Another Roo in the Books
Bonnaroo 2015 officially closed on Sunday evening with the conclusion of Billy Joel’s headlining performance. Rather than waking up one more morning in a hot tent, we have a longstanding tradition of packing our camp on Sunday morning and then heading to a little hotel down the interstate after the last performance. It’s after the first round of hot showers and air conditioning that the real discussion of Roo begins. This year we made a conscious effort to stay away from the more established bands that we have seen and stuck to the smaller tents and stages. Bonnaroo has two main stages: What stage and Which stage. These stages are the home of the festival’s marquee performances. While these venues make for great communal experiences, one shouldn’t expect them to provide anything new. These spaces are for sing-a-longs and surprise guests. They create the “you should have been there stories” for the devoted fans of established performers. On the other side of the festival, the three tents (This, That and Other) and two small stages (Who and Miller Light New Music on Tap) house emerging bands as well as the late night sets and the acts that are perhaps not quite big enough for the main stages. Although sometimes these tents are overrun, especially when a band hits it big between the festival scheduling and the performance (Poliça was overrun on Thursday last year, Glass Animals this year was much the same).
The festival begins Thursday evening with a slate of up-and-coming artists supporting a couple of more well know performers. At this point Roo is just beginning to gain steam. A good portion of the festival goers are still either setting up their camps or waiting in the notoriously long lines to get to their camp sites. For the most part, the Thursday vibe is pretty mellow. Everyone is getting over their road trips and acclimating to the heat. For the past few years, some of the festival’s best performances have taken place on Thursday. This year, we were fortunate enough to catch Iceage, Houndmouth, Glass Animals and Courtney Barnett all back to back – this is an amazing stretch of music no matter where you might be.
Danish punk band Iceage got a bit of a late start after some early sound issues (sounds issues seemed to plague the This Tent all weekend). Once they were underway, Iceage put on a truly astounding performance. All of the comparisons others have made between lead singer Elias Rønnenfelt and Nick Cave are certainly warranted. There is an energy that the two of them share that takes the audience deep into the spirit of their music.
After Iceage, we bounced over to the That Tent for Houndmouth. I have not seen Houndmouth since last year’s Newport Folk Festival. In the intervening period they have released an exceptional second record, Little Neon Limelight. Matt Myers and Katie Toupin have really developed their vocal harmonies and stage presence. This band feels has grown into a full spectacle in the best way. It is not just about the music, it is about the joyful delivery of the music.
We ducked out of Houndmouth a bit early to see Glass Animals from the start. Apparently most of the festival had the same idea. I’ve not seen a Thursday crowd that deep since Alt-J in 2013. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dave Bayley and Joe Seaward in the media area for a bit that afternoon. I’ll have the details of our conversation here soon. Their enthusiasm for the festival circuit and their dedication to their performances was evident both in our conversation and their performance.
After Glass Animals we moved back over to the This Tent for Courtney Barnett and her band. Barnett was in rare form. She proved that her sound could fill a festival space as easily as it can fill a club space. Unlike her recent show at One Eyed Jacks, Barnett stuck to the rock heavy sound that she has developed on this tour. Like many folks performing at Roo for the first time, she was clearly moved by the size and responsiveness of the crowd. These people were not there to learn about Barnett. They were there to sing along with every word. Barnett mentioned that it was a special moment after a rousing version of “Depreston”.
Friday is the first day that most of the festival attendees wake up on the farm (wake up in 100 degree tents in the morning sun). The music starts earlier and goes later. The trick is to find a break somewhere around early evening to head back to camp and recharge before the headliners and late shows. I want to mention just a few of the smaller and surprise shows of Friday. These were our true highlights.
The Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq opened her set by explaining that she was born just a couple of hundred miles from the magnetic north pole and that the Tennessee heat was a bit overwhelming. After a brief introduction to the improvisational nature of her performance, the demure singer was seemingly possessed by something as primal as the age of the throat singing practice. It was an amazing experience that will never be repeated exactly the same way.
After Tagaq we wandered over to the Other Tent for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. This group has just released their excellent third record, Multi-Love. Their show definitely demonstrated an expansion of their sound that was presaged by the complexity of the new record. There is a pop playfulness to their music that perfectly carried across the early evening festival scene.
After a brief wander past Atmosphere and Guster, we found ourselves back at the Other Tent for Sylvan Esso. This would be the third time in the past six weeks that I have shot Sylvan Esso. As I said in the daily update, this band just keeps getting better. Amelia Meath is truly a force on stage and Nick Sanborn keeps making his beats and loops more and more interesting. The giant beach ball that came out of the audience added a surreal flair to the show making it all the more fun. Check YouTube for video of Amelia and Nick wrestling it onto the stage. They played two new songs, which appear to indicate a turn toward a slightly clubbier sound for the second record. We all await it anxiously.
Later that night we found ourselves at the New Music Lounge for The Dø. This group won our annual “surprise show” award. A small crowd at a small stage at 1am Saturday morning witnessed a profoundly excellent performance of a good portion of their record Shake Shook Shaken. Singer Olivia Merilahti was mesmerizing in her red jumpsuit. The vibe was a cross between late 80s synth pop and David Byrne. They presented a great blend of musical and theatrical performance. We figured we were not going to top that and headed back to camp.
Saturday is truly the heart of Bonnaroo. The music runs perpetually from a little after noon until the last DJ decides to call it a morning. Here I want to highlight four standout shows from the day. I will talk about Belle and Sebastian’s set next week with the Ben Folds and YMusic set as these were the exceptional sets of the weekend.
We started the day with Son Little at the New Music Lounge. Aaron Livingston has cut a groove through a series of genres in order to come up with his unmistakable sound. He has a very clear understanding of R&B, reggae and indie rock. He can see their distinct contours and is able to piece them together perfectly. The sounds borrow from the past while sounding distinctly new.
After a bit of wandering, we made our way over to the This Tent for the Woods. As we arrived we were greeted by the chirping of frogs and crickets. Through the backdrop and the sound the tent was being remade into a habitat for this group’s sound. And wow did this Brooklyn-based indie folk group absolutely destroy their set. Some of the best improvisational jams that I heard all weekend happened here. They have this great psychedelic sound that brings Jeremy Earl’s voice out over the top of the fuzz for a perfect blend.
The last act in That Tent before Mumford and Sons took the stage was Atomic Bomb! Who is William Onyeabor? This band is a supergroup headed by Sinkane’s outstanding band and accompanied by Jamie Lidell, Luke Jenner, Money Mark and Pat Mahoney. They are dedicated to interpreting and expanding the music of Nigerian funk legend William Onyeabor. The show that this band managed to put on was astounding. Each musician a master in his own right, yielded to Sinkane’s direction and wove together a tapestry of African rhythms and contemporary funk sounds.
One of the last things we saw that evening was Smooth Hound Smith over at the New Music Lounge. This Nashville-based duo played some fantastic American Roots music. For his part, Zack Smith plays all the things and sings while Caitlin Doyle accompanies him on vocals and percussion. I have never seen a man sing, play guitar and play a kick drum with each foot before, much less in time.
Sunday starts a bit more slowly on the farm and it often begins with packing. After packing we headed into the fest. It’s bittersweet to leave the farm, but something as frenetic as Bonnaroo cannot sustain itself for more than a few days. We need to rest between excursions.
We started the day with Hurray For the Riff Raff, a New Orleans favorite. They were on the That Tent stage as part of the Bluegrass Situation’s curation of that stage for the day. For the past few years the That Tent has been given over to Bluegrass on Sunday with a culminating Superjam as the last thing before the final headliner. Alynda Lee Segarra was in excellent form and the band sounded great. It’s nice to see New Orleans so prominently represented.
After HFtRR, we were back at the Who stage for De Lux. This post-disco ensemble out of LA has the sound and intensity of the early Talking Heads recordings. Sean Guerin and Isaac Franco have found a great niche between the hard edge of contemporary dance and the soft groove of the disco era. They remind me a lot of Electric Guest (also out of LA). Sean oscillated between bouts of stone stillness behind the microphone and running high-speed laps out into the audience and around the crowd. Follow these guys closely.
Later in the evening we stopped back by the New Music Lounge for Sol Cat. This was another band that has had an explosion in popularity between the time they were booked and their arrival at the farm. The Lounge was overwhelmed with people and boy did Sol Cat deliver. Brett Hammann has an easy swagger on the mic that lulls you in before the music overtakes you. This is another excellent Nashville-based band. It is amazing at the sheer amount of outstanding music that has been coming out of Nashville recently.
Finally, we unintentionally ended the weekend with the Bluegrass Situation Superjam. The original plan was to stop by the Superjam on the way to see Billy Joel close out the festival; however, the quality of the Superjam would not let us go. Ed Helms and The Lonesome Trio held the stage with the help of The Punch Brothers. Some combination of these players was in constant collaboration with just about every other musician from the That Stage that day. There were standout performances from Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine), Jerry Douglas (“Hey Joe”) and The Punch Brothers (“Just What I needed”). Sarah Jarosz accompanied Chris Thile on dual mandolins most of the evening and Bela Fleck proceeded to blow everyone away on banjo.
Every year there is a moment when you know Bonnaroo is truly over. By the time the Superjam ended at 9:45 p.m. there was no Billy Joel for us. We had found our moment and Bonnaroo was done for another year.
See you on the farm.
To Do This Week
Sit at home and think about Roo. If you feel like going out, Good Enough for Good Times will play Free Fridays at Tips this Friday. On Saturday Tony Molina will be opening for Ceremony at One Eyed Jacks. That same night the Worriers will be playing at Sisters in Christ record shop in Gasa Gasa. Both of these will be excellent punk/post-punk shows. Chubby Carrier will be playing at the Algiers Ferry Dock for Wednesdays on the Point.
To Listen This Week
New Track from Little Boots via CoS.
The new Son Lux record is streaming over at NPR.