It’s 9 a.m. and I’m sitting in a crowded Starbucks about a mile from the festival grounds. As has been the case in years past, the internet at Bonnaroo, even in the press tent, is patchy at best. Luckily, I brought a bicycle to slip in and out of the festival quickly. It’s not the most convenient approach, but the air conditioning is a welcome change from the humidity and the cold iced coffee is just what I needed.
Yesterday’s lineup was insane, no matter what you’re into. For me, the morning began with a stripped-down Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. set at the intimate Sonic Stage. With minimal samples and a straightforward guitar/vocals approach, the Detroit-based electro-pop duo’s saccharine-sweet harmonies and infectious rhythms were more prevalent than ever.
tUnE-yArDs played next, and we arrived late to find an enormous crowd that proved impenetrable. This was the first of what would be a series of hopelessly packed shows. From a few hundred yards away, it was almost impossible to hear Merrill Garbus’ rhythmic loops, uke melodies and avant-garde vocal lines. In 45 minutes, I never caught a glimpse of the experimental songwriter, and I left feeling a bit let down.
After a frantic ride to Starbucks to post yesterday’s update, I huffed it back to the grounds and arrived just in time for Caitlin Rose. The Nashville-based songwriter began the set with a series of new tunes that featured jaw-dropping displays of pedal steel prowess. Rose’s style is somewhere between indie pop and classic country, steeped in a healthy dose of rock and roll. It’s hard to pin down, but it feels completely natural, and it’s refreshing to hear music that transcends sub genres and niche scenes. The show was one of Friday’s highlights, and I would be remiss not to mention that Rose’s band was absolutely spectacular.
Navigating into the main stage for The Avett Brothers proved arduous and ill advised. Once again, the crowds were impossible and the sound, from such a distance, was weak. They began the set with a series of deep cuts from Mignonette and Emotionalism, but personally, I prefer the Avetts sans drummer. The raw energy and sincerity is lost as a full band, and ironically, the drums weaken the songs rather than fill them out. As we walked away, almost as if the band heard my inner dialogue, the Avetts broke into a stripped-down version of “Distraction #74” that satisfied my craving for old-school arrangements and almost made the trek worthwhile.
Not surprisingly, Feist packed out the field in front of Which Stage, but we squeezed into a spot where the stage was visible and the sound was good. Feist’s set was impeccable, and it was a bit unreal to hear such a beautiful, pitch-perfect voice like that in person. Her backing band includes Mountain Man, a female folk trio who specialize in a cappella harmonies, and the combination of their four voices was mind-numbingly sweet.
We dropped by the Ludacris show after Feist, just long enough to hear the rapper invite all the ladies in the crowd to get on his tour bus and ride back to Atlanta.
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) was one of the best and, shockingly, least crowded shows all day. It was bizarre to walk straight under the tent and have room to stretch out in the shade, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. Clark appeared under a bright spotlight and shredded her way through “Marrow,” complete with a howling solo that rivaled anything I would hear for the rest of the day. St. Vincent’s lush atmospheres and classically-influenced arrangements have a dark edge, but the sheer power of her voice kept the experience uplifting and invigorating. Clark is a rock star in the truest since of the word, from her technical skills to her stage presence, and it was easy to think she could have pulled off the show with no backing band at all.
After a few minutes of The Deep Dark Woods, I headed over to Pujol, another Nashville band, currently signed to Saddle Creek Records. Being from the area, I admit to some bias, but these guys completely destroyed their set (in the best possible way). It was easily the most rambunctious show Friday, with crowd surfing women and the only most pit I’ve seen thus far. The trio falls somewhere between indie rock, lo-fi garage and punk, with the kind of anthemic hooks that dare you not to sing along. After a song about “hanging out in the Hastings parking lot in Tullahoma,” a shout out that clearly struck a chord with the hometown crowd, the band called out a few friends in the audience and acknowledged the Tennessee flag waving overhead. Small, intimate shows like this are what make Bonnaroo worthwhile, and this was one of the best I’ve seen since Jeff the Brotherhood’s late-night set last year.
Naturally, we had to check out Radiohead on the main stage, but from what seemed like a mile away, it felt more like listening to a record on a giant stereo, and we ended up spending most of the show chatting with neighbors and zoning out to the floating lanterns that periodically rose from the crowd and disappeared into the night sky.
After traversing the herds out of Radiohead, we wandered the grounds and took in a few songs by Black Star, an all-star hip-hop duo featuring Mos Def and Talib Kweli. By now it was approaching 2 a.m. and the upbeat raps did not compliment our mood, so we called it a (somewhat) early night and retreated to camp.
Check back later from more updates from the festival, including an exclusive performance by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.