Sunday at Manchester, Tennessee's Bonnaroo music festival wasn't exactly a sunshine day, with ominously gray clouds condensing above the 700-acre farm and drizzle threatening to turn the grounds into a Glastonbury-style mudpit by the day's end. Ironically, this was the day that the ultimate summer-fun band, the recently reunited Beach Boys, played on the main stage. But nothing could rain on their hit parade, as Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, David Marks, and their amazing 10-piece backing band breezed through 31 sunny songs in front of thousands of optimistic, beachball-bouncing fans.
The Beach Boys haven't been boys, per se, in many decades--they're in fact currently celebrating their 50th anniversary with a reunion tour and album--but somehow seeing these paunchy elder statesmen of powerpop perform what Brian Wilson used to call "teenage symphonies to God," all about endless summer, wasn't an endless bummer. Sure, Brian didn't do too much--sometimes he seemed lost or even bored behind his white piano, as the rest of the musicians onstage did all of the heavy lifting--but just watching him perform classics like "Surfer Girl," "Surfin' USA," "Little Deuce Coupe," "I Get Around," "Good Vibrations," "Sloop John B," "Fun Fun Fun," and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" with Mike Love again was enough. (I personally could have done without "Kokomo," however.)
Even the new tunes from the Beach Boys' just-released comeback album, particularly the title track "That's Why God Made The Radio," were pure harmony heaven. And these teenage symphonies to God must have appeased the rain gods, too, because for the duration of the Beach Boys' 90-minute set, the skies remained dry.
The other elder statesman pleasing the masses at Bonnaroo on Sunday was country legend Kenny Rogers, who is now officially my new favorite person. "Kenny Rogers and Bonnaroo: What's wrong with this picture?" he joked. "But I belong here. Know how I know? I have a bracelet." Kenny definitely belonged at Bonnaroo--Manchester mayor Betty Superstein even appeared onstage at one point to ceremonially hand him the key to the city--and he was so amusing with his awesome stage banter, he almost belonged in the Comedy Tent. "My fans fall into two groups: those born after the '60s, and those born before the '60s but they don't remember them," he told a delighted Other Tent audience of all-ages fans, who cheered when he announced, "I'm going to do every hit I've ever had." Kenny then proved he's a man of his word, as he crooned "The Gambler," "Islands In The Stream," "Lucille," "She Believes In Me," "We Got Tonight," and a tune that certainly went over well with the Bonnaroo crowd, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." And when Kenny performed "Lady," he was even joined by the song's writer, Lionel Richie, who then stayed onstage to belt out his '80s signature song "All Night Long." Fiesta, forever! (Side note: Later that night, Kenny made a cameo with festival-closers Phish for a "Gambler" reprise. Like I said, Kenny rules.)
Over at the Which Stage, it was all so-bad-they're-good-vibrations, courtesy of Georgia scuzzabilly rawkers the Black Lips, whose between-song banter could have worked in the Comedy Tent as well. The rabblerousers dedicated shambolic songs like "Dumpster Dive" to "Robert, who scored us some acid--you know who you are," to "the guy in the tent who pretended to be asleep next to his best friend who was f***ing that strange girl," and to "the ghost of Jerry Garcia, the ghost with the most." And fans wildly responded by tossing rolls of what appeared to be dumpster-dive toilet paper into the air, instead of the usual festival-regulation beachballs and balloons. The band also declared, "I wanna smoke a joint with Kenny Rogers after the show!" No report on whether that actually happened...but I couldn't blame the Lips for daring to dream.
The equally witty Ben Folds and his reunited Ben Folds Five followed on the Which Stage, with Ben quipping, "We haven't played a show in over...seven days!" He also requested that everyone in the audience flip him the middle finger ("in the most loving way"), while he stood on his piano and took a crowd photo with his cameraphone. Ben, bassist Robert Sledge, and drummer Darren Jessee cranked out another one of Sunday afternoon's great greatest-hits revues, during a 17-song set that included "Jackson Cannery," "Uncle Walter," "Brick," "Philosophy," "Army," "Alice Childress," "Song For The Dumped," and "One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces." (Side note, again: Speaking of between-song banter, whenever there was a moment of brief silence, I shouted, "Save 'The Sing-Off'!" at the top of my lungs. But I'm unsure if Ben, or anyone who works for NBC, actually heard me...)
Sunday evening was serious Sophie's choice time, with Bon Iver, the Civil Wars, fun., and the Shins all competing on different stages. Bon Iver's main stage show was a little sleepy for my taste--with Bonnaroo in its waning hours, I needed something a tad more upbeat to help me go the distance--but the Shins came across as the logical successors to the Beach Boys' throne with their thinking-boys' powerpop on the Which Stage. And the acoustic Americana duo of the Civil Wars' Joy Williams and John Paul White, over in the Other Tent, performed a lovely set that included a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"--a bit ironic, since that song is all about a pregnancy scandal, and extremely expectant mom Joy was performing just 10 days ahead of her due date!
Meanwhile, New York alt-pop combo fun., whose "We Are Young" is surprisingly one of the biggest singles of 2012 so far, packed the That Tent (a line to get into the tent actually formed nearly two hours before their set time), and they proved they're no one-hit wonder when the massive audience sang along to pretty much every song they played (including their two well-chosen covers, Paul Simon's "Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard" and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want"). But of course, it was "We Are Young," perhaps THE most perfect singalong festival song of the past few years, that elicited the most crazed response. Frontman Nate Ruess gushed to the thousands upon thousands of assembled spectators: "It's so surreal having you all out for this. I feel like we need a new word instead of 'surreal,' because we've been using that one too much lately. If anyone wants to buy us a thesaurus..." (Another side note: Since Nate mentioned word usage, I might make a grammar suggestion that his band remove the self-defeating period from its name, and add a Yahoo!-esque exclamation point to the end instead. They should lose the lowercasing and go with capslocking, too. "FUN!" seems like a more appropriate moniker for them now.)
So that's a wrap, y'all. My ears are ringing and my foot blisters are bleeding, but it's been fun (FUN!, not fun.), and hopefully I'll be fully recovered in time for Bonnaroo 2013. See you back on the farm then!
(ALL PHOTOS BY DEBI DEL GRANDE, except Kenny Rogers & Lionel Richie photo by Erika Goldring/WireImage)
- Bonnaroo 2012 Thursday recap
- Bonnaroo 2012 Friday recap
- Bonnaroo 2012 Saturday recap
- Full Bonnaroo coverage