Waking up on Saturday morning at Bonnaroo carries with it the curious sensation that work is unfinished. At this point, the music festival has become less about fun and more about completing a task. To come out alive, even if sunburnt, malnourished and sleep-deprived, seems like an accomplishment worthy of an entry on the résumé. Surely an employer would be impressed with an arduous, days-long struggle for survival in the oppressive heat of the desolate Tennessean countryside. With that thought lingering in the backs of our minds, my compatriots and I, jobless for the summer, rattled back to Centeroo for another string of concerts.
Saturday’s first act at What Stage was Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires, another retro soul outfit in the vein of the previous day’s Sharon Jones that radiated the feeling of a show at the Apollo. Bradley, a former James Brown impersonator, made his case as the hardest working man in show business, sweating his way through a funk-tinged set that included an earnest cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” The Extraordinaires put on their very best JBs faces as well, creating a tight backdrop on top of which Bradley could vocally improvise. He closed the show with the suggestion that this was not his best but promised that there would be better for everyone in the crowd somewhere down the line before going in front of the stage and, like a politician working the crowd, shaking the hands of everyone within arm’s reach in the front rows.
The Los Angeles-based Celtic punk group Flogging Molly then stretched its wings at That Tent with an electrifying set that probably sent many audience members scrambling in the hopes of finding any trace of Irish ancestry. This Tent then featured DJ SBTRKT, whose collection of masks alone is enough to keep the audience on their toes but whose electronic vibes keep those very same toes tapping, at the very least, and leaping at most.
Following an introduction in which its “head of security” referred to the iconic Bonnaroo fountain as the “Hep-C fountain,” the Scottish group Mogwai did its very best to accelerate the spread of tinnitus among males aged 18-34 and whomever else was present for its set. The mostly instrumental, entirely powerful show had its moments of subtle melodic grace, but the majority of the songs simply tore open BJ’s Warehouse-sized cases of whoop ass. Some selections featured two guitars in what sounded like a bitter battle to the end, and others had three in a similar format. The intricacies of what Mogwai was doing may have been lost at times, but this group employs a “sum greater than the whole of its parts” mentality, and every moment of music was drenched in intense, awesome force.
The final half-hour of The Roots’ performance was as tight as expected; a performance of “The Seed (2.0)” transformed into a medley that included a cover of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle” before ending with Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” Saturday’s main headliner, Red Hot Chili Peppers, played a set bookended with hits that featured guitarist Josh Klinghoffer in an expectedly less prominent role than his predecessor, John Frusciante. Klinghoffer did not overextend himself; he stuck mostly to the basic framework of solos and complementary riffs on the Frusciante tracks, such as “Californication” and “Scar Tissue.” Flea and Anthony Keidis, each approaching the half-century mark in age, reveled in the testosterone-fueled music they have created in the last three decades. The group did delve into a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and gave an extended, five-song encore that included “Give It Away.”
?uestlove took time to catch his breath following the Roots’ show before he hosted the annual Bonnaroo superjam, a tradition that often brings together musicians who had not previously worked with one another. The hasty amalgamation, whose performance began almost half an hour late, included members of the Roots, Morris Day’s the Time and Prince’s backing band, but the most intriguing surprise came when, for the first time in twelve years, R&B singer D’Angelo crooned on an American stage. Considering ?uestlove said the group had merged on the basis of their shared work in New York’s Electric Lady Studios, it began, appropriately, with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” before running through many funk standards and other covers. Representative of how quickly the group had thrown a setlist together, D’Angelo could be seen reading lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s “What Is And What Never Should Be” as the song progressed. A raucous version of the Beatles’ “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” heavily influenced by Joe Cocker’s version, struck the particular fancies of many in the crowd, and a jam based on the Band of Gypsies’ “Power of Soul” showcased each member’s fluid virtuosity.
The final act of Saturday night at This Tent was a full-length presentation of the GZA’s classic solo album Liquid Swords. Rapping over the instrumentation of the Latin band Grupo Fantasma, GZA’s flow was as seamless and his delivery as powerful as ever. Without the support of his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members, GZA spat their lines from the album himself, putting it into an entirely different perspective for those familiar with the original work. Live instrumentation in hip-hop seems to always provide an extra source of excitement, and GZA capitalized on that with Grupo Fantasma in their first-ever live performance together. Even with only a sole member to represent, Wu-Tang again displayed its enormous influence on hip-hop culture. With that, we returned to our tent comfortable in the knowledge that only one day, albeit a guaranteed marathon, lay ahead of us.
Sunday morning did not bother waking us up with the cold to which we had become accustomed at 5 a.m. Instead, the heat was the only way out of unconsciousness. With hours until any shows began, my friends and I decided to attempt to cook bacon. Two problems quickly arose: first, our complete lack of charcoal knowledge led us to continually fail to light the grill. Second, the bacon was expired. We settled for the last remnants of our pre-festival trip to Wal-Mart as the most important meal of the day before heading into Centeroo.
Sunday became the day of What Stage. Gary Clark Jr. was the first performer, and his brand of electric blues not so much knocked the socks off the audience members but rather destroyed every fiber of fabric on anyone’s foot. His wailing guitar and passionate vocal delivery reminded everyone that rock is based in the blues, with “Bright Lights” being the focal point of his set.
Next on What Stage were the Beach Boys. To be honest, I was expecting an air of nostalgia more than an actually commanding performance. Brian Wilson has not been himself since 1966, it seems, and Mike Love has been riding the Beach Boys cash cow for decades. With Wilson and other founding members, however, the Beach Boys excelled onstage. While the first half of the set was dedicated to mostly lesser-known and newer selections, the second half would have doubled perfectly as a live Greatest Hits record, and every song triggered head-bobbing and dancing among the crowd. Beach balls were thrown into the audience, and even when it rained it felt like we were at the shore, in the hot sun, just listening to Pet Sounds. Wilson, the only surviving brother of the original Beach Boys, even mustered the strength to deliver a mesmerizing vocal on “God Only Knows,” one of the most enduring pop melodies of the twentieth century. The band was, for all intents and purposes, one of the most surprisingly fun acts of the weekend.
After an hour break, during which the rain picked up and gradually dropped off, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon took the stage with his band, Bon Iver. Vernon, who with his scraggly beard and thinning hairline looks more like a part-time minor league hockey player than a folk-rock star, exercised his versatile voice on tracks like “Skinny Love” and “Michicant.” The crowd responded with wild praise after each song, and during “The Wolves (Act I and II),” Vernon asked the crowd to sing along with the line, “What might’ve been lost,” to which everyone enthusiastically complied. Bon Iver’s extensive live band, necessary to recreate the sounds from his LPs, hit each note and provided harmonies that would have made the Beach Boys proud.
An interesting facet, I thought, of both the Beach Boys’ performance and Bon Iver’s was that Trey Anastasio, the guitarist of that night’s headliner, Phish, could be seen watching on the side of the stage, captivated with both acts. The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine also stayed on stage for Bon Iver’s show, and both he and Anastasio clapped heartily when Vernon and his band finished. It was a transcendent moment to see such influential performers like Jardine and Anastasio become entrapped in the music of a relatively new group like Bon Iver. Sometimes we forget that musicians are fans of music too, and something like that, which more often occurs at a festival than at a regular concert, reminds us these guys are just people like us.
Following Bon Iver, my friends left the front section of the general admission area to which we had slowly progressed over the course of the afternoon. I was tired, hungry and really could have used a Port-a-john, but at this point I figured I had come this far, and with only an hour left until Phish began, I would hold firm in my spot. An over-excited group of high school girls fawning over a guy named Chad and two guys trying to sneak into the VIP area would not, and did not, deter me.
Finally, the time came, and Phish walked onstage to great acclaim. The flexible jam band, which has been to Bonnaroo twice since their reunion in 2009, immediately launched into funk-influenced rock with an accompanying, highly reactive light show. A notable point came when Trey Anastasio invited country legend Kenny Rogers, who had performed earlier in the day, to sing his standard “The Gambler” with Phish. The band challenged itself on extended jams like “Tweezer” and a cover of TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age,” with which it began its second set. A cover of “2001” and the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” whipped the crowd into an excited frenzy, as did the live staple “Harry Hood,” which features sections in differing time signatures. After a final encore featuring “Julius” and a reprise of “Tweezer,” Phish, and the 2012 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, had finished.
Riding away from the campground and into the Appalachians, we had time to collect our thoughts. We ruminated mostly on Phish, being the last act, but eventually stepped back and surveyed the weekend as a whole. Even having been to Bonnaroo once before, this was an entirely new and completely different experience from the last. Even what you are reading now only acts as the tip of the Bonnaroo iceberg. A period of rest would be required to readjust to mainstream society, and merely a short, seven-hour drive separated me from one of the most gratifying showers of my life. Following the festival in 2010, I said I would never go back to Bonnaroo because I would not need to do so. Now, it seems unlikely that I will return, but I cannot deal in absolutes. It may very well be the case that a few of my friends coerce me once again into the backseat of a hatchback for a road trip to madness. Even with its faults and the sporadic weather, Bonnaroo continues to be one of America’s premier music festivals, and it is my belief that everyone, at least once in his or her life, should take a few days off and go camping in the middle of June. I know a lovely farm in Tennessee that would be more than happy to host.