Bonnaroo, the four-day music festival that for the past decade has taken place on a 700-acre farm in the middle of Manchester, Tennessee, has gotten a bit of a bad rap for being a hippie love-in, a sort of Woodstockian gathering for tie-dyed-in-the-organic-wool Deadheads and Phish-heads of the modern age. And sure, this year's Bonnaroo, which kicked of Thursday, June 7, offered plenty of crunchy, earthy peace 'n' love for the great unwashed. If you wanted to have your face painted; get a henna tattoo; participate in candle-making, drum-building, or glass-blowing; or buy something called a "Peace Frisbee," then Bonnaroo 2012 was definitely the place for you. But Bonnaroo has always offered an eclectic array of music for fans of all types, and this year's first Bonnaroo day was no different. From indie-pop to new-school hip-hop, from Southern soul to even punk-rock mariachi, Bonnaroo's Thursday lineup was a virtual musical rainbow.
And that's perhaps the best thing about Bonnaroo: It's all about the music, man. While other major musicfests, particularly California's Coachella, have practically become celebrity-sighting sprees and excuses to have off-site pool parties, Bonnaroo is as low-key and unpretentious as it gets. And day one this year was especially chill, with the main stages still dark until Friday and the festivities not fully getting underway until mid-afternoon. With all of the musical activity limited to the side tents, Bonnaroo Thursday almost had the vibe of an intimate garden party, and this was the perfect way to ease into the coming weekend's music marathon.
Kicking things off was EMA--aka South Dakota songstress Erika Anderson, formerly of the indie bands Amps For Christ and Gowns--in the Other Tent. The missing link between Cat Power, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, and the '90s riot grrrl scene (although she claimed to look like the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano in her natty fedora hat), EMA was a compelling live performer with a massive stage presence, and she had to be THE coolest girl at Bonnaroo. Exhibiting a certain darkly delicious menace despite her colorful outfit of red short-shorts and Mickey Mouse T-shirt, she wailed her lungs out over a backdrop of crescendo-building electric violin and squalling, sometimes improvised guitar feedback. "Do you mind if we play noisy and rock the f*** out?" she asked the crowd, rhetorically. (Judging by the cheers, no, the crowd didn't mind at all.) And at one point, she even accidentally cut her lip and told the audience, "I'm bleeding for you." But this badass girl had an approachable side, too, inviting fans to drink beers and hang out with her in the guest camping area after her gig. If I hadn't had about eight more bands to see, I would've taken her up on her kind offer.
Next up were Mariachi El Bronx, the quite literally named spinoff of L.A. punk band the Bronx, who drew a huge and enthusiastic crowd to That Tent. With their spangled suits, they won the award for Best Dressed Thursday Band, hands down, and their good-vibes revue definitely set the right tone for a sunny day of revelry. But their music was surprisingly traditional, much more mariachi than Bronx, and while they blazed through each caliente number with oodles of energy and fire ("We're trying to play three days in an hour; our bodies depend on chemical power," frontman Matt Caughthran rhymingly explained), their shtick got old fairly fast. Still, for a few songs, they were a ton of fun. All that was missing were the frozen margaritas; sadly, those were not for sale at the Bonnaroo bar, but I definitely made sure I got a burrito from the Planet Roo café before I headed to see my next band.
That next band, in This Tent, was the Lonely Forest, a Northwestern quartet that turned out to be one of my best discoveries of the day--and not just because they covered Tom Petty's "Listen To Her Heart," or had one amusing song entirely about the "miracle drug" Benadryl, or dedicated another song to the recently departed Ray Bradbury, all of which of course earned them major points. Trafficking in a sort of twee, Shins/Death Cab/Guided By Voices-damaged indie-pop, the Lonely Forest played the biggest show of their seven-year career at Bonnaroo, and their heart-sleeved lo-fi love songs like "(I Am) The Love Addict" went over extremely well with the crowd. I think this band created a lot of Lonely Forest addicts on Thursday, myself among them.
Only at Bonnaroo would a band like the Lonely Forest be followed, on the same stage, by someone like buzzy Detroit MC Danny Brown. This guy's outsized personality (he has a voice like an old Warner Bros. cartoon character) and outlandish fashion flair (his Bonnaroo look included white slacks, a tropical-print '70s shirt, a mid-period Prince combover, and giant shield-shades) made Andre 3000 look positively demure. The superfly rapper ENTERTAINED (capslock intentional), dancing to Blondie's "Rapture," tossing out piles of Danny Brown merch to the delighted masses, and spitting rhymes about all sorts of subjects that can't be mentioned on a family-friendly site like Yahoo!. (Let's just say the man has a bit of an oral fixation.) At one point he got the entire audience to hold up their middle fingers in unison, and it was the most feelgood display of bird-flipping I'd ever witnessed. What can (Danny) Brown do for you? Totally own Bonnaroo, that's what.
But perhaps the best live show of the day came from jammy Austin psych-rockers White Denim, in the Other Tent. This was regular-dude rock: no frills, no B.S., no flash, just fantastic in-the-pocket musicianship, cranked LOUD and played HARD (again, capslock intentional). The Bonnaroo audience pretty much went ballistic for them; my Twitter feed was virtually exploding with tweets from crazed festival-goers declaring White Denim the greatest group of all time, and honestly, I'm surprised they're not already huge. Maybe they will be, after this, since this was no doubt a starmaking performance. Some people say rock is dead, but it's not; there's definitely a market for this sort of stuff, if thousands of howling Bonnaroo fans are anything to go by.
Back in This Tent there was more future-thinking hip-hop, straight out of Compton, from Kendrick Lamar, fresh from his guest spot with Dr. Dre (and a Tupac hologram) at this year's Coachella. Kendrick is tipped to be the next big MC, and this performance made it easy to understand why. His booming, distinctively froggy voice and superhuman, Kanye-style confidence made him already seem like a star. (He declared, "I stare in the eyes of Mozart and tell him I'm a genius. I love myself. I love myself a lot!") In fact, at one point he even stopped the show, pointed to someone in the front row, and barked incredulously, "This dude just said I'm not the best motherf***in' rapper alive. I heard him say it!" (Crowd boos ensued.) "Can I prove it to him?" The crowd cheered, and the show then continued at breakneck speed. But Kendrick had a sensitive side, too, announcing, "We need music to heal!" and telling the worshipful audience: "This is not just fans staring at a concert. I don't ever want to call you my 'fans.' This is family." Kendrick's set wrapped with a rollicking performance of "Cartoons & Cereal" with a hard-partying special guest, the above-mentioned Danny Brown. I think Kendrick made a lot of fans--oops, I mean new family members--at Bonnaroo this year.
Closing out the day in This Tent were Alabama Shakes, one of Bonnaroo 2012's buzziest bands, at least judging by the giant cluster-you-know-what of people bottlenecking their way into the packed tent. For the lookie-loos who stumbled across the Shakes, it was easy for them to see what all the buzz was about, and why the likes of Adele, Robert Plant, Jack White, David Byrne, and the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner have all declared themselves big fans of the vintage-style Southern soul combo. Joplin-esque frontwoman Brittany Howard--just a real, regular girl from (you guessed it) Alabama who used to work for the Post Office--showcased an AMAZING voice, raw and tender and passionate, especially on the keening "I Found You," aka the "At Last" of indie rock. (If/when I get married, I think I want this love ballad to be my first-dance wedding song.) But it wasn't just random lookie-loos inside This Tent; on the contrary, most of the spectators seemed to know every word of every song, and I even literally spotted one concertgoer openly weeping (with joy) as Brittany belted away. The hour-long show flew by, with Brittany and her crack band's momentum never letting up, and it all culminated in a grand finale featuring special guests the Soul Rebels Brass Band, who played some New Orleans-style party jazz before Brittany left the stage and led the Rebels in a Mardi Gras parade across the Bonnaroo grounds. What a way to make an exit! That's going to be tough for the rest of the weekend's artists to top.
But, I'm sure they'll try. Bonnaroo continues Friday, and kicks into high gear, with sets from Foster The People, Feist, Ludacris, Sharon Jones, the Kooks, and the ultimate festival headliner, a little band called Radiohead. Come back later for a full day two report!
(ALL LIVE PHOTOS BY DEBI DEL GRANDE, except EMA and Lonely Forest photos by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)