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.

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