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Live from Bonnaroo, Day 1 review: Radiohead, St. Vincent, Feist, tUnE-yArDs and more

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(Disclaimer: Apologies for the lack of photos accompanying this post. Who could have guessed that Internet connectivity on a dust-shrouded farm in the middle of Tennessee could be so atrocious? We’ll update these posts with photos when we can.) *** UPDATE*** And now we have photos!

“Bonnaroo. Friday night.”

So spake Radiohead’s Thom Yorke near the outset of his band’s epic headlining set Friday night at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Which means it must be true.

With an annual crowd of 80,000, Bonnaroo, they say, is Tennessee’s seventh-largest city. Heck, throw in the CMA Fesival in Nashville and the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, and organizers estimated Tennessee’s population would swell by upwards of a million this week (seems steep to me, but they’re the ones keeping count).

But we’re all here for the music. And as “festival director Jensen Skivvy” – a.k.a. Flight of the Conchords Rhys Darby – put it: “There’s over 14 different types of music here!”

Wow, over 14! Let’s get to it!

This much must be said of Radiohead: This is not the same band that came to the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Leap Day for the second show of their arena tour behind The King of Limbs. No, the band that headlined Friday at Bonnaroo was lithe, alive and game for anything – a prerequisite for Bonnaroo headliners, of course, but not always the case with Radiohead.

For starters, their huge set include plenty of newer material, including two unreleased songs, but the band sounded much more in control of them all, from the staccato guitar riffs knifing through the proggish Bloom to the raw, punky edge of Morning Mr. Magpie. They are clearly growing into their King of Limbs material – or rather, it is growing into the world, taking shapes that the band may not have anticipated, but which fit them much better.

Even older songs sounded fresh. The icy, robotic Kid A became a warm and enveloping cocoon. There There took on a bluesy, southern-rock tint. And perhaps befitting the surroundings, the band turned I Might Be Wrong into a twangy, almost country-sounding number. I have no idea if it worked, but I totally appreciate the effort.

What got into Thom Yorke? You got me. His voice was a little on the fritz – it cracked during a few songs and seemed nearly to give out during Give Up The Ghost – but he was as fun and free-spirited as I’ve ever seen him, jogging around the stage, joking with the crowd, pointing out “balloonnies” in the air. “Thom’s an alien!” a guy in the crowd shouted, and he might not be wrong. Who replaced our mopey little muppet with this delightful fop?

Yorke’s energy was infectious. Stoic ol’ Ed O’Brien started dancing during Idioteque and Everything In Its Right Place, while Jonny Greenwood shredded so hard on Bodysnatchers that he sliced open his hand.

Interestingly, the band dedicated one new song, Supercollider, to Jack White. “This song goes out to Jack White,” Yorke said. “We saw him yesterday. A big thank you to him. We’re not going to tell you why. But you’ll find out.” WE ARE INTRIGUED.

The band closed out its second encore with a warm and soulful Reckoner and an absolutely electric Paranoid Android, where the full force of the tens of thousands in the crowd could be felt.

“Have a suitably messed-up weekend,” Yorke told the crowd.

Well, it’s off to a smash-bang start. This was my favorite band of all time, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen them better.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I spent my first-ever day at Bonnaroo.

*****

Friday at Bonnaroo was, in so many ways, all about the ladies. Every stage was packed with ass-kicking females (Rodrigo y Gabriela’s Gabriela Quintero, Laura Marling, Sara Watkins, Garfunkel and Oates, up-and-comers like Shahidah Omar and Clare and the Reasons … the list goes on). Even actress Kristen Bell couldn’t believe the talent around her. “It’s one of the few places where I’ve thought, ‘Yep, everyone here is cooler than I am,’” Bell said.

So, in an attempt to focus and make sense of Friday’s sprawling schedule, I planned the bulk of my day around the women of Bonnaroo. First up: tUnE-yArDs.

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The critically acclaimed, creatively capitalized artist formerly known as Merrill Garbus drew the first massive spillover crowd of the day to This Tent, and if you weren’t inside, the shadows likely cost you a glimse at Garbus’ unique artistic process. Entering to chants of “Mer-rill! Mer-rill! Mer-rill!”, Garbus immediately initiated a tribal call-and-response by yodeling and stomping through Do You Want To Live?

It is trippy, trance-inducing stuff, watching tUnE-yArDs perform. Boxed in by drums, microphones, looping hardware and a teeny lil’ guitar, Garbus turned snare clicks and simple beatboxing into swirling, skittery rave-ups, stirring up a wild rumpus of bandana’d, face-painted beasts. Performing songs from her love-it-or-hate-it Whokill, she scatted and shuffled and exuded a grand, feral energy that filled This Tent with life. It was weird, but it wasn’t weird for weirdness’ sake, which is kind of a miracle, when you think about it.

In the end, Garbus delivered a triumphant performance, one that will put land tUnE-yArDs on many a best-of-Bonnaroo list. (Which means all of us writers will have to force ourselves to type “tUnE-yArDs” at least once more this weekend. Dammit!)

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Though she attracted a fraction of tUnE-yArDs’ crowd, rapper/DJ K-Flay shared Garbus’ energetic stage presence in the much tinier Ford Destination Escape stage (she performed in the much larger That Tent on Thursday). The Lil Wayne to Kreashawn’s Chingy, K-Flay spit an impressive array of tongue-tripping, cadence-flipping songs, such as the roaring rock-rap-dubstep track Stop, Focus. She’s one to watch.

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Over on the What Stage, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings roiled up the masses with a sultry songs about survival and stick-to-it-ive-ness. Longer and Stronger, the long-suffering Jones explained, was written by the band’s ace in the hole, producer/bandleader Gabriel “Bosco Mann” Roth, in celebration of her 50th birthday. As Jones sings, “she ain’t a child no more” – she’s 56 now, and sings like she appreciates every moment in the spotlight. Her band may make the music, but Jones, who sings and dances with the energy of a much younger frontwoman, is the one who sells it. Sign us up for a subscription.

You might not expect it, but there’s more than a little of the Dap-Kings’ DNA in Little Dragon, the pan-global hipster-pop outfit led by pint-sized party starter Yukimi Nagano. Bouncing like a cheerleader on Looking Glass and Ritual Union, Nagano skipped playfully through a groovy set, even plunking on a cowbell (more of that, please) on Brush the Heat.

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Little Dragon have a solid following in Tampa – they’re semi-regulars at Crowbar – and it’s not hard to see why. Their rippling synths, squiggling basslines and juicy syncopation are straight out of the Rick James/Stevie Wonder playbook, far from the icy Scandinavian vibe you’d expect. Even Donald Glover, Childish Gambino himself, couldn’t resist checking ‘em out from the wings.

Lo though it pained me, I had to leave Little Dragon early in order to stake out a good spot at one of my must-see sets of the weekend: Feist.

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She came out dressed like she was going to a Saturday farmer’s market, but Leslie Feist’s guitar was primed to bite. When I Was A Young Girl was full of angsty fire, while How Come You Never Go There, backed by a trio of sister-wifey backup vocalists, was a lovely blast of ladyblues.

That Leslie Feist is such a badass on the gitbox may come as a surprise to those who only know her wispy voice or jump-suited antics in the 1, 2, 3, 4 video. But she wants it to be known she can rock. The eerie, monster-fied venom of My Moon My Man offered a spooky, organ-pounding to the airy chorus, and I Feel It All was a fierce, glam-punk diamond.

Unfortunately, Feist made this point a little too much on Mushaboom, which happens to be one of my favorite songs of the past decade. Instead of playing it all sparkly and twee, as it exists on Let It Die, Feist gave it a minor-key makeover, almost in the vein of Phil CollinsIn The Air Tonight. NO, NO, NO. BAD FEIST. I want an old dirt road and knee-deep snow, and I want to be quaint and delightful and carefree, not full of tortured memories and dirty needles. Whatever happened to the Leslie Feist who used to whisper sweet nothings in my earbuds duiring One Evening? Ah, well. We all change, I suppose.

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The festival gods must have been smiling, though, because Bonnaroo organizers did not make us choose between Feist and St. Vincent. Right around the time Feist was wrapping up Sea Lion Woman, St. Vincent came out punching at That Tent with a pair of slobberknocking haymakers: The explosive Marrow and Cheerleader – which, with those rib-ringing hammers in the chorus, is one of the best blues songs by any female artist in recent memory.

Clutching her guitar close and stutter-stepping around the stage on tiny heels, singer-guitarist Annie Clark unfurled riff after riff of distorted dischord as frizzy as her wild black hair. In much the same way Jack White plays guitar with feral abandon, the petite Texan seems to touch her fretboard as if it’s pulsing with electricity. She may look unhinged, and she may sound it at times, but with only a keyboardist, programmer and drummer behind her, Clark commands the stage with her guitar work.

The Gothic black-key disco of Cruel gave way to Surgeon, which may contain the closest thing Clark has to a standard guitar solo, and then Champagne Year, which may be the closest thing she has to a traditional pop ballad – and all of them were all dark and weird and wild as Clark herself. By the end of the night, she was crowdsurfing. What a set.

I’d call her the best female rocker since Liz Phair, but that’s such a disservice. She’s just one of the best rockers around right now. Period.

*****

Focusing on the ladies made it easy to avoid the crowds that smashed in to see Ludacris, Aziz Ansari and the Avett Brothers. But I did managed to catch a few more male-centric acts.

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Snaring one of the most coveted slots on the bill – a largely uncontested Which Stage gig right before Radiohead – Foster the People continued their upward swing in the pop world, even if this Bonnaroo constitutes one of the last festivals the band will play in support of their smash album Torches.

“It’s been a fun ride,” said singer Mark Foster, “and this is the exclamation point on it.”

It may be premature to bestow on young Foster the title of pop genius, but he seems to want to get there. Wearing a white suit, he strutted around the stage like he owned the place, hopping from instrument to instrument on the catchy Helena Beat and I Would Do Anything For You. The crowd was massive for them, perhaps proving that even indie rockers like to get their Top 40 boogie on from time to time. Foster the People had to bring their A-game to this Bonnaroo, and it seems like they did.

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Earlier in the day, playing what he tweeted was his first full-band set in the United States, British soul-folkster Michael Kiwanuka grinned and strummed through a set of loverboy Yacht Rock at That Tent. Maybe it was the bongos, maybe it was the organs, maybe it was his band’s full-on brah sensibility (seriously, one of them actually played a rain stick. A RAIN STICK.), but the cat looked and sounded cooler than a cooler of Bartles and Jaymes. The fluttery Tell Me A Tale was a noodly flute away from progressive jazz, while the gentle blues number Worry Walks Beside Me showcased Kiwanuka’s elegant chops. (If you’re gonna cover Hendrix, which Kiwanuka did on an ocean-breezy May This Be Love, you need ‘em.) You hear about artists who sound like they’re from another era; Kiwanuka definitely fits that mold. When he plays live, it sounds like vinyl, in the best possible way.

Catching Kiwanuka meant I had to miss half of a set by the Kooks, whose sunny, singalongy How’d You Like That was simply wonderful. The happy-go-bouncy Brits’ Michelob Ultra jingle Shine On was shamelessly evocative of gleeful summercamp shenanigans. Plus, I completely dug singer-guitarist Luke Pritchard’s vintage Domino axe. So shabby-shazzy!

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Another group of Euros on Friday’s bill: Two Door Cinema Club, who rocked the Ritz Ybor on Wednesday. The Irish lads play buoyant, triumphant lovers-in-a-frenzy pop rock, with ultraclean guitars and vocals skipping over a bouncy disco beat. It’s lightweight stuff – seriously, these guys make Vampire Weekend look like White Zombie – but it’s inarguably hummable as hell.

The band’s big hit What You Know filled This Tent with an infectious energy, especially for those in the shade (seriously: haven’t we all had about enough of the sun at this point? Can we agree it’s about time to turn it off?). It’s every bit as danceable as Franz Ferdinand, if not more so, though I do wish they’d find a way to steal some of those Glaswegians’ dirty, swarthy, back-alley sexiness.

Hey, speaking of things that have the word “cinema” in the title: I popped into the Bonnaroo Cinema Tent for the first part of comic Doug Benson’s Movie Interruption of a film he called "Crank 2: High Voltage: Ghost Protocol." Benson, fellow comics Marc Maron and Amy Schumer and actors Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell gave the Jason Statham flick the MST3K treatment.

Gotta say, the energy started strong, but tailed off a bit in the first half hour. Not that there weren’t some good zingers delivered. Shepard proved especially game. Here’s …

DAX ON THE MOVIE’S GRAINY FILM STOCK: “They don’t shoot many movies on toilet paper anymore, but I’m glad that they’re doing it with this franchise.”

DAX ON THE JAGGED CINEMATOGRAPHY: “This movie was designed to watch on crystal meth, right?”

DAX ON THE ACTING: “We only have one strict rule on this movie: Never do a second take of anything.”

If nothing else, it was cool to hear a Benson Interruption live and in person. It gives me a better sense of all the L.A. references in the podcasts I listen to. Now, if only Bonnaroo 2013 can nail down slots for Meltdown Comics, the ArcLight Cinema, Cinefamily and the UCB Theater…

*****

Here are a few bonus photos of...

Major Lazer:

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.:

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Black Star:

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Flying Lotus:

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*****

I saw parts of many other artists (Needtobreathe, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Ben Howard, Fort Atlantic, SOJA, Sara Watkins) but not enough to comment fully on them. But on the whole, I saw little I didn’t like on my first hot, dusty, wildly packed first day of Bonnaroo. How about you guys? Who did you see on Friday that rocked your world?

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Monday, June 11, 2012 11:04am]

    

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