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I’m happy to be reporting from Bonnaroo again this summer, where once again the relentless summer sun is blazing hot. There’s a chance of rain in the forecast for every day this weekend, but so far no sign of any real clouds. The parking lot is also a scene of familiar chaos as thousands of people set up camp for the weekend. One of my favorite Bonnaroo statistics is that every year for four days it becomes the sixth largest city in Tennessee! The tent city rocks and reels with music, the smell of food grilling, and neighborly conversation. There are people from all over the country here this weekend. As we set up camp we began to mingle and share stories, beers, whiskey shots and laughter.
Once inside we saw incredible early afternoon sets by the Gaslight Anthem and Carolina Chocolate Drops. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros put on a 2:30 performance in the Other Tent that was one of the most hypnotic and engaging shows this writer has witnessed in a long, long time.
I made a number of trips back and forth to the press tent to chill out in the air conditioned press tent and check out a pair of press conferences in the afternoon. This year’s panels included Scott from Dr. Dog, comedian Jeffery Ross, Trombone Shorty, Damien from OK Go, Matt Berninger of The National, Margaret Cho, and the always talkative Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. Bonnaroo is becoming a major event in stand-up comedy circles, with Conan O’Brien hosting the festivities in the Bonnaroo comedy tent this year. At the afternoon press conferences, Ross took hilarious potshots at some obvious Bonnaroo targets – hippies, drug use, the summer heat. Cho attempted the same, but didn’t really connect with the assembled press like the affable doofus Ross.
Trombone Shorty took time to give props to his hometown New Orleans, adding that his participation in the HBO series “Treme’” hasn’t changed his life much. “I walk outside my door and that TV show is pretty much what it looks like.” Having filmed his segments months before they aired, he had almost forgotten about it when the show started to get attention. Earlier in the day, Trombone Shorty and his crew brought Mardi Gras to Bonnaroo’s Which Stage. Starting off Friday’s festivities, they delighted the early crowd with an hour of traditional New Orleans brass band bravado.
There was a 2 or 3 hour span on Friday afternoon when there was so much great music being played simultaneously on multiple stages that I felt like the proverbial one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store. I didn’t know which way to jump. But jump I did, bouncing from stage to stage so I could see as many acts as possible. Between the hours of 4 and 8pm, I saw segments by Umphrey’s McGee, Hot Rize, Dr. Dog, OK Go, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, She & Him, The National, and Les Claypool. Conan O’Brien boisterously introduced Tenacious D on the What Stage at 6:30pm. Jack Black and Kyle Gass of the D took a moment before starting their set to humiliate O’Brien by forcing him to his knees and pretending to perform a sex act on him. From this point ‘til the very last notes they struck, Tenacious D had the Bonnaroo crowd in the palm of their hands. As much as I love ‘em, I wasn’t sure the subtleties of their heavy metal humor would get across to the giant Bonnaroo audience. Much to my surprise, the crowd sang along with every obscene word. This was an afternoon rife with Hollywood celebrities, none greater than the legendary Steve Martin who took the stage at 7:30 in That Tent with his bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Local Nashville boys gone big time, Kings of Leon rocked out an amazing set on the What Stage. This led right up to a most perplexing midnight conundrum. As the Black Keys began their set in That Tent, the Flaming Lips were launching into their performance on the Which Stage. Opting to catch a few minutes of the Keys a little later, I’m glad I caught the beginning of the Flaming Lips set as it was one of the most amazing rock concert spectacles I have ever seen. A creepy intro tape of swirling synth and munchkin choir blared from the sound system as band members emerged one by one from a doorway in the middle of a giant circular video screen at the rear of the stage. Smoke machines belched tremendous clouds of smoke out over the crowd as flashing, swirling images mingled with trippy computer animation on the screen. Finally assembled on the stage amidst a mob of orange-suited dancers, the band launched into their first song. Frontman Wayne Coyne emerged inside a giant clear plastic bubble and hurled himself out over the crowd, rolling over their supporting hands and thrashing about inside in order to propel himself to and fro.
On the way back to the camp, I caught a few songs by the Black Keys and the second half of Daryl Hall’s performance in the Other Tent with the U.K.’S electro-funksters Chromeo. This was actually my dark horse first choice for the midnight slot, and what I saw of their performance was a flashing rainbow of guilty pleasures and vintage 70s R&B. The crowd continued to sing the chant of Hall’s closing number “I Can’t Go For That” until the singer finally returned for an encore. As much as I was looking forward to his set, I was not expecting Daryl Hall’s performance to go over as well as it did last night. Good clean fun.
Before his midnight set, Hall haunted the press tent wearing big sunglasses and a giant smile on his blond-bearded face. Ostensibly in the press tent for a sit-down interview with Billboard, he casually lurched around saying hello to many members of the assembled Bonnaroo press.
Later today I’ll be catching one of the final performances of avant garde metal pioneers ISIS. Having announced their imminent break up, the band is on their final tour. The heaviosity continues into the afternoon with The Melvins’ set scheduled for 5:15 in This Tent. Much like yesterday, hell – much like everyday at Bonnaroo – today I will be forced to undertake a large measure of stage hopping as I hope to catch performances by the Avett Brothers, Dave Rawlings Machine, John Prine, Weezer, Jeff Beck, and Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. Tonight’s headliner on the main stage is none other than Stevie Wonder, someone who I never thought I’d get to see in concert. Thank you, Bonnaroo!
After another long day of trekking around the Bonnaroo grounds in the blazing sun, and another night camped on the bug-infested long grass of Tennessee, tomorrow we fire it up all over again. Soaking up our last full day at Bonnaroo, Sunday’s festivities will include performances by Calexico, They Might Be Giants, Lucero, Ween, John Fogerty, Kris Kristofferson and many more.
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