Thursday, June 18, 2009

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.

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