Bonnaroo Day 3: Saturday
By Saturday afternoon the sun had begun to spill its unforgiving heat upon the masses, the extreme temperatures causing set difficulties and delays, as even those seeking shelter underneath the shaded tents found little relief. Opening with fan favorite “Skinny Love,” Bon Iver provided a strong show from an unlikely cast. Lead singer Justin Vernon hulked over his guitar bellowing out notes with pinpoint accuracy with his backing group providing a steady dose of rippling accents. The group rattled off songs from their debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago,” as well as tracks from their new Blood Bank EP. This included some set highlights like a blistering full band version of “Blood Bank” and a stark solo performance of “Beach Baby” following by an unaccompanied Vernon who dedicated the track to “dreams of making out on the beach.”
Formed in the wake of the Allman Bros. early 90’s reunion, Government Mule has quickly become a festival staple due in part to prominent lead guitarist Warren Haynes. Haynes who plays guitar with the Allmans as well as the The Dead took his six-string prowess to the evening crowd with heavy, shrieking guitar solos to rival among the best of the weekend. Gov’t Mule tried early to integrate the crowd with a chorus of “hell yeahs,” a move that was successful at drawing wanderers into their circle of blues heavy grooves and guitar showmanship defined by their stomping version of “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam.”
Anticipation was high outside the tent for Of Montreal with the young indie group drawing many away from the main stage attraction Wilco. However Kevin Barnes and company were plagued by set problems in the sweltering tent, prompting the show to begin later than expected.
Flanked by a modest collection of towel layers and chair sitters, Lewis with her bell clear voice sounding over the speakers, charmed the small audience with tales of run-ins with the law, barroom fist-fights and those troubled boys up to no good. The Rilo Kiley lead singer excelled in the small setting with her backing band providing impressively layered acoustics which integrating cowbells and back-up vocals into the mix. The set even Included a surprise back-up performance from Elvis Costello in what was yet another in the seeming never-ending string of unannounced collaboration this week on her song “Carpetbaggers.”
Playing under a bright blue afternoon sky, Wilco lead off with new single “Wilco, The Song” off the groups latest effort “Wilco, The Album.” Jeff Tweedy spanned the range of his career, integrating newer material “Bull Black Nova,” “Side with the Seeds” with a renewed emphasis on “A Ghost is Born” era tracks like “Company in the Back,” and “Handshake Drugs” coming early and leading the band to their highest levels. Guitarist Nels Cline provided the guitar hero spark on the later songs rippling off tearing solos from his heavily chipped black guitar. Hardly stopping to banter with the crowd lead singer and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy, clad in all black, offered up “it’s good to be back” as the group’s only sentiments to those gathered, many of whom were awaiting Bruce Springsteen’s headlining set.
Coming out to a what could only be described as a distorted Sergio Leonne soundtrack, the Mars Volta descended onto the stage with the outright intentions of baffling the crowd. After stumbling through “Goliath,” lead singer Cedric Bixler-Zaxlava quipped “I just wrote it, I don’t have to remember it, do I?” Powering through the minor guff, the Mars Volta settled down into a heavily psychedelic set marked prominently by Omar Rodriquez Lopez’s unique guitar showmanship which dominated the band’s mammoth soundscapes. Despite a new release on the way, Mars Volta integrated old favorites like “Drunkship of Lanterns” into a largely free form set that featured jams as well as three new songs off the group’s forthcoming album, Octahedron. The band faltered a bit in the middle, with their meandering jams quickly running out of tricks, though even at their weakest, singer Bixler-Zaxlava proved an entertaining frontman with his wild mane of black hair and penchant for odd song introductions like “this song owes me $40.” However in all likelihood the Mars Volta’s sonic assault proved enough to cement Volta as a premium live act, ensuring that if his songs are still defaulting on their loans he will still be able to make the bills.
The Decemberists played their new album, “The Hazards of Love” to a sizeable crowd at one of the side tents, providing a soothing melodic distraction to those not enamored by the spiraling insanity of the Mars Volta. However while most of the band’s material is down tempo they proved capable of stadium sized riffs on new album tracks like “The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid,” which found lead singer Colin Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk trading shrieking guitar lines. The Decemberists were dressed for the occasion despite the heat, as all were well-dressed enough for a formal evening dinner. After airing out the new album The Decemberists came out firing with stronger singles “The Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” off of their major label debut, The Crane Wife.
Headliners Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band played unopposed to a capacity crowd breaking out new songs, “Radio Nowhere,” classics “Born to Run” and odd requests from fans, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” over a three and a half hour set. Bruce addressed the crowd often, thanking Bonnaroo for the invite to what he dubbed their “second ever festival appearance.” On stage the infamous band performed without new Tonight Show drummer Max Weinburg but came complete with numerous guitar players, and back-up singers (10 in all) thickening the sound for the football sized area (not that this is new for the band). The Boss was loose and loud playing sounds with an impressive stamina that would but most bands to shame. Grooving his way through “10th Avenue Freeze Out,” the Boss performed some impressively phallic microphone tricks as well as stop on a dime song transitions. Overall, the Boss that kept audience involved, even inviting one lucky fan to dance on stage in an homage to his former video vixen Courtney Cox during the finale “Dancing in the Dark.” All in all, the Boss left the screaming for more even after the marathon set and the group’s final bows.
Nine Inch Nails
In what lead singer Trent Reznor dubbed the band’s “last U.S. show ever,” the twenty plus year old industrial act performed to a sizeable crowd at the Which Stage, the venue’s second largest stage. Over cascading white smoke, lasers and raining glow sticks Nine Inch Nails’ showcased their knack for off-kilter rhythms and shrieking guitars in songs like recent single “Discipline.” Though the set was far from a greatest hits occasion, featuring cuts from their recent all instrumental release Ghosts (I-IV) as a sharp and startling cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.” As a live act, the band’s darker material lightened proving less dense and more upbeat in the live setting.
Across the way at a smaller tent, MGMT drew an equally large crowd at one of the venue’s smaller tents with some standing on shoulders and rafters to get a closer look. The band’s second appearance in two such years was a significant departure for the growing band as they showed a willingness to breakaway from their traditional keyboard heavy pop sound. MGMT showcased new material from their latest recording sessions which was met with largely mixed results. The new material was not the only thing that sounded out of place as even old songs were reworked to be more guitar and band oriented. Back tracks like “Pieces of What” and “Weekend Wars” benefitted from the re-tooling process, however the groups big singles “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” proved harder to replicate under the new format. The set lasted over an hour and proved that the group, which had until this point created their music in studio with two principal members, has made the decision to be taken seriously as a traditional band. Still, while their live act improved over last years uneven set, MGMT showed they have chosen a path with a difficult road ahead.