It was about 11 p.m. on Thursday night when I had my first run-in with a random screamer, a pretty blond coed in a hippie headband who got right in my face while I was taking notes on the white-boy soul of Mayer Hawthorne and the County, because I suppose I looked insufficiently engaged in my surroundings. But trust me, Mixers, from the galoshes on my feet to the humidity-matted hair on my head, I knew exactly which field was playing host to me and thousands of others this weekend. It is Bonnaroo. It is tie-dyed. And it is unmistakable.
Thursday is always a bit of a warmup day, as campers sit in traffic on the highway for hours and newbies try to get their bearings. The festival organizers did a nice job programming the half-day with bands you don’t necessarily have to know to enjoy: Here We Go Magic, Local Natives, Miike Snow, Neon Indian, The Temper Trap, and the aforementioned xx (note: “glum” [pictured] is not necessarily a bad thing) all have devoted followings, but they also work extremely well as ambient noise. Follow me after the jump for those acts and more on Day One of Tennessee’s Extreme Festival Experience.
The skies were overcast and the air thick with the potential for rain as everyone filed into the field yesterday, rutted muddy furrows in the ground making parking a nightmare and walking a contact sport. The giant thunderstorm that rocked the region on Wednesday night had left behind plenty of memories, and the smell of wet mulch did its best to stave off the pot smoke for as long as possible. The mud also gave what is usually a rather frolicsome first day a hardcore Day Three vibe – everything looked a little more bedraggled than it should at this point, including my first porta-potty, which looked like it spent the night upside down on the set of ABC’s Wipeout.
Thursday’s acts operated only on the tent stages – helpfully named, as always, This Tent, That Tent, and The Other Tent. If you are an enterprising person who doesn’t like to lose Their Friends, you can hold That Flag high in the air as you walk from stage to stage; That Flag followed me everywhere I went yesterday, and I smiled every time. I also smiled when the dude carrying the whiteboard reading, “Smile! You’re at Bonnaroo!” walked past. I grinned big at someone wearing a light-up “Taco Time!” hat, shaped like a taco. I did not smile when I saw a pack of young men stumble into the road ahead of me, drunk out of their board shorts and fried like lobsters wearing wife-beaters – it’s a marathon, not a sprint, children, and as the LOL Cats might say, if ur already passed out in a fetal position at 5 p.m. on Thursday, ur doing it wrong. Please hold it together.
My musical day started with the spunky country of Elizabeth Cook on the tiny Budweiser-sponsored Troo stage thingy. Her advice to the kids was “Hydrate!” She looked impressively cool for someone wearing a rhinestone-encrusted Manuel jacket that looked to outweigh her by about 15 pounds. To my right, in This Tent, Here We Go Magic were proving to be a far more successful festival band than I thought they’d be, thickening songs like “Collector” to an almost Explosions in the Sky-like degree. Back at Troo, I bought a CD off 19 year old Sarah Jarosz, whose somber folk on the octave mandolin was simple and engaging enough to keep a sizeable crowd (including Amy Grant) sitting and nodding on her lawn. It’s possible Sarah Jarosz officially won my heart by covering Patty Griffin’s “Long Ride Home.” I’m a total sucker.
Didn’t spend much time with Jonathan Sexton’s goofy frat folk; we’d gone over there because a friend read in his program guide that he sounded like “Kings of Leon meets Bob Marley,” but I think someone needs to rewrite that program guide. Still, I will try and find Mr. Sexton today and hug him, because he is trying to set a Guinness World Record for most hugs given in a 24 hour period. I will help him with that, and then I will slather my entire body with hand sanitizer. (Also: I wonder who Guinness sent to officiate those proceedings. I am picturing a stuffy British dude sweating in a bespoke suit, occasionally dabbing his forehead with his pocket square before continuing to make delicate hashmarks on a clipboard.)
The dinner hour began a long stream of blogger buzz bands plying danceable pop that was thoroughly enjoyable, if occasionally interchangeable. The ’80s revival seems to have more or less picked up and headed home, leaving behind a bunch of keyboard-fueled rock bands who like to rave the tempo up and get the kids a-clappin,’ with lyrics (sung by men with varying degrees of falsetto) taking a backseat to vibe. I enjoyed the smoke machines and skittish beats of Miike Snow, even though helpful program guide friend pointed out that none of the Swedes in the band are named Miike (“It’s kinda like naming your band Pink Floyd,” he said, although I would posit that Pink Floyd is not believable as an actual human name, as opposed to Miike), and then it was over to L.A.’s Local Natives, who kept the dance beat but removed some of the smoke machines and also much of the navel-gazing by hollering and crashing about. I like a rock band that’s not afraid to holler.
And then my Twitter feed popped up with this. Uh. Okay. So those girls weren’t so much wearing entire bikinis. BONNAROOOOO!Neon Indian frontman Alan Palomo (pictured) seemed genuinely in awe of his surroundings, as his upstart band started their set in front of what’s gotta be the largest crowd they’ve ever played. That Tent was full to burstin’, and the dance party carried out the back and across the road where dudes with ironic mustaches danced with their Summer of Love-lovin’ girlfriends, wave on wave of neo-hippie happiness sweeping slow as the thick low end of the Neon Indian put everyone into a trance. Everyone, that is, except for the pack of young ladies who had the presence of mind to put on indian headdresses and hop on stage to dance with the band during the excellent “Deadbeat Summer.” From my vantage point way in the back, I thought to myself, “Oh how nice. Those girls in bikinis must be the Neon Indians. Ha ha I get it, cute.”
After Neon Indian got begged back on stage by the crowd to play one more song – Palomo went with something from his other project, VEGA, I’m assuming because he was out of Neon Indian songs – I hung around and talked to some of the 47 Rolling Stone staff members on site covering the fest, and waited for Temper Trap to start. I really hope they’re not planning some sort of mag vs. mag trivia contest or volleyball tournament this weekend, because I’m flying solo, and I will lose to the 47 Rolling Stone staff members. But this is neither here nor there. Temper Trap! They turned in more or less the same set I saw them rock at Sasquatch a couple weeks ago, with the blaring noise of their intro/warmup melting into peppy-happy stuff like “Sweet Disposition” (a song I totes heart) and “Down River.” From the photo pit, it was possible to see exactly how big a cheeseball singer Dougy Mandagi is, all dramatic faces and hand gestures…
…but Dougy’s got nothing on Detroit native and Motown revivalist Mayer Hawthorne (pictured), who makes Harry Connick Jr. seem downright taciturn. Any white kid in a seersucker suit who’s got the balls to take the stage after playing a recording of James Brown’s old “Are you ready for Star Time?” intro had better back that shizz up with some bravado, and Hawthorne takes it to the limit. “Are you guys ready to have the best night of your lives??” he asked the crowd, and they were, so he and his tight backing band (a.k.a. The County) zazzed into “Make Her Mine,” with Hawthorne energetically tamborining away. Then he stopped the show for a bit to try and get the score in the NBA Finals game, but no one knew, because they were all at a music festival watching a Mayer Hawthorne show and not in a tent somewhere watching a basketball game, so Hawthorne said something about living in L.A. but not following the Lakers, and then started “Maybe So, Maybe No.” It was around here that I started listening to his lyrics, and realized they’re kind of amazingly cliché in a way that I suppose could be tongue in cheek, or maybe just cliché. Either way, it takes a special kind of guy to pull off lines like “Love me in that special way…” (Then again, he did introduce himself as the second coming of James Brown, so.)
Mayer asked the crowd to help him make it rain (not like that – with spirit fingers) on the sweetly sad “I Wish It Would Rain Down” and immediately killed the moment by chirping, “Follow me on Twitter!” when the song was done. I don’t want you to think I wasn’t enjoying this – he’s an excellent singer, and the backing band was indeed great, but I sort of couldn’t stop rolling my eyes. And I have no idea why you’d introduce a faithful cover of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” by saying, “This is for the kids!” Actually, if you’re a Motown revivalist, I have no idea why you would cover ELO, but at least it broke up the dance-rock groove I’d been trapped in since like 6:30.
And listen, by the time The xx closed out my night, I was so glad to have ELO stuck in my head, because otherwise I’d probably be still be rooted in one sad spot, pondering the existential pain of my galoshes. The photo pit seemed a happy enough place at the start of the show, and I love standing there and listening to the conversations between kids at the barricade, because invariably those kids – who have been smashed up against a metal bar for sometimes hours at a time – have the best rumors. As we waited for the crew guys to check every last inch of the band’s extensive (for a three-piece) technical setup, I was tipped off to “facts” like “Kanye is going to perform with Jay-Z on Saturday night in order to apologize for 2008’s Glow in the Sunrise debacle,” and also “Lady Gaga is at this very moment in our very field, watching rapper Wale’s set.” I cannot tell you whether either rumor is/was true. I can tell you that every single VIP in Bonnaroo was crowded into the sidestage for The xx, including most of the bands on that stage earlier in the evening, as well as, reportedly, several Kings of Leon.
“Marry me, Oliver!” was the cry from a desperate girl in the crowd when the trio finally took the stage under low light to begin systematically breaking hearts, including mine. (Mr. Blue Sky, don’t fail me now!!) For those who missed Joy Division the first time, I am so happy you have your own version now – as Oliver Sim and Romy Croft whispered the first words of a delicately slowed-down “Crystalised,” they were joined by hundreds of quiet, worshipful voices in the crowd, and I found myself mesmerized by their totally depressing stage presence. (Croft’s sadness alone could make a dorm at Sarah Lawrence crumble into dust.) Their strength comes in stillness, in the ability to distill all the dance grooves of their contemporaries into a single note plucked over and over from a single string. At close distance, they are a stunning live band.
In the back of a muddy tent? Maybe not so stunning – I crawled out from the mobbed sidestage and wrapped around to the center of gen pop, where the crowd was already starting to wander away, engaged in conversation or spastic dancing or the eating of brown foods. Some dude walked past me and muttered something to his buddy about what would happen if “the dude from Depeche Mode who killed himself” could see this band. I started to notice that from afar, the stoic plucking of a single string with whispered lyrics layered on top doesn’t really hold anyone’s attention. But there wasn’t much I could do short of find a border collie and try to herd people deeper into the tent, so I hung for a while, heard “Basic Space” (my patented I Can Leave If I Hear This Song™ system having gone into effect at midnight), and headed for the car. I may have shuffled my feet despondently a bit on the way there.
Today’s gonna be a long one – I don’t expect to make it home until sometime after LCD Soundsystem finish kicking my ass sometime around 4 a.m. tomorrow – but it also includes The Gossip (who I’ve never seen live before), Dr. Dog, The National, Tenacious D (who are scheduled opposite Tori Amos; sorry, Tori Amos), and Kings of Leon in what I pray will be a triumphant headlining set on the mainstage. Stop by tomorrow to read about all that and more, provided James Murphy lets me live. BONNAROOOOOO!!