8) Ben Sollee:
Over the years I’ve come to understand that I’ve come to enjoy certain artists’ live shows much more than their albums. I first heard of Ben Sollee through JB and obtained a copy of his album, “Dear Companion” which, I’m not gonna lie, I never really felt. I basically went to this show because everyone else in our group was and there was nothing else I wanted to see. We got a great spot right up front and were treated to one of the best shows of the weekend. Sollee is a cello player and combines his set with a drummer and a female violinist who also traded off on some other instruments throughout the show. It is moments like this when the phrase “the lineup this year isn’t that good” is rendered ridiculous. There’s always a surprise lurking somewhere. You just have to have the wherewithal to seek it out. It was also at this set where I found myself involved in what can be best described of the biggest hippie moment I’ve ever participated in. Towards the end of the set, during one of the more emotional/peace loving songs, a number of Bonnaroo staff members started passing out yellow and green flowers en masse asking us to take one and pass the rest back. People would take a flower, place it in their hair or hats, and pass the rest back. I was towards the front so I was one of the first to get one and I doubted three would be enough for everyone. But they kept coming. And all the while Sollee and his band are playing this peaceful and somber musical accompaniment. A few people around me flashed peace signs. It was kinda cool, but also pretty cheesy. And I somehow doubt that we’ll get out of Afghanistan any quicker because of it. Oh, and in the video I’m linking here, you can see me, JB and James. We’re off to the left and I’m wearing my blue Mets hat taking a picture.
I had some time to kill after Sollee so I checked out this band that was pretty decent but nothing noteworthy comes to mind. Though I will say it is nice to pass time between shows you really want to see by seeing other shows that are invariably happening all around you. If you plan it right, there is never a break at Bonnaroo.
10) Justin Townes Earle:
I was expecting more of a rocking show from the son of legendary alt-country rocker Steve Earle (who for you TV buffs also had supporting roles in the HBO shows “The Wire” and “Treme”). I didn’t know much of his stuff but knew enough that his show would be a good one. While it took more of a folk/acoustic approach than what I had expected, I did enjoy this set which included two female musicians (one played the fiddle, the other the stand up bass). A few songs into the set, I started to notice Earle’s guitar playing style and began to realize something amazing about it, and it wasn’t until later in talking with JB that my suspicions were confirmed. Essentially, in many of Earle’s songs I heard a rhythmic guitar sound which seemed very apparent that he was strumming. But I also heard more of a solo guitar part in which several notes were being plucked that went along with the rhythm. I stood there for a few songs convinced that there must have been another guitarist playing offstage, or a recording playing those notes, or the possibility that Earle had looped that part. The least plausible explanation that crossed my mind was that Earle was playing both parts. For the life of me I couldn’t see him playing those solo-type notes. I left the tent satisfied with the set but still puzzled over the guitar parts I heard. Later that day JB told me that Earle most certainly was playing both guitar parts at the same time. He is very familiar with Earle and also was front and center for the show so he got to witness it firsthand for himself. I’m still blown away at the talent this guy has to be able to pull something off like that. That alone could qualify him for the best musician I witnessed the whole weekend.
11) Matt and Kim:
I decided to check out some of the set from this indie rock duo with techno type influences and Gail decided to come along with me. I didn’t know much by them, other than what I’d heard on XM radio, but I liked it well enough to check out. Of course, by the time we got there the crowd was huge and making our way up towards the front would have required a level of energy I just did not feel like exerting. As we approached the back of the tent, I heard Kim talking about how she had noticed a few topless girls near the sound booth, and sure enough, as I looked up, I saw exactly what she described. Kim then encouraged all the women to take their tops off since it was so damn hot out. I immediately thought I picked the right set to see. Of course, very few women, and none where I was standing, decided to take Kim up on her offer which rendered the set much less interesting than it could have been. Anyway, Gail and I stayed for a few songs but since our spots weren’t all that great, we decided to leave and check out Grace Potter’s set. Later on I heard that Kim herself took her top off as their set ended. I’m still not sure if that’s entirely true, but I think it’s obvious that she at least likes to get others to show their boobies.
12) Grace Potter and the Nocturnals:
This was another artist that I didn’t know much about but I had heard really good things about her live performances. She played a nice style of blues rock that was highlighted by a dynamite version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”. Definitely worth the stop.
13) Freelance Whales:
After Grace Potter, there was nothing I was dying to see at any of the tents or stages so I decided to check out Freelance Whales again, but this time at the Sonic Stage which is reserved for artists to highlight their sets in a more intimate and acoustic setting. I noticed that the woman who introduced them is the same woman who always worked that stage in the past and while her overly flattering comments about them before they came on were very nice, I began to realize that this woman says all kinds of good things about every band that plays this stage (or at least all the bands I’ve seen play there in the past). It’s almost too much and self-indulgent. Like she knows something that nobody else does and by somehow promoting the band beyond any reasonable degree would make me like them that much more. Hey lady, just introduce them and stop hogging the stage and robbing the band of playing time, all right?! At any rate, it was nice to see these guys again in a smaller setting and they continued to solidify themselves as one of my favorite acts of the weekend.
14) The Decemberists:
I’d have to go ahead and say that the latest release from this group from Portland, Oregon The King is Dead may very well be my favorite album of the year so far (and bear in mind, Radiohead released a new album this year too, so what does that tell you?). The album is pop/rock/folk perfection and melds a great number of relatively short songs that oftentimes sound like a cross between Springsteen and R.E.M. To me, this is a much more welcomed effort than their previous album The Hazards of Love which was an odd concept album about……well……all kinds of weird stuff (including the brutal murder of one’s children). For some reason the album never resonated with me, which makes it all the more intriguing that the songs I found the most exciting during this set to be from that very same album. I don’t know. I just can’t describe it. Maybe I need to give the album another chance, but the songs from that album just translated so much better live than their other songs. Not that any of their tunes were bad, I just don’t get as amped as I would like for their shows. I’ve now seen them three times and I’ve yet to have that moment where I feel blown away. Having said all that, I will say that front man Colin Meloy is one of the oddest I’ve ever seen. But he does make for some interesting and funny banter with the crowd. At one point he pointed towards the people in the VIP section and told them that when the revolution comes, they will be the first to go. Needless to say, that comment drew out a raucous applause from us common folk. It’s nice to know Colin is on our side. It’s also relevant to point out that multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee was recently diagnosed with breast cancer so she was not in attendance for the show. Instead, the band brought out Nickel Creek artist, Sara Watkins, to fill in the roll and a great job she did.
15) My Morning Jacket:
Typically people are bound to ask a Bonnaroo attendee what the best show that person saw throughout the weekend. For some this could be a difficult decision as there are usually so many dope bands that one sees at this thing that it can be hard to rank them all. Oddly enough, I never remember having a year when this proved to be a difficult decision. It was always an easy answer. In ’06 it was Radiohead, in ’07 it was Wilco, in ’08 it was the Raconteurs, in ’09 it was Springsteen, in ’10 it was Kings of Leon, and this year it was My Morning Jacket. And the funny thing is that I pretty much knew this was going to be the case within a minute or so of their set. I had just purchased their new album, Circuital, and liked it from the start. While they started the show with the first track from that album, it was very noticeable that the sound was off. It sounded muffled and unclear and made me wonder for a moment if it was supposed to be like that, or if I was just losing my hearing. After a few minutes; however, something kicked on and the speakers poured forth a much clearer and more powerful sound that automatically made it apparent that something was indeed wrong earlier. Every song sounded perfect and I was in just the right frame of mind to be into each and every note they played. From the most beautiful and soft melodies of “Golden” to the blistering rocked out version of “Anytime” the Jacket went balls out from the get go and never let up. They have some great albums, but their live performance makes them pale in comparison. I had seem them twice before at Bonnaroo but never all the way through. The first time I saw them in ’06 they played a midnight to 3am slot and I lasted about an hour and a half before I started to fall asleep standing up. The second time in ’09 they played another late night set but it started to pour halfway through and being as tired as I was I had to retreat back to the RV. Finally, after so many years I was treated to an amazing set that I was able to stay for its entirety. To say these guys are special is a gross understatement.
16) Arcade Fire:
So how do you follow up one of the greatest shows you’ve ever seen? How about a freaking headlining set by the Arcade Fire?! Big ups to Kevin Macauley for introducing me to them back in the day before anyone else knew about them. I made the comment before their set that it’s really amazing that they can headline a festival like Bonnaroo and only have released three albums. But the thing is with these guys is that they can totally hang with that type of pressure. They put on a phenomenal show with all kinds of energy, but it never seems to get to their heads. Several times front man Win Butler expressed sincere gratitude towards the audience and it seemed genuine every time. I’ve always seemed to give artists a pass for being assholes if the music is good enough to look past that. But it’s really nice to have a stellar band be a group of good people too. Yes, I understand that many great artists are tortured and have no choice but to be dickheads, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’d have to say that the My Morning Jacket/Arcade Fire one two combo might be the best I’ve ever seen at Bonnaroo.
17) Big Boi:
I realized a lot of things at this set by the co-member of what could be my favorite hip-hop act, Outkast. First of all, I was surprised that he played just about every popular Outkast song within the first thirty minutes. I thought for sure he was going to save them for the end. After Arcade Fire I waded my way through a sea of people and broke away from my crew, for I was the only one who wanted to see Big Boi. It took a while to make it to the tent he was playing. For some reason the Bonnaroo heads make it very difficult to navigate yourself out of the main stage area. As I made my way up to Big Boi’s set, I heard him playing a song that sounded somewhat familiar but I could not put my finger on it. After a few moments, I realized he was playing “Rosa Parks” which is one of my favorite Outkast songs. Thing is that it didn’t sound much like the song I had come to know and love. He soon started taking requests and before I knew it he was playing a medley of Outkast hits including B.O.B., Ms. Jackson, and Ghetto Musik. And as he played, I noticed how he would perform each song only for a short period of time before moving on to the next song. And I realized that this was something that I had seen in previous hip-hop shows that I’ve seen. Instead of playing the whole songs, they cut them short and oftentimes perform them in different versions than the originals. Now while I appreciate the different approach to performing these songs, I’d have to say that I do not like it. I mean, I’m glad he’s taking artistic integrity and mixing it up, but seriously, why only go halfway when I can envision him being so much better? Then again, maybe it was because I was far away from the stage or that I was so tired, but he basically played everything I wanted to he hear so I headed out early.