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.

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