Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Bonnaroo 2011 Part 1

Heading out to Bonnaroo for the first time since 2008 I was a little worried that after having two kids I’d have outgrown the huge festival experience. Would the hassle of heat, crowds, dust, and standing on my feet for hours outweigh the fun of endless live music?

I’m happy to say two days in that the answer is no. Watching Eminem Saturday night with the biggest crowd I’ve seen since Radiohead played here in 2006 I decided that I’m enjoying this Bonnaroo more than I have any other. Where else can you simultaneously hear Alison Krauss singing sweetly on one stage while Chiddy Bang blasts through its hit “The Opposite of Adults” all while drawing Yo Gabba Gabba figures on a drum for your two-year-old? That was my afternoon.

I also got to see some of my favorite artists, both past and current, within a few hours of each other starting with Jessica Lea Mayfield (pictured above). She sang depressing and sometimes sexy songs in her not quite Southern (she’s from Ohio) drawl flanked by a guitarist wearing a red leather Michael Jackson “Beat It” style vest who played psychedelic electric guitar over her intimate folk songs. Later California veteran punk band NOFX, an unlikely booking for the more jam-leaning Bonnaroo, joked about its fellow acts (“There are two kinds of bands: Bands that try to write good songs and jam bands.” cracked Fat Mike) between pummeling through political fare and fan favorites like “Bob” and its slowed down ska version of Rancid’s “Radio” (“There’s a band with integrity,” noted Fat Mike. “They’ll never play Bonnaroo”).

Justin Townes Earle (pictured above), singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s son, could’ve easily made a career recycling songs similar to his father’s, but reminds me more of someone like Gillian Welch. Watching him weave between old time, vintage blues, and folk in a pork pie hat and plaid suit jacket I felt like I was watching someone from another era. He was funny too, wiping his brow with a bandana – “Ya’ll are crazier than hell comin’ here,” he said in his Tennessee drawl. And he’s kind of right. There are always moments that remind me why I continue to come to these kinds of events. The sense of camaraderie looking back over the field and seeing tens of thousands of people singing along with the “ohh, ohh, ohh, ooh, ooh” intro to the Arcade Fire’s encore of “Wake Up” gave me goose bumps. Moments like that is what the experience of a festival this size is all about.

Friday’s Best Performances

The Arcade Fire were amazing, yet humble. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne has really come into her own as a performer. She twirled streamers and danced cutely to the songs she sang lead on when not playing drums, keys, or accordion. But really there isn’t a weak leak in this band.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Potter is just an unbelievable live performer. I think the leggy blonde could take pretty much anyone in a shimmy/sing-off.

My Morning Jacket. Its first headlining set served as a homecoming and Jim James and the boys are a live force. Bonus points for playing my favorite, “Highly Suspicious.”

Best Crowds –

Dance duo Matt & Kim and 2010 it-band Florence & the Machine both attracted enough fans to not only fill a shed, but attract crowds over a hundred feet away. I felt like both should’ve gotten to play a larger stage. That’s one thing about Bonnaroo, even the lesser known acts playing small tents attract a good crowd.

Best Surprises –

Phosphorescent, atmospheric but rootsy with a bit of a Peter Gabriel quality at times, just set a great mood.

Graveyard – This Swedish hard rock outfit won a rare encore on a tiny stage.

!!! – This oddly named dance outfit (along with Chiddy Bang and Matt & Kim) made me think how some of the best new live performers are electronic dance acts.

Flavor Savers - The silliest, most entertaining surprise (pictured) performed in scant bird/feather costumes and played humorous synth-rock with titles like "Let's Do it Naughty."


  1. !!! (chik,chik,chik) is so not new. The last time I saw them was in 2003.
    It's really easy to do a quick internet search on bands before you publish.
    Check "Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard", but they are great live.

  2. Reply to Anonymous - Maybe I should've said young. "New" in comparison to acts that are revered as great live performers like U2, Robert Plant, etc.

  3. Bonnaroo was awesome this year! Did you catch Ben Sollee? I had never heard of him before, but his set ended up being my favorite of the whole festival.

  4. !!! played at Michigan Fest in 2002 and already had garnered a decent reputation then. Far from a "new" band.

  5. The festival was great, the music was great, and love was in the air! Love for music, love for artists, and love for each other. Take a look at what some festival goers had to say about their love lives in the midst of one of the best festivals of the summer! All answered the question "WTF is up with your life?"

  6. That vid was all over FB. I found it super annoying.

  7. Anyone who says "super" is kind of annoying to me. I loved the video!

  8. Haha you gotta love dirty Bonnarooers talking about their love lives!