Bonnaroo is frequently a land where time has no meaning, where an hour can pass in a blink or an eternity depending on what you’re listening to and the quality of your footwear. While Friday’s 14-hour marathon was an experience I’d not trade – until you’ve watched an entire Kings of Leon set while standing in mud so thick you have to move your rain boots every couple of songs to be sure they don’t get stuck, I believe you have not yet lived – it’s possible that my compact, musically-mindblowing Saturday is the day of this year’s ‘Roo I’ll remember most.
Though I only saw six artists, there were moments in each set that lifted me out of my post-apocalyptic surroundings, transporting me on a cloud of endorphins to a happy place where puppies and kittens roamed, and beer was non-caloric and free. The blisters on my feet stopped screaming. The pain in my back subsided. The worker bee who lives in my head and is constantly telling me to keep moving keep working you’re not doing enough they’re gonna yell at you was silenced, and I was able to enjoy every one of the six acts as a straight-up fan of music who felt very lucky to be standing in her rain boots in that Tennessee field in that humid moment.
After the jump: The soaring emotion of Mumford & Sons; the thunder of the Dead Weather; the songwriting royalty of John Prine; the spazzy joy of Weezer; the uplifting mastery of Stevie Wonder. And then there was the massive mainstream hip-hop headliner who not only started on time – we here at Bonnaroo are skittish about such things, *cough*Kanye*cough* – but proceeded to absolutely rap our faces off. I understand self-aggrandizement is par for the course in his genre, but as far as I’m concerned, Jay-Z is welcome to refer to himself as “the best rapper alive” as often as he’d like from now on. Jigga what? Jigga yes. HIT ME!
The skies were threatening rain when I walked onto the grounds and realized I’d forgotten to apply deodorant in my rush to get out the door; happily, at the end of the day I still smelled better than most of the people standing around me, and anyway, who cares. Made a beeline for Mumford & Sons and wandered backstage to find the band standing in a small circle by the trailers, practicing a last-minute collaboration with Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings (who’d just finished a set on the same stage), and members of the Old Crow Medicine show, and having so much fun they lost track of time and went on 10 minutes late. I wish I could tell you what song they were rehearsing, but I’m a new convert to this band, after a critical mass of people I trust kept saying their name to me: “Mumford & Sons,” they would whisper, with awe in their eyes. “I love Mumford & Sons.” And sure enough, after seeing them at Sasquatch(!) and again yesterday, I’m sold. Isn’t that the best way to find a new band? To have loved ones pass them to you in outstretched hands as a gift? There was that same sense of discovery in the crowd at That Tent, a sense of ownership, of pride and encouragement as the Brits took up their acoustic instruments and worked through song after evocative folk-pop song. There’s an expansive earnestness in their sound that reminds me at times of Glen Hansard and the Frames, and something about the heart in tunes like “Awake My Soul” makes me want to put my arms around the smelly people next to me and dorkily sway. Their official bio says the goal of M&S is to make “music that matters”; I’d say they’re pulling it off.
Appropriately enough, the skies opened up right before the Dead Weather took the mainstage. Our tall emcee, Mr. Conan “Coco” O’Brien, encouraged us to think of it not as rain, but rather “a shower that we are all taking together.” The smelly people (now including me) cheered, and then out came Jack White’s latest project, this raging four piece that – for those who haven’t yet seen the band live – by no means is fronted by Jack White. No, the reason to go see the Dead Weather is one Alison Mosshart, who prowled the stage in her leopard-print jacket like [insert feline metaphor here], flinging her raven hair about her head, contorting her lithe limbs, mounting the monitors, drawing us in. Her voice may occasionally disappear into White’s on the band’s records, but make no mistake: this woman is a straight-up star, packing all the swagger of rock’s great frontmen into one seductively cocked hip. White, meanwhile, held it down on the drums, a pale metronome with feathers in his hat. First album cuts like “60 Feet Tall” and “Cut Like a Buffalo,” and new track “The Difference Between Us,” were standouts in the set’s first half, their spiky shards and angles ricocheting across the damp field like lightning. Second band of the day, second set I was sad to leave.
So if Mumford & Sons were sky, and the Dead Weather fire, then John Prine must have been earth. The venerable songwriter needs nothing but his lyrics to mesmerize, these deceptively simple songs about living and working and loving and dying, sung in his wrecked voice. He opened with “Spanish Pipedream,” which had me wanting peaches, then “Torch Singer.” At the end of each, the whistles from the audience were nearly louder than the songs themselves. Though he’d drawn a crowd with a surprisingly large number of unfortunate tattoos (and one woman whose boobs were totally earning her “Got Milf?” tank top), it was by no means a homogenous group; all ages and lifestyles appeared to be representing for the legend. After “Crooked Piece of Time,” Prine greeted them and joked, “Those three songs were just to see if everything’s working.” It was, on so many levels – not least of which was the chance to just stand and listen, to absorb lyrics like “We were born too late died to soon / Anxiety’s a terrible crime” without having to worry if I needed to get my ass over to Weezer at some point in the near future. Which I did, so I stayed for two more – “Souvenirs” and “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” – and then, like a book I didn’t want to put down, I dogeared the page and walked away, fully planning to return.
But oh, Rivers Cuomo, how you get me every time. I walked up to the Which Stage at the end of “Undone (The Sweater Song),” just as the spazzy Weezer frontman was greeting the planes overhead. (“Hello, airplane! May you always rock!”) More accurately, I climbed the fence to the right of the Which Stage, since the ground was so packed with bodies I couldn’t move or see. This fence perch is not a new one for me – it’s the same vantage point from which I’ve watched the White Stripes and the Flaming Lips in years past – and I happily hung out up there and took pictures of the crowd until security made me get down, at which point I moved to another fence even closer to the stage, where I stayed until the end of the show. I never made it back to John Prine – which means I apparently missed his duet with Kris Kristofferson on “Paradise,” dammit – but I am so thankful I didn’t miss this Weezer show.
Let it be noted that last winter’s horrific bus crash has not given Rivers any more regard for his own personal safety. The bespectacled frontman and his USA Soccer jersey were all over the place as they worked through the set: “Surf Wax America,” a new one called “Trippin’ Down the Freeway” (sounded very much like a new Weezer song), “Perfect Situation.” “Say It Ain’t So” was one of the weekend’s biggest group sings, potentially because that song is one of the starter numbers on Rock Band, or potentially because it’s just an effing great song. It was during “My Name is Jonas” that I really started worrying about Rivers, who had started leaping onto the towers on either side of the stage, getting tangled in cables on his way, precariously trying to balance beer bottles on things, then lifting his vocal monitor wedge over his head and dropping it behind him like a kid who tried to clean jerk too much weight at the gym. And every time he climbed out onto the amps, my heart would miss a beat. DO NOT STAGE DIVE, RIVERS!, my heart would scream. We just got you back, please don’t get hurt again!
Quick encore break – during which the thrilled and sweaty crowd could feel the sun finally disappear behind the treeline as they chanted “Wee-ZER! Wee-ZER!” – and the band reemerged with “Pork and Beans,” tacking on a neat little “Hot For Teacher” intro that teased the covers to come: a mashup (as they might say on Glee) of MGMT’s “Kids” and Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” For the latter song, Rivers donned a long blond wig. He looked ridiculous. But he and the band sounded great. They closed on “Island in the Sun” and “Buddy Holly,” and I headed over to Stevie Wonder with fond memories of the ’90s dancing like flannel-wearing sugarplums in my head.
Do you own a Stevie Wonder greatest hits CD? Good. Go put it on. I’ll wait. … … … … All right. Now close your eyes and imagine that Stevie Wonder himself is actually sitting in front of you singing those songs. That, Mixers, is what I had the privilege of witnessing last night, and my face still hurts a bit from smiling. Stevie came out (half an hour late, but it was so awesome we will forgive him!) clad in a white, loose-fitting cotton ensemble and strapped into a keytar (pictured! it was so awesome!), then sat at his keyboard for two hours of music that had the crowd in the palm of his skilled hand almost from the word go. He kicked it off with “Master Blaster” – pajammin’ until the break of dawn! – and then declared we were going to do some “song travelin’.” If you are ever at a Stevie Wonder show, here is what that means: You are about to hear “Uptight,” “For Once In My Life,” “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” (beep-beep! ahhh, beep-beep!), and “Knocks Me Off My Feet” back to back to back, and the crowd around you will reach heretofore unwitnessed levels of euphoria as they dance and sing along.
Stevie must have liked us, too, because it was right about here that he 1) diverged wildly from his original set list (a copy obtained by some people I associate with seemed to illustrate that we got a much better show than originally planned, and anyone who tries to tell you “Summersoft” is a better song than “My Cherie Amour” is not to be trusted) and 2) decided to give us a series of singing lessons. The first singing lesson led into a little Sam & Dave and a P-Funk jam; after we turned that mother out, Stevie called another change to his band and applied a little vocoder to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” before master blasting into a pajammin’ version of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” But wait! That’s not all! Call now and you’ll also receive “Sir Duke,” which will segue into the opening groove of “Living for the City” and the following speech: “We can never let no one, no group of no people, nothing ever let us get back to someplace like this [i.e. the story of ‘Living for the City’], ever,” said Stevie. “Are you in agreement with me?” (We were.) “No offense to nobody, but I’m talking about no Tea Party, no one. If you want to be a supremacist, you be the supremacist of bringing people together.” He asked us if we agreed again, and said if we really did agree, to sing “Living for the City” at the top of our lungs. He fed us every line as we went along (“A boy is born! In hard time Mississippi!”), and we sang, oh we sang. White, black, sunburned, hipster, redneck, hippie, VIP douche, drunk girl who kept spilling her beer on the music journalist, music journalist – we all sang.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE: After a few additional vocal exercises – what a brilliant way to get the crowd on your side, and what a brilliant smile on Stevie’s face as he listened to us sing – there was the aforementioned “My Cherie Amour,” and then the moment I’d been waiting for all night. Bwahda-dum-dum-dum… you know that bass line. We all know that bass line. Even better, we all know the “Superstition” horn line – bwap! bwap! bwa-dadadadaah da-da, bwap da-da da-BWAP bwap bwap! – and that riff sounded so incredible in person I actually giggled and clapped my hands together like a toddler. “Superstition” was so, so awesome, in fact, that I think we all granted Stevie permission for the slightly sappy duet of “A Time to Love” that followed. Then, after reminding us we might only have until 2012 to get things right (eek!), he finished on a long and drawn-out version of “Another Star,” complete with pan-ethnic percussionists (seriously, it was like the U.N. or possibly the Village People up there) and enormous gospel choir. Would I have preferred to dance out the door on “Superstition” or (forgive me) “Part-Time Lover”? Possibly. But was I content to just sit there and listen to Stevie and his wonderful group of musicians play a great song from the canon? Yep. “I’m gonna be watching Jay-Z, too,” said Stevie in parting. “God bless you.” And you, sir.
And now here is the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Aunt Whittlz tries to cover a Jay-Z show! Ha. Look, gentle readers, I’m not even going to try and like google the lyrics for all the stuff Hova (Hova? is that right?) (I’m kidding, come on) put out there last night, so I can’t give you a set list. But you know what was really killer about his show? Even though I’m no Jay-Z completist, I probably recognized a good 60 to 70 percent of the stuff he did, on some level, from giant radio-busting hits like “99 Problems” (Rick Rubin was even in the house) and “Show Me What You Got” to the vast assortment of tracks that involve the word “Jigga.” So, either Jay-Z is really good at putting together set lists, or he’s just reached that rare level of cultural ubiquity that breeds familiarity. I’m assuming it’s the latter. I couldn’t necessarily rap along like my brothers and sisters in the crowd, but I could enjoy, and when we got to that Annie sample, wow, was I ready to pitch in.
So rumor had it that Mr. Z boarded a plane in New York City at around 5 p.m. yesterday, which made a lot of people very nervous. But Mr. Z is no Kanye, and if the program guide said he was going on at 11:30, he was going on at 11:30. He even brought a handy countdown clock for the jumbotrons so we knew he was imminent, and as the seconds ticked by, more and more hands went up in that diamond shape to greet the man of the hour. Jay-Z uses no hype man, wastes no time; his massive backing band (“The best band in the world!” Jay-Z called them, before amending that to, “Well, they’re like the third best band. But they’re working really hard. They’ll get there”) lending impressive heft in covering the samples that comprise the heart of the music – everything from the Jackson 5 to Linkin Park and U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Giant video towers (a bit World Trade Center-esque in shape) lined the back wall, and their content was gorgeous. Otherwise, the stage was bare except for Jigga (Jigga? can I call him that?)(KIDDING!) in a black t-shirt and rosary. Memphis Bleek guested on about half the set; Bridget Kelly came in for “Empire State of Mind.” That weird British dude did not appear for “Forever Young,” but I doubt anyone could have heard him over the crowd’s voices, anyway, as thousands of cell phones and lighters blanketed the dark field and even Mr. Z seemed in awe.
There is a straight line to be drawn from Stevie Wonder to Jay-Z, believe it or not – and Stevie did stay for the rapper’s whole set; I caught him leaving on my way out – in three ways that were especially prominent last night. First, both men are in total control of their musical organizations, calling the changes and setting the tempo but also surrounding themselves with excellent artists who can fly independently. Both backing bands, especially the horn sections, are to be applauded for excellence. (clapclapclap.) Second, both men had that crowd on a leash, pulling and teasing and applying pressure and release. In both cases, it was a master class in the proper use of superstardom: You engage the people. You incorporate them into the show. Jay-Z must have asked us to BOUNCE! BOUNCE! with our hands in the air a hundred times, and we never got tired of doing it; both men asked us to lend our voices, and rewarded us handsomely when we did.
Finally, they both brought a social consciousness, the strength of self-reliance, and a powerful message of hopey-changey stuff to the field of 70,000 multicolored faces. “After 44 tries, we finally got some quality in America,” said Jay-Z towards the end. “We elected a black President, Barack Obama. Everybody in this building – I mean field – we changed the world. Just goes to show, anything is possible as long as you fight for what’s right, fight for what you believe in.” (He followed this with “… and stay forever young,” which was so cheesy a segue I’m choosing to forget it.) And again, when you think about Bonnaroo and its primary audience – white upper-middle class young people with slight hippie tendencies – there is something really astonishing in how little anyone cared last night about not only race but genre. All those kids (and adults, yes, there are some adults here) sang along at the top of their lungs with both “Superstition” and “Big Pimpin’,” and “Say It Ain’t So,” and probably tonight they’ll be singing along with “Ants Marching,” and on the drive home they might rock something else. It doesn’t matter. It’s music. And if it’s good, it brings us together. Wait, now I’m being cheesy. Sorry.
Anyway. So Jay-Z was an hour and a half of awesome, especially at the end of his set, when he brought up the lights on the field and took off his sunglasses and went around personally thanking members of the 70,000 gathered. He gave shout-outs to dudes in basketball jerseys, people with Yankee flags, a Rasta kid, and “you, with the funny glowstick.” (Uh, can you be more specific?) He affectionately made fun of the way an older African-American gentleman was dancing to Stevie Wonder, and the jumbotron cut to the man’s overjoyed face. He brought a girl named Maggie up on stage because he saw that her shirt said it was her 19th birthday. He gave her a big hug, and then slung an arm around her neck as we all sang Happy Birthday to Maggie. It was here that Jay-Z showed why he’s the Best Rapper Alive: He didn’t come into Bonnaroo trying to bend it to his will; he was willing to meet Bonnaroo at its own level, turning on the lights and looking at our faces and thanking us for being there and making us feel like we mattered, too.
So: Jay-Z came, he saw, he conquered. But I think in the end it was a pretty easy thing for him to pull off. After all, we really wanted to be won.
Final note on Saturday: Although I found myself extremely GWAR-curious coming into this festival, I must confess that when Jay-Z ended his set half an hour early, I could not find the energy to wait around for an hour and a half to see a bunch of dudes in scary costumes at 2:30 in the morning. I was also marginally afraid that Margaret Cho would follow up on her threats to let them sexually violate her on stage (no, for real, that’s been her running joke all weekend), so GWAR-curious I shall have to remain. I know there is a lot of crossover between the readers of EW.com and the GWAR fanbase, and I hope you will all forgive me. And now I gotta get back out there for the final day of Bonnaroo, which is pretty country-music heavy and then ends with Dave Matthews. Adios until mañana, amigos. HIT ME!