Live from Bonnaroo: Xpress dispatch, pt. 4

It feels like weeks since we arrived at Bonnaroo. After four days in the sun, three nights in a tent, dozens of shows and uncomfortably close encounters with tens of thousands of red-faced music fans, it’s good to be home. But the relief comes with more than a little hesitation. Despite the discomfort, festivals can be an oasis, if you’re into that sort of thing, and Bonnaroo is the most epic of American music experiences. Luckily, there’s always next year.

Sunday morning was cloudy, cool and wet. Rain persisted for hours, keeping the grounds relatively quiet as weather-worn campers capitalized on any excuse to stay in bed. But the schedule was unusually tight for a closing day, so we packed up the non-essentials (always a good way to start the final day) and made our way toward the music.

Heading for the food truck village, we stumbled onto a cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Book of Right On” by Sarah Jarosz, a perfect start to the grey afternoon. The singer’s three-piece rendition was spot on, and the cello/mandolin/fiddle arrangement rivaled Newsom’s original harp recording.

When we arrived for lunch, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Gypsy Queen food truck prominently located among a few dozen other vendors from across the country. But for variety’s sake, we had a burger at an unfamiliar truck and headed out.

The Beach Boys were one of my most anticipated shows this year. Brian Wilson live? When I first saw the schedule, I could hardly believe it. Unfortunately, the reality of seeing the Beach Boys live doesn’t live up to the idea of seeing the Beach Boys live.

First, and most importantly, Brian Wilson didn’t speak a word in the 45 minutes I was there. He didn’t even sing lead on his own songs. Essentially, the band’s chief arranger and notoriously reclusive singer sat behind his piano, hidden to the side stage, acting as a figurehead. It was weird. And it was disappointing. Second, it didn’t take long to realize that there’s something uncomfortable about watching men in their 60s and 70s sing about high school dances, cheerleaders and first loves. It’s not their fault, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the performance. But it’s hard to get past.

Still, it’s pretty amazing to see one of the most influential American bands of all time live before your eyes. And the band was incredibly together. The Beach Boys have the best vocal harmonies of modern rock, and 60 years later, they sound nearly as sweet as the day they were recorded. Also, the band’s just-released album is stellar, and the enthusiasm and sincerity behind those songs were consolation for enduring the awkward classics.

War on Drugs, as always, was loud, psychedelic and loaded with echoey solos. The crowd was modest, but it made for a more intimate vibe, which was welcome after The Beach Boys. Singer Adam Granduciel doesn’t say much, but these guys are undeniable, whether at The Grey Eagle or on a giant stage at Bonnaroo.

After a few songs by the recently reunited Ben Folds Five (a set that was solid, but nothing to write home about), it was off to Kurt Vile. The Philadelphia-based songwriter’s eclectic, churning psychedelia had the entire crowd in a hazy dream that even the screeching solos couldn’t break. Perhaps sensing that the audience was rife with die-hard fans, Vile’s set spanned nearly the entirety of his four LPs, to the delight of the dedicated crowd. After a long, spacey jam that ended “Freak Train,” Vile returned to the stage. “I guess we’ve got time for one more. I thought that was it. That’s why we played so long.”

Sore and exhausted to the point of collapse, we spent the rest of Sunday popping in and out of the final performances. Maybe it was a personal lack of enthusiasm or maybe it was the weather, but after a few songs by Bon Iver (whose haunting a cappella soared through the grounds) and The Shins (whose set was surprisingly heavy on old songs), we were more than done. 

We drove out of the grounds with no traffic and headed east in the cold Tennessee rain, already making plans for Bonnaroo 2013.


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