After Thursday's half-day kickoff, Friday was the first full day at Manchester, Tennessee's massive Bonnaroo musicfest, and what a full day it was, with more than 70 artists performing on 10 stages across the fest's 700-acre farm grounds. But of course, the main attraction was the ultimate festival band, Radiohead, whose epic set (at two hours and 20 minutes, their longest of 2012 so far) not only included 25 songs and two encores, but also an intriguing shout-out to Jack White and even a little bit of bloodletting.
Radiohead's setlist leaned heavily on newer material (including six songs each from The King Of Limbs and In Rainbows, and three newer songs from the past year, "Identikit," "The Daily Mail," and "Staircase"), with a few Thom Yorke-described "oldies" for the diehards (like OK Computer classics "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android," the latter of which closed the show in true grand Radiohead style). But it was a performance of the band's 2011 Record Store Day song, "Supercollider," that was the most noteworthy, if only for its eyebrow-raising, rumor-stirring introduction. "This song is for Jack White. We saw him yesterday. A big thank you to him. We're not gonna tell you why...but you'll find out!" teased Thom. Considering that Jack's Third Man Records is located in Nashville, only about an hour away from the Bonnaroo grounds, it's easy to speculate that Radiohead recorded some sort of collaboration with the ex-White Stripes mastermind this week. (Jack has released one-off singles with everyone from Beck, to Stephen Colbert, to Conan O'Brien, to, um, Insane Clown Posse.) Just what was Thom talking about? Hopefully we will soon find out.
And hopefully Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood will soon heal: During the band's first-encore performance of "Bodysnatchers," he cringingly cut his hand open. Ouch. But considering that he played on through four more songs, including the over-six-minute "Paranoid Android," it seems that this trooper is already on the mend.
As for the rest of the day, it all began at the crack of noon, with a full crowd of music-loving happy campers already out of their tents and koo-koo to see another British combo, the Kooks, on the Which Stage. The Brighton band's harmony-laden powerpop was the perfect launch for a music-marathon day of fun in the sun, as fans worked up an early sweat and moved in their own way to feelgood ditties like "She Moves In Her Own Way" and "Always Where I Need To Be."
Meanwhile, over in That Tent, Adele-endorsed, critically heralded London troubadour Michael Kiwanuka cranked out the sunshine jams, and really, once again it was hard to believe that such breezy, balmy music had been imported from grey olde England. Seriously, if there's ever a U.K. version of that "Saturday Night Live" skit "The Mellow Show," Michael needs to host it. The unassuming, Withers-esque singer-songwriter could be a huge hit on the jam-band scene, judging by the huge response he received at Bonnaroo.
Next up in This Tent was tUnE-yArDs, the experimental and nearly indefinable psych-folk project of the fearless Merrill Garbus--she's sort of the Lady Gaga of the NPR set, or a bohemian Laurie Anderson, if that makes any sense. Coming off the high of her lauded album w h o k i l l topping last year's Pazz & Jop critics' album poll, Merrill played a joyful, grooving set of Luaka Bop-styled, jazz/freak-folk/dub/hip-hop song cycles, featuring her seemingly non-human glottal yelping and on-the-spot drum-looping. Her chanty music built the perfect bridge between Bonnaroo's face-painted hippies and indie-rock hipsters, all of whom packed the tent to maximum capacity. Later in the day, Merrill and her band of can-banging merrymakers showed up in the cinema tent to live-score a screening of silent Buster Keaton films. How cool is that?
On the opposite end of the awesome-lady Bonnaroo spectrum, and the opposite end of the field, was Sharon Jones, accompanied on the What Stage by supremely funky old-soul revivalists the Dap-Kings (aka Amy Winehouse's Back To Black backing band). Sharon was truly badass--not surprising, since she once worked as a Rikers Island corrections officer and an armored car guard--and she seemed positively plucked from a bygone golden-soul era, boldly rocking magenta sequins and spike heels when almost everyone else at Bonnaroo was schlubbing in flip-flops and cargo shorts. The consummate entertainer, 56-year-old show-woman Sharon rocked the funk out of the main stage, and really showed all the fest's young whippersnappers how it's done.
Back in This Tent, Irish indie-electro outfit Two Door Cinema Club funked out in their own twee way, and they seemed genuinely shocked by the massive crowd they drew for their 3pm set, thanking the fans "for being so kind" as the entire tent sang along to "What You Know." Gushed frontman Alex Trimble: "Today has just reminded me why I love playing shows. This has been so, so overwhelming." When 2DCC's set was finished, they exited the stage beaming, as concertgoers group-chanted, "ONE MORE SONG! ONE MORE SONG!"
The 5pm hour brought a cluster-you-know-what of concert options, with fans forced to make a three-way Sophie's choice between alt-folkers the Avett Brothers, downtempo electronic auteurs Little Dragon, and new-school-meets-old-school revue Fitz & The Tantrums. Word has it that Maynard James Keenan from Tool and Flea from Saturday Bonnaroo headliners the Red Hot Chili Peppers went the Little Dragon route, but since I needed a major pick-me-up after five-plus hours in the Southern sun, I went with the latter, the most upbeat option, and it was a choice I did not regret. Along with a slew of crowd-pleasing partystarters from their debut LP, Fitz & The Tantrums played songs from their forthcoming new album, like "The End" and "She's Out Of My League," the second of which boasted an '80s Hall & Oatesian vibe that had the audience bouncing their bodies (and beachballs) in earnest--and indicated that F&TT's sophomore album, out October 9, will be a smashing success. "We can't tell you how much it means to us that you know our songs! Thank you for being real people, real music lovers!" exclaimed Fitz, before jumping into the audience to crowd-surf. Incidentally, F&TT also issued the second salute to Jack White of the day, when they unexpectedly (and awesomely) covered the Raconteurs' "Steady As She Goes."
The fetchingly sundress-clad Feist performed next on the Which Stage, for an audience of many enthusiastic Canadians. ("We have invaded!" joked the Nova Scotian songstress.) Backed by a trio of winsome backup singers--who, in their earth-toned robes, kind of looked like the cast of an indie-rock version of "Sister Wives"--Feist led the crowd in a "Bonnaroo glee club" mass singalong of "So Sorry," making the attending Cannucks sing the highest notes as the tune's "the maple-leaf candy on top." But she won over all spectators, not just with sunset anthems like "I Feel It All" and "How Come You Never Go There," but with her wry stage banter, especially when she told the sweaty crowd, "I wish we could hose you down with margaritas. Instead, we will hose you down with song." How refreshing!
Speaking of winning over spectators, ATL rapper Ludacris definitely won the award for the most crowded concert at 'Roo so far, since for some reason he was playing This Tent--the same space where tUnE-yArDs and Two Door Cinema Club had just performed--instead of a larger outdoor stage. The throng was packed so tightly into the tent, even sardines would have balked, and the result was of course pure mayhem. "This is my first Bonnaroo, so y'all gotta make more noise than that!" Ludacris ordered the already crazed crowd. Luda's 90-minute set was a nonstop greatest-hits revue, featuring not only a shocking number of his own smashes (it's easy to forget just how successful Luda is), like "Stand Up," "Move," "How Low," and "My Chick Bad," but a medley of his collabos with other artists (Usher's "Yeah!," Taio Cruz's "Break Your Heart," Enrique Iglesias's "Tonight," Fergie's "Glamorous," DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win"). Even when Ludacris took a break, his crew kept the party going with a DJ interlude featuring hits by everyone from Rihanna to Nirvana, while Luda tossed giant inflatable beer cans and T-shirts into the crowd. Oh, and there was also a pole-dancing vignette featuring some bootylicious backup dancers, which perhaps unsurprisingly elicited some of the wildest crowd cheers of the entire set.
After that, a palate-cleanser of sorts was necessary, so it was off to That Tent to see the lovely and classy St. Vincent--aka Annie Clark, aka the Audrey Hepburn of indie rock. There was no booty-shaking or pole-dancing here, just urgent and propulsive tuneage and shredding guitar from one of the coolest women on the planet. If any more proof of St. Vincent's coolness was needed, her fantastic cover of the Pop Group's "She Is Beyond Good And Evil" certainly did the trick.
Foster The People got a prime 75-minute slot on the elaborately decorated Which Stage at the evening's end, and they drew a massive audience--when not too long ago, before "Pumped Up Kicks" became THE song of 2011, they actually had trouble filling 300-capacity L.A. club the Echo. Sometimes I'm still flummoxed by how quickly FTP went from indie-rock to stadium-rock, and, frankly, by how quickly they went from being considered hip and cool to being derided as bland pop sellouts. But backlashers, please back off: FTP's Bonnaroo show was pure pop goodness, featuring one expertly crafted festival-ready anthem after another. And the crowd's sing-to-every-syllable reaction to songs like "Houdini," "Call It What You Want," "Helena Beat," "Warrant," and especially the ubiquitous Nissan-commercial jingle "Don't Stop (Color On The Walls)" proved that FTP are no one-hit wonder. But of course, it was "Pumped Up Kicks" that they saved for last, complete with a headliner-worthy shower of rainbow confetti and a rave-style breakdown. Take that, haters.
Bonnaroo continues Saturday with sets from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alice Cooper, the Roots, Skrillex, "Community" actor-turned-rapper Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) and many, many more. Come back later for a full day three report!
(ALL PHOTOS BY DEBI DEL GRANDE, except Michael Kiwanuka photos by FilmMagic/Getty Images and Fitz crowd-surfing photos by Lyndsey Parker)
- Bonnaroo 2012 Thursday recap
- Bonnaroo hip-hop playlist
- Bonnaroo alt-rock playlist
- More Bonnaroo coverage