When fans at Manchester, Tennessee's massive musicfest Bonnaroo headed to This Tent at midnight on Saturday for the Roots' "Superjam," they naturally expected to see some special guests. But they didn't know just how special, until the band's drummer ?uestlove announced, "I've been waiting 12 years to say this. Ladies and gentlemen...D'ANGELO!" And out strutted the legendary, reclusive neo-soulman, confirming the day's ongoing Twitter rumors and making his first U.S. stage appearance in more than a decade.
D'Angelo, aka Michael Eugene Archer--perhaps as famous for flaunting his fabulously chiseled naked torso in that music video for "Untitled" as he is for last album, 2000's landmark Voodoo--looked in fine form, rocking a black tank top, short dreadlocks, and a quiet smile. (In a shocking police mugshot from 2010, when he was arrested for propositioning an undercover cop, he'd appeared bloated and unrecognizable.) And more importantly, D'Angelo sounded spectacular. He didn't perform any new tunes from his long-awaited (and long-delayed) third album, but as he shifted between keys and guitar, he and a nine-piece band featuring bass legend Pino Palladino and the Time's Jesse Johnson treated stunned spectators to an epic set of classic funk and rock--including Jimi Hendrix's "Have You Ever Been To Electric Ladyland" and "Power Of Soul," Funkadelic's "Funky Dollar Bill," and "Hit It And Quit It," Sly & The Family Stone's "Babies Makin' Babies," the Beatles' "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window," Led Zeppelin's "What Is And What Should Never Be," and the Time's "My Summertime Thang." Fans in This Tent were practically openly weeping, almost not believing what they were witnessing, as this most super of Superjams went on for an amazing 75 minutes.
The notoriously shy 38-year-old singer, who has only conducted one interview (with GQ) since 2000 and has battled the law, drugs, and his record label over the years, didn't engage in much stage banter, other than quite rhetorically asking, "Do y'all want us to go home yet?"--a silly question that of course was met with an audience unison chant of "NOOOOOOOOOOO!" Eventually D'Angelo and friends called it a night, with ?uestlove proudly telling the crowd: "You were here! You saw it!" But D'Angelo will return to the U.S. concert scene next month for New Orleans' Essence Music Festival, and supposedly he'll be releasing that postponed third album before the year's end. Judging from the reaction that his comeback received at Bonnaroo, there are a lot of people who are waiting to buy that album and are happy to see him finally return.
The other legacy artist making a big impression at Bonnaroo on Saturday was Alice Cooper, whose midnight set in That Tent was the very antithesis of Bonnaroo's peace-and-love hippie vibe, but was one of the most wildly enthusiastically received gigs of the day. Over the course of his nearly two-hour rock 'n' roll revue, the original shock-rocker dressed like a giant multi-tentacled spider (for "Black Widow," of course); shot sparks of fire out of his fingertips; cuddled with a live snake; danced with a blonde blow-up doll (during "Only Women Bleed") and a 10-foot-tall monster (for "Feed My Frankenstein"); stuck his head in a guillotine; impaled a TMZ-style paparazzo on his fencing sword; and performed the topical and bizarrely ahead-of-its-time "I'll Bite Your Face Off." And he did this all while accompanied by guitar virtuoso Orianthi. Let's see some jam band like Phish pull off a rawk extravaganza like that!
After a show-closing "School's Out"/"Another Brick In The Wall" medley, Alice encored with "Elected," during which he wore a sequined Uncle Sam top hat and had masked Obama and Romney impersonators brawl onstage. (Alice Cooper for President--that's my official election 2012 endorsement now.) And this was followed by a surprise cover of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"! Long before Gaga was wearing meat dresses, hatching from space-eggs, and hanging from VMA chandeliers dripping with blood, there was Alice, so it made sense for him to cover this outsider anthem, accompanied by another towering monster onstage--this one actually dressed as Gaga, draped in yellow CAUTION tape. Truly, no one was ever born as freaky as Alice Cooper was, 64 years ago.
The earlier shows of the day weren't quite as newsworthy, but there was plenty of good music to be had at Bonnaroo on Saturday. The afternoon began on the main What Stage with Australian dream-pop combo the Temper Trap, whose underrated frontman Dougie Mandagi's choirboy vocals almost seemed unreal, they reached such Justin Hawkins/Mika/Matt Bellamy-esque octave levels. The band treated the early-bird crowd to tunes from their just-released sophomore album (their first LP since 2009), with Dougie sheepishly--but, judging from the audience reaction, probably unnecessarily--saying, "We hope you eventually like them."
Up next in This Tent were post-rockers Battles, a jam-band-from-the-future who brought Bonnaroo squarely into the year 2012 with their brain-bending, angular electro-instrumentals. Clustered at front edge of stage, the trio forged a tight knot of musicality and powered through an intense 75-minute set, during which drummer John Stanier sweated straight through his pink shirt and turned it maroon by the final number. But it looked like the madly dancing revelers in the tent were sweating even more profusely.
Back on the main stage was indie-dance eccentric Santigold, looking like a Tattoo You-era Mick Jagger in her colorful footballer-on-acid outfits. But it was her diva-esque backup dancers, with their Janelle Monae-reminiscent tuxedo/cheerleader uniforms, Mary Poppins parasols, and rump-shaking, stage-humping moves, who totally stole the show. Santigold's set did drag on a bit due to her nasal and somewhat rangeless voice, which rendered many of her songs interchangeable, but her dancers definitely kept everyone entertained. And when Santigold invited seemingly everyone in the crowd to dance onstage with her and the girls, the show really picked up steam.
One of the day's best dance parties, however, was hosted on the Which Stage by Childish Gambino, the rap alter ego of charismatic "Community" actor Donald Glover. NBC's "Community" has been rumored to be in danger of cancellation for months now, but Donald clearly has a career plan B to fall back on, since his hip-hop music is no vanity project. And judging by how strong his Bonnaroo set was, despite some technical difficulties that marred its start, he might want to consider making hip-hop his plan A. Donald was an entirely convincing MC, combining the swagger and braggadocio of his obvious predecessor Kanye West with the grinning likability of another sitcom sensation/rapper, Will Smith. The man was simply a STAR.
After Gambino, it was time for Scotland's awesome experimental rockers Mogwai, and from the moment I started walking across the field to their show in This Tent, I could hear them. Loudly. I think I popped in my earplugs when I was still 300 yards away. Then, once I got inside the tent, those rubber plugs practically melted, along with my eardrums and much of my face. I imagine even Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine would have thought Mogwai's set was loud. But you know, the tinnitus was worth it.
Back on the main stage, the aforementioned Roots warmed up the crowd before the two-hour, 15-song set by Saturday's headliners, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While RHCP's impeccable musicianship (Flea is pretty much a god) and unflagging energy made for a solid show (if one a bit too heavy on instrumental solos and noodly jams), they unfortunately frontloaded their set with a bunch of newer and/or lesser-known songs that, frankly, many casual concertgoers likely didn't recognize. ("Monarchy Of Roses"? "Look Around"? "The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie"? "Throw Away Your Television"? "Factory Of Faith"? Really???) Thus, they broke the cardinal rule that all heritage acts at festivals should abide: Always open with a HIT. Eventually, the Peppers did get around to some of their biggest smashes, like "Under The Bridge," of course, as well as "Scar Tissue," "Higher Ground," "By The Way" (one of their best songs, because it basically sounds like a mashup of every good song RHCP have ever done), and, during the encore, "Suck My Kiss" and "Give It Away." However, it only took singer Anthony Kiedis three songs to remove his shirt. But with a physique like that, at nearly age 50, who can blame the man for wanting to show off a bit?
And the evening ended--for me, at least, although many others kept on dancing--with a harrowing, Tailhook-style field walk through the thousands of hula-hooping, glowstick-brandishing merrymakers grooving in the grass to dubstep posterboy Skrillex's 1:30-3:30am set on the Which Stage. It was tempting to join the party, but with one more day of Bonnaroo to go, boasting a lineup of everyone from the Beach Boys to Ben Folds Five to Bon Iver, I really needed to rest up.
Come back later for a full Sunday report!
(ALL PHOTOS BY DEBI DEL GRANDE, except Santigold crowd shot by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)