It was 6 a.m. when my head finally hit the pillow this morning, after an epic day in the Bonnaroo fields that started with a standup comedian in exile, peaked with the Tennessee homecoming of a suddenly-giant rock band, and ended with a New York City dance act in mourning. After fourteen straight hours of music, my ears were ringing, my blisters were burning, and my back had taken a brief sabbatical from operating in a fully upright and locked position. It was difficult to remember which foot to place forward first. I may or may not have briefly wept sometime around 3:45 a.m. It’s hard to remember that long ago.
But there’s no rest for the weary at America’s most endurance-based music festival. Bonnaroo demands, and almost always deserves, a herculean effort. To stand inside those walls, surrounded by light and sound and flesh, is to experience a peculiar pull to cover every inch of its currently-muddy soil and consume whatever it cares to offer. I promise I will not write this whole blog post like some sort of epic poem, but seriously, Mixers, yesterday was long.
After the jump, we begin with a little Conan O’Brien, then party with the Gossip, harmonize with Dr. Dog, meet cute with She & Him, raise a glass to the National, raise a sausage to Tenacious D, meditate with Tori Amos, sit at the feet of Steve Martin while he plays the banjo, check out new songs from Kings of Leon, almost get killed in the Flaming Lips photo pit, bliss out to the Black Keys, and finally, finally put the night to rest alongside LCD Soundsystem. Won’t you come along?
Rolled into Bonnaroo somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 p.m., a little later than intended, and thus without hope of seeing Conan O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On TV tour play the festival’s magical air-conditioned comedy tent. It’s generally packed in there, and the lines for big names like O’Brien (or Jeff Ross, or Aziz Ansari, or Margaret Cho, who will make an important appearance later in this blog) tend to be long and winding roads. So I moseyed slowly across the field, avoiding the already-toasted kids staggering in the humid heat, and headed for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, whose happy hippie vibe seemed deeply appropriate in this context. But lo, what to my wandering eyes should appear but… a live simulcast of Conan O’Brien’s comedy show on a big screen at the Lunar Stage! Probably a good thousand or so kids who’d been shut out of the tent were standing and staring at the projection of Coco, who, as I approached, had just started up his cover of “On the Road Again.” (“My own show again… I just can’t wait to get my own show again…”) The redhead showed off his guitar chops on an instrumental of “Seven Nation Army” — sadly, Jack White did not make an appearance — then moved into the intellectual property violations of what used to be called Walker, Texas Ranger and is now called Chuck Norris, Rural Policeman. For a comedy show being broadcast in 90 degree humidity next to a beach volleyball court, I should say it more or less killed.
Edward Sharpe et. al. were providing splendid musical entertainment for the bajillion fans clustered into The Other Tent, and since I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage, I hung on the fringes and watched the fun at the all-new Splasharoo. Organizers have installed a slip n’ slide on the field’s lone marginal hill, and ES&tMZ’s “Janglin'” — which many of you likely know as the song from that one nightmarish Ford Fiesta commercial — was the perfect accompaniment for slippery, muddy chaos. I did not partake, naturally, because I am old, but it looked fun. “Is it free?” a dude next to me asked. Yes, dude. It’s a slip n’ slide, for crying out loud.
The best set of early Friday afternoon, from my perspective, was turned in by the Gossip, mostly thanks to Beth Ditto’s copious Southern charm. If there is a better dance-punk band from Arkansas, I am not aware of it. Ditto took the stage singing a snippet of Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee,” wearing a black tank top and leggings and dark eyebrows she painted on and later lamented because they were melting. Ditto, as you may have heard and/or seen, is not a small woman, but every inch of her stout frame is so firmly engaged in the purpose of entertaining those within earshot that her heft seems entirely by design. She was hilarious and vulgar, heckling her audience, rambling stories, occasionally belching into the mic. “I’m not drunk, I’m just having heatstroke,” she apologized. “Don’t worry about it.” We didn’t: When it came time to sing, Ditto took whole joint to church. “Yr Mangled Heart” and “Pop Goes the World” kicked things off to cheers; she worked snippets of “Psycho Killer” and “Bad Romance” into “Listen Up!”; “Coal to Diamonds” was thick and smokey; and “8th Wonder” set the place to dancing, especially the young man to my right. From the neck up, with his buzz cut and thick black glasses, he could have been an IT tech, or maybe a graphic designer, someone who wears a lot of oxford shirts and khakis. From the neck down, he was wearing a loose hot pink cotton mini-dress and a yellow string bikini bottom. The latter, he promptly untied and removed and began to wave it in the air while he jumped up and down, both hands over his head. The mini-dress tried valiently, but could not contain the young man’s shall-we-say-enthusiasm. I took the liberty of moving elsewhere.
There was less enthusiastic jumping but no less enjoyment over at Dr. Dog (pictured), the fab five from Philly whose hairy boy rock I find extremely difficult to describe. They’ve got a little My Morning Jacket mystery in their lyrics, a little Beach Boys sun in their harmonies, and a little jam band in the corners waiting to come out. Yesterday’s set was especially terrific from a keyboard perspective on “The Old Days,” and Toby Leaman’s voice and bass both built to a thunderous crescendo on “Army of Ancients,” as he delivered those OH yeahs with gusto that was matched by the crowd. If only the Beatles Rock Band session at our old friend the Lunar Stage wasn’t bleeding over with endless renditions of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Dr. Dog would have been a lovely set for an afternoon catnap. Next door, Ditto was closing out the Gossip’s set with a quiet accapella version of “I Will Always Love You.” The kids pretending to be Beatles switched to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” I questioned why the fake music needed to be louder than the real thing, or why we need video games in the great outdoors when we have slip n’ slides, but then again I am a crotchety oldster who doesn’t binge drink, so what do I know.
her eyes??) and tamborined through “Made for You” while the Chapin Sisters again provided splendid blonde backup; she showed off the skills she’s learned through a couple years of touring, ably fronting the band instead of apologizing for it, and exploring strong new parts of her voice on old faves like “Sentimental Heart.” I’ll be curious to see how much longer both she and Ward stay interested in the game of recording and touring with their retro pop — as each of them have plenty of other ways to spend their time — as well as how/if the sound evolves should they go for Volume Three.The lovely Zooey Deschanel and her enigmatic partner, Sir M.Ward, are always a draw, but yesterday’s crowd was particularly needy. After playing a fun soundcheck game (Roadie into mic: “Check one-two.” Crowd: “THREE!” Roadie: “Check one-two-three.” Crowd: “FOUR!” Roadie: “Check one-zero-negative-one.” Crowd: “NEGATIVE TWO!” Roadie: “Some math students in the audience…”), they soon tired and started yelling “We want Zooey!” This made me sad for M., but one assumes he’s not complaining. Soon enough, Deschanel bounded out like the Disney princess she needs to be (seriously, have you seen
The National. I shall say it again: The National. I’ve been worried about my favorite saddoes lately, after somewhat disappointing sets at both L.A.’s Wiltern and Sasquatch(!), but something was in the air yesterday — or maybe it was in the white wine Matt Berninger was delicately sipping from a glass, after uncorking the bottle with his teeth — and they turned it around. From the first chimes of “Start a War,” Berninger was damn close to frisky (not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe him), pacing, clapping, adjusting his mic stand, smiling (smiling!), his mercurial energy expanding out to the not-big-enough crowd at the Which Stage. “Glad I wore my vest,” he joked. “It’s chilly.” I have yet to determine whether constant references to the heat from the artists on stage make the heat better or worse. But if music be the food of love, then the National are bourbon-flavored gelato, cooling things down with “Anyone’s Ghost,” “Secret Meeting,” a raging “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” and the swoon of “Slow Show.” Berninger even passed his wine glass out into the crowd — “It’s plastic,” he assured security. “Ahh, showbiz” — asked for it back, refilled it, and passed it back out.
Brokenhearted, I left the National as they were screaming through “Squalor Victoria,” because it was time to go shoot Tenacious D. The band that really only needs one letter to sum up their greatness — the D has vanquished demons, after all, and for that we thank them — were taking the mainstage “in the middle of our one-day tour,” said Jack Black. Neither he nor Kyle Gass dressed for the occasion, naturally, because the greatest band ever formed on a ratty sofa does not need fancy clothes to bring the rock; they just need shorts and sweatpants. Black and KG were introduced by Conan O’Brien, who’s serving double duty as mainstage emcee this weekend; Coco informed the gathered masses that the D would change their lives, and Black thanked him by kneeling in front of him and hugging him around the waist. KG of course then assumed shall-we-say-the-position behind Black, leaving us with an indelible mental image that’s likely to haunt me for decades. I’m pleased to say that the D have not lost a step, and they rocked through a combo of new stuff (“Rise of the Phoenix,” “Roadie”) and singalong faves (“Kielbasa,” “Kyle Quit the Band”) with panache, so many melodic rock songs that push all my buttons, against all odds. Their epic tale rolls on, of course, these self-styled superheroes, even though now they have concerns that old fans may have lasered off their D tats. They also brought out a man in a giant spiked robot terminator outfit, representing “Metal,” and reminded us that he, unlike demons and New Wave, would never be vanquished.
It was somewhere in the middle of the robot part that my ovaries started guilting me into going to see Tori Amos. In retrospect, this was not a good choice, as I’m certain I missed “Tribute,” and Twitter later informed me that I missed Jack Black pimping Kung Fu Panda 2, thus sparking one re-tweeter to declare “pimping the panda” the new “jumping the shark.” But I’m a girl, and for a while there I was listening to “Tear in Your Hand” on an endless loop, so I trekked it all the way across the grounds to find the redhead sitting unaccompanied at the piano. As I approached, she twinkled into “Icicle,” and I traveled back in time to 1994 when this song about masturbation was like honestly the most subversive thing I’d ever heard. Tragically, however, it soon became clear that the fact I’ve not bought a Tori Amos album since 1994 was going to be quite the liability, and I didn’t know a single other song she played, and actually got kind of sleepy. It was lovely, though, and the fans up close — including a surprisingly large number of men who were not just there in the boyfriend capacity — were singing along with great devotion. I just sort of wished I was rawking out with the D instead. Ah, my ovaries. Always writing checks I have no desire to cash.
Are you still with me, Mixers? To be honest, right about here I was barely with me, and we hadn’t even hit the headliner yet. So I went to go get a hug from Jonathan Sexton — who was trying to set a new Guinness World Record for most hugs given in a single day, with proceeds somehow going to Nashville flood relief — and took a breather at the feet of Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, featuring Martin on clawhammer banjo and non-sequiturs. (“I think my masseuse is too chatty.”) High point was a new pseudo-spiritual Martin has written called “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (“but they do have Sundays off”) sung with perfect five-part bluegrass harmony.
Finally, FINALLY, it was time for Kings of Leon, who took the stage to the strains of Mozart’s Requiem and the sizzle of giant fire-breathing flashpots that burnt the air and clogged the dimly-lit stage with smoke. The Followills are still learning to be a giant headlining band, but their stage set is gorgeous, a back wall of warm lights that glisten like huge candles, and a black-and-white screen that flickers like old-time movies. Though Caleb’s not stepped up his stage presence much — with the exception of unabashedly doing shots out of dixie cups throughout the set — the band has learned to pace a show, opening big with “Crawl” and “Taper Jean Girl.” I was dancing in my boots during “Be Somebody” — no, literally, my galoshes were stuck hard in a giant pit of mud, so I just sort of had to wiggle my feet around inside them — and “Bucket” and “Fans” were writ extra fist-thrustingly huge. “We’re Kings of Leon,” Caleb said. “We sort of feel like we’re home.”
Whether or not you like KOL’s new status as A Big Giant Rock Band With Number One Hit Songs, it’s hard to disagree with the muscle that success has forced them to put behind older tunes, those written when they all had long hair to hide behind. “Four Kicks” was even more fuzzed and distorted, “Trani” — a song Caleb said they’d barely played live since doing it in one of the small tents at Bonnaroo in 2004 — built to a colossal crescendo to close out the first set. “Sex on Fire” and “Notion” were greeted rapturously by the (I’d assume tens of thousands) of recent KOL converts in the crowd, who lent their voices and outstretched arms to the choruses.
“We’re gonna play some new songs here and there, just because we’re bored and we wanna play ‘em,” Caleb said. “So if you do hear something and don’t recognize it, that’s because it’s new.” (Or not off our last album, I snarkily muttered in my head, though, to be fair, the fans down front around me were engaged from start to finish.) Those fearing KOL would retreat back to shambolic Southern jitter-rock needn’t worry (those hoping it would: commence griping), as the new material retains the size and scope of Only By The Night, while occasionally taking it in a direction that sounds alarmingly like Aerosmith; one song featured an almost Keith Urban-ish guitar riff; many of the songs seem to be about life on the road/in the public eye. The best of them was called, I’m guessing, “I’m Goin’ Back Down South,” which Caleb said was one of the first times they’ve written about “the pride we have in where we come from.” With its sweetly reminiscent lyrics and slight country shuffle, it wouldn’t sound out of place in mainstream country. KOL also covered the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” after which Caleb joked, “That was one of our new songs.”
Encore was “Knocked Up” (big sad singalong), “Manhattan” (big fun dancealong), and then maybe the longest block of text I’ve ever heard Caleb deliver. “There are very few times in my life when I really feel proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said, “and this is one of those times. We live right down the road, and when we started, we started in a little tent and worked our way here [to the mainstage]. To see all these people here supporting us just makes me really proud, and I just want to say thank you to everybody who’s been supporting us since we were on a small stage. We have the greatest fans in the world. God bless you all.” It was a nice moment, everyone felt bonded and part of something, and then the band tried to blow it out with a closing performance of “Use Somebody,” but Caleb’s guitar stopped working. So we stood around for a while, and tried not to think about how tragic it was that he just made that speech and now we’re just staring at each other, and Caleb took another shot, and finally they just started the song anyway and by the time the “oh-WHOA-ohs” had reached the verse, Caleb’s guitar was back on, and everything was right in the world.
Accustomed to people going over their allotted headlining time, the Bonnaroo crowd seemed unsure if the Kings were really done after that, but they were, and seeing as how it was only 11:30 and there was to be music happening until 4 a.m., we needed to keep our energy up. Best shot of metaphorical crack I know of? Standing in the photo pit for a Flaming Lips show, and this is coming from a girl who’s been on stage, dressed as a Teletubbie. I have never in my life experienced chaos like that, as Wayne Coyne and his bubble emerged from the giant vagina-like pattern projected on the back screen and rolled out into the crowd and confetti cannons blasted and huge balloons hit me in the head, and other photographers hit me in the head, and glowsticks hit me in the head, and above me Margaret Cho was dancing on stage like a woman possessed, and then a teenage boy who was absolutely mesmerized like something you see in zombie movies started moving past me towards the stage, unblinking, and then he climbed over me and up almost on TO the stage, and then the security guard next to me yanked the kid down on top of me, and the kid still hadn’t blinked, still hadn’t taken his eyes off Margaret Cho and the dancing and the confetti and the streamers and the flashing flashing lights, and Wayne Coyne with his megaphone and the crowd cheering and the blindness of snow and fire all at once. It was unbelievably awesome. And I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.
From a distant fence, I could survey the scene, and noticed a strange silence. The Flaming Lips had been billed in the program guide as performing Dark Side of the Moon, but they opened with a set of their own songs, which may have contributed to the listless feeling in the crowd who felt bait n’ switched. Or maybe it was because the Lips did not start with OMG I LOVE THIS SONG hits but instead opened with two songs I’d never heard before reaching “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” but even those didn’t get it done. Once the confetti-cannon high had worn off, everyone seemed a little confused in a what-now kind of way. I’ve never seen that many people so NOT fired up for a Flaming Lips show, and even though Wayne kept imploring them to get the energy up, the whole thing just felt flat. So I hiked through the chaos — bodies bodies everywhere my god all the bodies — and made it to the Black Keys, who, on the flip side, totally tore it up, building a slow burn on some new stuff (as a fresh four-piece) that built to the crash-bang fury of the oldies (back down to just Dan and Patrick) and ended with an “I Got Mine” so perfectly paced that it left the crowd chanting “ONE MORE SONG!” but their hopes would be dashed by the stage manager, who whipped the crew out to dismantle everything. He was aggressively booed.
Back in Lips land, Dark Side didn’t start until about 1:40 a.m., and even then it seemed awfully slow and dirge-like and still low-energy and clogged with speeches from Wayne about legalizing marijuana. I made it through “Money,” decided the only thing I like less than Pink Floyd is the Flaming Lips covering Pink Floyd (sorry, please don’t yell at me, music is subjective, please understand, you probably don’t like the National or something and that’s okay and we can still be friends), and fled to my happy place. That happy place? LCD Soundsystem. My jam. My dance buddies. James Murphy, my imaginary boyfriend for 2010. Piles of kids were dancing with glowsticks, which they occasionally threw at Murphy, who laughed about how much he liked it for a while until later in the set when he said, “Okay, all irony aside, can you not throw things at us? It actually sucks.” And even though I said I would leave early, I stayed for the whole set: The us vs. the them and the drunk girls. The joy of “Daft Punk” and the throb of “All My Friends” and the advantages to “Pow Pow” and the primal scream of “Yeah” (this was where I started to weep a little) and the sorrow of “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” which closed the set and my night with an absolutely tragic and slow and mournful group singalong of “Empire State of Mind,” all these kids who probably are not from NYC perhaps not even understanding why it was so mournful, but it was, it was, it was. And it was also 4 a.m. And the party was over.
Now it is 4 PM GOOD LORD, and I gotta get back to the field for Mumford & Sons and Dead Weather & Jay-Z, which is likely to result in some hilarity here tomorrow as I attempt to do his headlining set justice and “real” hip-hop fans yell at me for doing it wrong, & GWAR, which I will be watching from a safe distance and not in the pit because confetti is one thing but like blood is another. I am sorry this was so long. There is no one who wishes I was more concise than me, but it was 14 hours!! What am I supposed to do. Oy. Anyway. Be safe out there!