of the same record proved strangely uninspiring.

Thankfully, Bird's voice was far stronger and more dynamic – and his multi-stringamentation more pronounced – live than on Armchair or even the arguably-superior Noble Beast. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for loops of beautifully plucked violin lines. Let's go with that.

Mike Farris
I was sucked into the Sonic Stage for the positively penetrating pipes of Mister Mike Farris. I didn't mean to spew alliteration all over your screen like that, but that's the only way to describe this bluesman's tenor. Great stuff.

Neko Case
Despite my and other audience members' repeated heckling for songs from the Virginian redhead and New Pornographer's back catalog, Neko Case and the Sadies stuck to material mostly from Middle Cyclone – the blander/poppier (take your pick) follow up to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. No matter, Case's talent has always superseded her songwriting, and it was wonderful to hear her vocal harmonies reproduced so scrupulously.

And to compliment her and her backing vocalist's good-humoured banter, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog joined her onstage to tell some clich├ęd-but-chuckle-inducing Bonnaroo jokes and sing an astonishingly in-tune duet. It was a nice moment, her and the guy with his hand up a dog puppet's ass.

Distinctly mellower than their Friday kicking out of the jams, Phish's first Sunday set trotted along comfortably and capped off with a well-documented appearance from Trey Anastasio's "boyhood hero, and still hero" Bruce Springsteen. Their version of the archetypal cover band track "Mustang Sally" put me right back to Father's Day car shows in the park, except only better and at Bonnaroo. Then, after an intense weekend of music and little-to-no rest, I fell asleep during their second set. But I bet it was fun.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bonnaroo - Saturday, June 13

Heartless Bastards
It's shitty to say, but I was happy to be done with Friday. With the most overwhelming day out of the way, I was happy to be in a more exploratory than To Do List-type mode. And the soaring near-stoner jams provided by the Heartless Bastards around 2 p.m. made for yet another good start. While their most recent LP, The Mountain, is a fine record in its own right, returning to it after hearing the Bastards play live has made for a more intriguing listen, most of all for Erika Wennerstrom's bluesy vocals.

Bon Iver
Justin Vernon et co.'s set in Toronto last summer was something special. I was prepared to enjoy the show; I wasn't prepared to get floored by one of the best vocalists in indie music. While others use falsetto to patch their limited range, Vernon's cut deep at Lee's Palace, filling the room like a group of soulful ghosts.

This, my second time seeing him support essentially the same material (save for the For Emma-wasn't-a-fluke Blood Bank e.p.), saw Bon Iver sound exponentially more like a full band, and less as Vernon-with-other-dudes. He introduced everyone by their first name, and had the newest member sign a Yo La Tengo cover ("I Feel Like Going Home," from the formidable I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass). On it and "For Emma," the band's sound was boosted by Elvis Perkins in Dearland's horns. Overall, the multi-percussion parts that drifted toward the redundant on their Letterman appearance were appropriate in the more dynamic full-length set, during which the band rarely doubled up on instruments.

Just as on their releases, Bon Iver tracks have a way of melting guitars, voice, keys, and percussion into one other, creating a unified force sometimes charging, sometimes strolling toward the end. On the quieter side, "Re: Stacks" was once again stunning (the "drunk as hell" line may have been specifically directed to the idiot who pissed on the ground before the show, causing the woman beside him to insist he get the fuck away from her, as that was a rather unpleasant experience). The band's recurring closer, "Wolves Part I and II," reached new heights with the jam-packed midday crowd's insistent contribution to "What might've been lost..." A nice powerful outro for the middle of the afternoon. Plus, the other guitarist looks like a blonder, younger Shia LaBeouf.

Del McCoury Band
Real bluegrass. Superb old-timer grooves.

Finally – Wilco can open every show with a song about themselves! From the first strums of "Wilco (The Song)," Jeff Tweedy and the boys rocked and rolled through their two-hour late afternoon set in fine fashion. Drawing rather evenly from Being There to Yankee to their last two meh releases to Wilco (The Album), the band was more on the jammy side of the festival's reported jam/indie divide. It's not like [insert most indie band ever] would ever end with a guitar duel.

Of Montreal (?) parade
Of Montreal's show started pretty poorly – or maybe I was just too far back – so I wandered over to hear Gov't Mule cover "Creep," that British one-hit-wonder band's song. Instead of catching the end of Mars Volta or Decemberists, I got sidetracked by one of those many moments unique to the festival: a marching band of sorts, complete with burlesque dancers, costumed folk on stilts, and a guy who was extremely happy to be in the midst of it all. Surrounding them were three people watching, 18 taking digital photos.

Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band
Like everyone else who never grew up with "The Boss," the only thing I know about them is that they're from Jersey, kicked ass at the Super Bowl, and stole the drummer from Conan O'Brien's band. The only question was, would it really be live? Well, after a half-hour delay and a huge first song, that's exactly what Bruce asked the crowd – "I said is anybody out there aliiive tonight!?" – so I went to get some dinner. When I returned, I saw moms and dads dancing, and thought to myself, yeah, they should be able to enjoy music festivals, too.

Slotted for a relatively brief 45-minute set before MGMT at That Tent, these harmonizing techno-beatniks were a perfect warm-up for the sardine-can jump-a-thon to come. Their worldly beats and lofty synths did justice to the much-loved All Hour Cymbals on live versions of tracks like "Sunrise" and "2080." It was clear large swaths of the crowd were in for a first-time listen, and those in my immediate vicinity let out innumerable "this is like, really good"'s. So good for them.

Somewhat strangely, the "backing" vocals offered up by guitarist Anand Wilder and bassist Ira Wolf Tuton actually felt stronger than lead singer/synthist Chris Keating, who's more about being unique than holding notes. At least he's got the former down pat.

How does a band with three great songs and a half-dozen decent ones meet the expectations (and the set length) of a late-night Bonnaroo bonanza? Well, first they play all the songs you know but forgot about from Oracular Spectacular, mix in some newbies, sandwich two of their best tracks ("Time to Pretend" and "Electric Feel") together, and come back for encore with the third ("Kids") and the mellower eponymous track from their forthcoming album, Celebration – and bask in the adoration of the mighty masses before them.

Overall, the show aligned more with the band's psych-rock tendencies than the club-funk of the aforementioned Big Three, and the new songs pushed even further in the direction of upbeat 60s pop. In reaching for a mellower sound, MGMT – aka Ben Goldwasser and the long-lost Jonas Brother – will likely appeal to a new breed of pop enthusiasts, but at the same time risk losing the sound that got them one of the most packed late-night audiences of the festival.

This lighter sound also seems to have influenced their playing of their most danceable tracks. "Time to Pretend," for example, was less focused on the fuzzy, throbbing synth that kicks in after the intro, and more about the smooth guitar lines put deeper in the mix on the band's debut. Still, there remains plenty of hope for these fresh-faced four-letterers, as Oracular tracks sitting firmly in the decent pile, like "Weekend Wars" and "Handshake," had a far grander presence live.

Bonnaroo – Friday, June 12

After settling in to the festival's otherworldly atmosphere with a stellar first night of music, I left the campsite at noon on Friday excited to navigate one of the most absurdly stacked days of music ever (ever ever, ever ever). That, or the day with way too many overlapping sets – take Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear, and Santigold all playing around 5 to 6 p.m. as one example.

Though this is an unfortunate reality – and perhaps the only unsolvable logistical issue at Bonnaroo – it's also what I'd call the best kind of dilemma. "Oh no there are several fine musical artists whose performances I'd enjoy seeing but they're taking the stage all at once. Woe is so fucking me." Plus, I'd taken a proactive approach by catching both TV on the Radio (who were upstaged by the Dirty Projectors' impeccable opening set) and Grizzly Bear in Montreal the week before. You do what you can.

Dirty Projectors
Otherwise known as the royal family of virtuosic experimental indie, or Dave Longstreth & the Power Pipe Girls, or just a really tight band that does what others can't (except fly? debatable), the Dirty Projectors showcased their talents and niceties to a packed early afternoon crowd at the David Byrne-curated That Tent. The group began the show the same way as their opening set for TVOTR – with the acoustic duet "Two Doves," showcasing Angel Deradoorian's soaring alto and Longstreth's fluttering, intricate finder-picking, followed by Bitte Orca opener "Cannibal Resource" – to expectedly superb effects.

Next, the striking vocal interplay that lifts the "Remade Horizon" to a new stratosphere in the bridge of its recorded version again found its place at the forefront of its live rendition, arousing mid-song cheers from what seemed to be an audience largely unfamiliar with the band. Midway through the set, bassist Nat Baldwin and new vocalist Haley Delke left the stage, leaving the Rise Above-era Dirty Projectors to play perhaps the three finest cuts from that album: "Gimme Gimme Gimme," "Thristy And Miserable," and "Rise Above." Though it was nice to see the band as they'd been at their incredible Sala Rosa show last year, the band is simply stronger as a 6-piece thriving on new songs.

Baldwin and Delke returned for Amber Coffman-fronted "Stillness is the Move" – you know, the one where the petite blonde bounces about and sings like Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, or maybe both. Whatever comparisons they're drawing from their most straight-forward R&B track, the fact is that few things are more satisfying than hearing Coffman let loose after the last chorus – right around the 4:10 mark on the album. Good, comma, god.

Soon after, the half-sung-mostly-yelled three-part harmonies near the halfway mark of "Useful Chamber" pitted the girls' voices against the boys' slogging rhythm, until the song dissolved into a slower, calmer version of itself. And during this, its most potent live moment, is the only time that the band makes its gender parity truly felt.

The set ended in typical "it had to happen" fashion. Longstreth announced they had one more song, and that they were going to sign it with their friend David – that Byrne guy with whom the band contributed "Knotty Pine" to the Dark Was The Night charity comp. So Mr. "White Suit" Byrne ran on, jumped around, sang a verse and a chorus, and life was good.

St. Vincent
Pity the pretty-faced songstress who plays at the same time as Animal Collective in the "My Girls" era. So was the fate for Annie Clark and the four multi-instrumentalists behind her, who started with the slowish "Marry Me" before heading into the buoyant Actor highlight "Save Me From What I Want." Both her playing and that of backing band were noticeably precise, and a pleasure to see in a live setting.

The band added life to Marry Me cuts like "Now, Now," making the harmonic guitar lines funkier and more pronounced, and by purposefully setting the melody slightly behind the beat in the verses. The guitar spazzout that closes the song was also less dissonant, and more rewarding, than on the album. And as much as I wanted to hear "Jesus Saves" I didn't want to yell that out loud in Tennessee.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
I've seen Grace Potter twice – once at a noon Bonnnaroo set in 2006, and again at the first Osheaga (the music festival that didn't always suck) – and there is no way around it. They rock, and she is awesome. I could use a thesaurus to make that point more explicative, but that'd take away from the straight-up realness this band exudes. A highlight may have been the five-person convergence onto Mr. Stache's drumkit, a point when you could feel the fun this down-to-earth, ass-kicking band has playing music together.

A combination of soul, jam, and pure rock 'n roll, theirs is a positively blissful live show amplified by Potter's signature hair-flipping headspins. Now they just need to capture that in the studio.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Oh Karen O. So Karen O. The mic-swallowing, the costume changes, the ferocity and the gentileness, all rolled up into a ball of the ultimate frontwoman. Despite my early 00's subscription to SPIN, I'd yet to the YYYs play. So Bonnaroo was a good excuse, especially after they'd released their most fun record to date.

On soon-to-be Korova-mainstays like "Zero" and "Heads Will Roll," the band opted for darker, heavier tones than the disco finesse on It's Blitz! And for one of the more intimate moments on the awkward too-big-for-a-tent, too-small-for-a-main-stage feeling of the Which Stage, guitarist Nick Zinner's tuning issues lead the band to do an acoustic version of "Maps." Visibly frustrated as the last notes of the set rung out a couple songs later, Zinner threw his guitar down and walked off stage, as Karen then smashed her mic in sync with the final drum hits. "We don't usually break stuff at the end of shows," Karen said, "but we thought, 'Hey, what the fuck?'"

Grizzly Bear
I only caught the last three songs of Grizzly Bear's set at This Tent after fleeing the YYYs show, but it sounded surprisingly good for an open-air event. The four-part harmonies were spot-on, and the climax of "Fine for Now" exhilarating as ever. Another highlight was the clean-footed, VIP-clad 40-somethings behind me, one of whom explained to the others that, "This band is really indie rock. They're like, the Big Thing right now." Somehow, his friends still seemed unimpressed.

Bela Fleck and Tounami Diabate
After missing their earlier, hour-plus-long set, I was lucky to catch Bela Fleck and his new finger-picking partner weave beautiful textures over which single notes could prop up their pretty heads. Too bad Al Green was playing at the same time – meaning the bass and horns wafting over from the What Stage at times overpowered this rather quiet duo.

Toubab Krewe
I meant to see the cheery world musicers from Asheville, North Carolina earlier in the day, but missed them as I stood in line for 40 minutes waiting to get into Centeroo (which culminated in a searchless entry after organizers realized they couldn't keep it up all day). Thankfully, Toubab Krewe graced the small stage after Bela, and the band channeled their African-inspired grooves through the healthy, enthusiastic crowd. It all ended with an appearance from Mr. Diabate, the kora master from Mali.

Amadou & Miriam
From rolling grooves to djembe solos, the Amadou & Miriam live show was one of the most energetic of the weekend. That's really all you need to know. Fantastic backing band. Energy. Lots.

Beastie Boys & David Byrne
No, they didn't play together. But after a full day of music and full night ahead of me, I wasn't particularly alert for either band's pre-headlining (and overlapping) sets. Which is a shame, because I hear both of them are pretty decent live, and may have a real good shot at this whole music thing.

Highlights included "Sure Shot" and "Root Down" from the Beasties, and watching them pick up their instruments to play a hardcore punk song from their pre-"Fight For Your Right" days – an audience request, no less – soon followed by a guest appearance by Nas. While they apparently closed with "Intergalactic" and "Sabotage," I was getting hypnotized by David Byrne and his coordinated-yet-interpretative dancers, all dressed in a white. "Once In A Lifetime" was nice.

The much-loved and oft-derided (by those who listen to them, and those who don't, respectively), the quintessential jam band played a plain ol' incredible set Friday night. As a relatively casual Phish fan, I was expecting to recognize maybe a couple songs over the course of the evening. Instead, Trey et al. played a set that resembled more of a greatest hits collection than a typical live show – including but not limited to "Divided Sky," "Down With Disease," "Stash," "Free," "Wolfman's Brother," "Golgi Apparatus," and the closer "You Enjoy Myself" > "Wilson" > "You Enjoy Myself" before "A Day in the Life" for an encore. Other than the songs, it was Trey's genuine happiness to be on stage playing for the huge festival crowd that made the show so enjoyable.

The other nice part about the set was that people like their dancing room, meaning the front area – emptied out after every show in front of the main stage – was easily accessible for up-close grooving, as were the grasses outside for a short mid-set nap. I mean, it was three hours long.

Girl Talk
Bonnaroo wouldn't be Bonnaroo without the infamous late night/early morning jam-or-dance-or-both sets. (Actually, it'd be Coachella.) I'd stupidly missed Girl Talk on his two most recent tours through Montreal, so I figured a decent way to see him would be with a few thousand other people from 2 to 4 a.m. Like Passion Pit, it was TOFF. The most memorable highlights from Feed the Animals and Night Ripper were there, albeit in different sequence and form, and they made for a spectacular (not a) DJ set celebrating a generation's short attention span.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bonnaroo - Thursday, June 11

Emerging from our sweltering tent at 8:30 a.m., the downsides of probably the best music festival on the planet quickly introduced themselves: lineups at the ice truck and porta-potties, the vile smell of hard-boiled egg emanating from the Sulfur-tainted water trucks, torrential Tennessee downpours, and not being able to sleep past 8:30 in the morning. We got acquainted with our friendly neighbours (word to Troy and Amy from Pennsylvania) as the relatively brief-but-intense bouts of rain made relaxing at the campsite more appealing than exploring Centeroo – which, in short, is where all the music and stuff happens.

Though later in the weekend I overheard some faithful What Stagers deride the Thursday lineup as "always pretty lame" (which I suspect has more to do with their poor music taste and/or social skills), it easily ranked among the best of the weekend. Each year, the healthy Thursday night sets at This, That, and The Other tents present a rare opportunity to see a half-dozen up-and-comers play for what are yet the biggest crowds of their careers – and the audience's palpable energy helps them out at every beat along the way. Here's how the night went:

Alberta Cross
These Brits' take on hard-rocking Americana provided a solid start to the four-day extravaganza, evoking the ghost of the sorely missed (yet still living) Jim James. Despite the lack of reverb, the crowd really enjoyed the set. Why can't Montrealers be as enthusiastic as pre-burnout Bonnarooers?

White Rabbits
Learning that Delta Spirit would be arriving late, I headed over to This Tent to catch the piano-and-percussion-driven rock of White Rabbits. Balancing out their sound with folky undertones, these New Yorkers foreshadowed the upbeat sets to come.

Portugal. The Man
Wasilla's finest made the first of what would be several steps into airy, 70s psych-rock jams over the weekend. The crowd loved the big riffs, and the mellower breakdowns let everyone relax before spontaneously erupting into yet more half-note hand-claps. My notes summed up their set fairly well: "AWESS."

Often the only way to get a good spot for a band – without weazeling through a dense and sweaty crowd – is to see the band before them. Thus my attendance at Chairlift, who were scheduled before Passion Pit – the obvious late-night choice for anyone uninterested in the country-jam-rock of the Zac Brown Band or Mindite's roots reggae. While these New York hispters' dark 80s electro can at times be endearing, as the rain poured down, my attention shifted to the mud that soon engulfed my Birkenstock knock-offs. As is the plight of the white dude at a music festival.
And then I kept waiting for Passion Pit.

Passion Pit
One of my top TOFF (tons of fucking fun) picks of the weekend, the band brought tons of energy to a crowd ready to jump and dance like they're partying with a few thousand people to full-bodied, falsetto-drenched dance tunes under a big tent in Tennessee. Oh wait.

To no fault of their own, the band's sound was a little variable, but the crowd didn't seem to notice much, and Manners highlights – take for instance the one-two punch that opens the debut LP – felt fresher and somehow more joyous than they do on record. Apparently all you need to get a crowd amped is dueling keyboards and a chorus of children yelling "higher, higher and higher."

Passion Pit were also one of many bands to seem genuinely happy to be playing to such a large, eager crowd. Good thing singer Michael Angelakos's voice is as strong live as it is on the album (and steadier than on the Chunk of Change EP). Out-of-tune high-as-shit melodies can't good for anyone.

Delta Spirit
To round out the fantastic first night, the soulful instrument-swappers in Delta Spirit made a strong case for breaking out of the bar band/opener role they've satisfied over the past couple years. Lead vocalist John Stamos Matthew Vasquez sang as much through his facial expressions as he did with his throat, yielding an oddly enigmatic and captivating effect over those lucky enough to stick around for their set.
And by that I mean he can really wail.