Bonnaroo 2012 Thursday: Bonnaroo Begins
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.