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Festival Review and Photos: Bonnaroo 2011, June 10, 2011 – Manchester, TN



Photo by Philip Cosores

Fridays are always the easiest day at Bonnaroo. Thursdays are much more about attendees getting acclimated, and because of the extra time for rest and relaxation, the payoff is better on the second day. The schedule has many more bands and activities to offer. You just have to hope that you have saved enough energy to withstand the heat and walking—and hopefully, the sun didn’t blister your skin on day one (sunscreen is your friend). On Fridays, the festival typically offers a themed tent of some sort—and this year, it was Metal Tent. Don’t ask how NOFX ended up over there, though. – Arika Dean


Photo by Philip Cosores

Phosphorescent:

Phosphorescent is a band that plays “Brooklyn Country,” as described by my colleague Philip Cosores. That’s an apt description and one that was readily apparent during this band’s early Friday set. The lead singer, Matthew Houck, turned on the twang, and there was even a steel guitar. Hold up—this is a band called Phosphorescent. And they play country for hipsters. Shouldn’t they at least be called Civil War Kids or Wolf Confederacy? While such a brainy-sounding, straight-up indie name might be a signal of a mismatch in allegiances, artists that defy expectations are always alright in my book, and Phosphorescent proved to be a very competent band playing styles more traditional to the South. Houck is originally from Georgia, so he gets an automatic credibility pass when it comes to country-influenced music. Phosphorescent played several slow-burners in a row—and slow music is generally not a good idea for holding an audience’s attention at a festival. But then again, most country tunes are slow and pensive in nature, right? Houck’s set was saved by the few rollicking numbers they rolled out for the onlookers. – Arika Dean

Kylesa:

It was Metal Friday over at That Tent, and Kylesa was among the chosen few selected to melt faces. And let’s face it—melting faces in the sweltering Tennessee heat is indeed an accomplishment. The set was a brutal one, playing several songs off their latest LP, Spiral Shadow, and assuming standard metal posturing. The drum fills were deep and tribal enough to summon ancient armies to battle. Guitarist, vocalist, and original member Laura Pleasants kicked serious ass in her New York Dolls tee, surprising the audience by being a tougher-than-you frontwoman, swinging her guitar, swinging her hair, jumping off amps, and cussing as hard as the black-clad tough dudes onstage. She was reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, in that way (just take away Kim’s bass and add Laura’s guitar). – Arika Dean

The Sword:

Carrying the torch in the metal onslaught was The Sword, a metal band from Austin, Texas, and boy, you can sure hear a little bit of big Texas in all that shredding. Southern-inflected metal is becoming increasingly common, with Mastodon being a prime example, and surprisingly, people welcome it. This was certainly the case under That Tent—the audience seemed more enthusiastic than ever as The Sword started off with a pounding intro (sans vocals, at least for a long period of time) accompanied by plenty of whipping hair back-and-forth. They blazed through their set (ahem—musically speaking, of course) with technical precision but not before slowing down for a Southern rock song, which reaffirmed their love of Texas, as frontman J.D. Cronise reminded the audience of the band’s hometown pride. One of the greatest moments was when the wild-eyed Jack Black lookalikes in the audience, throwing up plenty of metal signs and other ridiculous gestures, went absolutely ballistic over Bryan Richie’s earth-shaking bass drop that preceded yet more mayhem. – Arika Dean


Photos by Philip Cosores

The Decemberists:

Back in 2009, The Decemberists had just released their fifth album, The Hazards of Love, and they were, for an indie band, “on top.” Somebody at booking had underestimated them and put them at the much-smaller This Tent while also thrown into viciously competitive schedule that has gone down in festival history (The Decemberists vs. The Mars Volta vs. Wilco vs. Elvis Costello, if you were wondering). It may have taken two years, but The Decemberists eventually got theirs—they were put on the What Stage (Bonnaroo’s main stage) this year, and it made all the difference in the world. Colin Meloy had the attention of most of the festival’s attendees, although he had lofty ambitions (“I’m going to pretend that all 90,000 attendees are paying attention to me right now,” he said in his typical wry tone). He made use of his platform and extra allotted time, providing the audience with humorous interludes (even restating his previously-issued “pick-off” to Bela Fleck). Although this Portland band’s latest material is somewhat underwhelming at times, it felt much more rejuvenated live, and their high energy certainly helps with that. The set focused on the much more contry-influenced tracks from The King Is Dead, such as “Down by the Water” and “This Is Why We Fight.” Notably absent (for the first time) was cherished member Jenny Conlee, who is taking time off for cancer treatment, but former Nickel Creek member Sara Watkins fared well as a temporary replacement and will surely find her footing with the band as the tour continues. “Ability to juggle multiple instruments” is a requirement on the Decemberists’ job application, and all band members handle it extremely well, never skipping a beat. With the impressive performances, the incessant humor, and spot-on professionalism, The Decemberists don’t just provide a concert—it’s a rite of passage. Experience it, ASAP. – Arika Dean


Photos by Philip Cosores

Florence + The Machine:

By now, most people have recognized that Florence Welch is a force to be reckoned with. She’s a redheaded Englishwoman with a dynamite personality and a voice that can rattle walls, and surprisingly, people have responded well to that, if her massive uptick in popularity is any indication. I was not aware of just how popular she was until I saw Bonnaroo’s biggest underestimation of the weekend. The audience for Florence + The Machine extended well past the opening of This Tent and enclosed the Tent on all sides, all the way to the back of the Bonnaroo water fountain and vendor courts. For those of you unfamiliar with Bonnaroo’s layout, that sort of turnout at the tent stages is very rare and would be better suited for one of the main stages. However, I had a feeling that not everyone was there by choice–they had been lured there. Most people appeared to be stopped in their tracks with their mouths agape in astonishment, because even when they couldn’t see her, it was a quasi-spiritual experience just to hear her voice resonate deeply across the festival grounds. From where I was standing, I could hear a very emotive, slow version of “Dog Days Are Over.” – Arika Dean


Photo by Cris P. Bacon

My Morning Jacket:

When you think of iconic Bonnaroo bands, My Morning Jacket would be near, if not at, the top of the list. After all, the band played for four hours and jammed with Metallica’s Kirk Hammitt in 2008. Still, it was surprising to hear frontman Jim James say that it was the Louisville, Kentucky band’s first appearance of the mainstage at the festival they seem to appear at every year. But, the band treated the set like it was their first time there and they had 90,000 fans to win over. Their two-hour sunset performance did not disappoint.

The set did start a little rocky, however, as the opening numbers saw a variety of technical difficulties, from Jim James’ vocals to the guitar mix to the bass volume. Still, it was impossible to deny the sweeping awesomeness of the triumphant trumpet of “Victory Dance” or the band chemistry that comes together in current single “Circuital.” The choice to follow-up these two new tracks with three from Z (“Off The Record,” “Gideon,” and “Anytime”) decidedly pumped-up the crowd, with James shaking his hair like a madman and stomping around the stage in furry white boots.

My Morning Jacket are at the point now where they can fill two hours pretty easily with very strong material, whether it is in the form of a ballad (“Golden”) or a blasted-out rager (the closing bit of “Run Thru”), and their newest material fits perfectly within their setlist, with “Holding On To Black Metal,” a song that sounds like it would be nearly impossible to pull of live, getting the help of a sample to faithfully recreate the children’s voices from Circuital‘s best song.

But, the real treat came near the end of the set, when The Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined MMJ for larger-than-life productions of “Highly Suspicious” and “Dancefloors.” My Morning Jacket’s sound didn’t really need to get any larger at that point, but this guest appearance elevated the set through the roof, leading to the crowd-pleasing conclusion of “One Big Holiday.” If any band understands the privilege and honor it is to play the mainstage at night at Bonnaroo, it is My Morning Jacket, and they surpassed even the loftiest expectations of what what expected from their set through humility and plain-old showmanship. – Philip Cosores


Photo by Cris P. Bacon

Arcade Fire:

Arcade Fire is, unequivocally, one of the greatest touring acts of today. It feels good to finally see them on the roster at Bonnaroo, a festival with a mission similar to what Arcade Fire executes on stage every night they go on tour. Like Bonnaroo, Arcade Fire are in the business of creating over-the-top moments and encouraging every single person in the audience to sing along and dance. “Alright, enough fucking around,” frontman Win Butler joked. “I officially give you permission to move your ass.” People were already moving, but if someone wasn’t, he or she quickly got into gear after Butler’s aggressive, towering presence put everyone back in line. Of course, it’s not just audience participation that makes an Arcade Fire show—the band can create plenty of huge moments on their own. “No Cars Go” sounded especially majestic with the guitar reverb echoing and soaring over thousands of heads. And while the band acts as a collective, each member was given individual moments to shine, with Will Butler and Richard Reed Parry unleashing their traditional percussion theatrics during “Laika,” Win Butler coming down to the audience during “Rebellion (Lies),” and Regine Chassagne performing a ribbon dance after singing “Sprawl II.” Unlike their recent festival gig at Coachella, their was no gimmick or event to take the set over the top (unless you count the parachuting hang-gliders that preceded the set, but we think that was Bonnaroo sponsored). And, that was okay. While there might be little to differentiate the Bonnaroo set from Arcade Fire from a regular Arcade Fire show, the band is good enough to survive on that, and still leave the crowd more than satisfied. – Arika Dean


Photos by Philip Cosores

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