The 9 Best Things At Bonnaroo 2013
This year’s Bonnaroo curators covered important bases in terms of top-level talent: from iconic boomer-fare like Paul McCartney and Tom Petty, to iconic R&B fare like R. Kelly, to iconic hipster/hippie fare (a Bonnaroo speciality) in Animal Collective. And the undercard was ripe, too, with strong names from most every genre over four days on the ‘Roo family farm. You could focus on bands like Baroness, or Death Grips, or Nas, or Edward Sharp. Which is not to say you should focus on every band, but as a New Yorker once said, the world is yours (is yours is yours).
In Centeroo, the festival’s central marketplace, folks danced to a dubstep remix of Sublime’s “Santeria.” Molly was everywhere, but it was most especially with the ripped kid wearing a shirt that said “MOLLY MONSTER,” who took the xx’s midnight set to announce loudly “I’m on probation, too. Guess what? I’M ON EVERYTHING.” Welcome to Bonnaroo 2013.
Take our word for it: The shows were great! The experience was immersive and things were remarkably organized, midday and midnight alike, in that way that makes Bonnaroo a special American festival. And so, onstage, many special things happened. A quick rundown of some memories:
Matt & Kim had something like 100 people crowdsurf their way up to the stage from the back, on demand. Solange sang “Two Weeks” with Grizzly Bear during their set, then did her cover of “Stillness Is The Move” for her own. St. Vincent sang “Don’t Swallow The Cap” with the National, then performed her customary full set with David Byrne. Swans conjured ominous grey storm clouds with their punishing seance-rock, then Tame Impala parted them, ushering in a psychedelic sunset horizon immediately thereafter. (Both were terrific, though Swans played to not enough people and Tame to so, so many.) Kendrick Lamar charmed and owned, backed only by his DJ, during a 5PM mainstage set that was about three-times as large as Nas’s similarly timed, similarly staged full-band set the day before; “Weird Al” wore like 30 outfits in an essentialistic revue of his meta brilliance. Oh, and Nas turned “New York State Of Mind” into, yes, “Bonnaroo State Of Mind.” It was that sorta thing.
Those were all good things. But now for the 9 best, starting here.
09. Paul McCartney Big Ups PUSSY RIOT
Here's the thing about Paul McCartney trotting out "Hey Jude" in front of 80,000 people and asking "everybody" to sing along: Theoretically everybody could actually sing along. No other artist in existence can measure up to Macca when it comes to performing a tune while being absolutely certain that literally every person within earshot has not just heard it before, but knows the melody. It's weird! But that tune, and the endless string of canonical pop hits that surrounded it, weren't the thing that gave Sir Paul's headlining set its mooring in 2013. (He's been a career retrospective festival presence for the better part of this millennium.) Instead it was when the septuagenarian paid his props to Russian political protest-punk martyr outfit Pussy Riot, and when during "Back In The U.S.S.R." the screen behind him flashed the words FREE PUSSY RIOT. (Also, a fun game is to imagine Paul saying those very words five years ago.) Paul, Russia's put you on blast, again. This time let's call it "Putin on the hitz."
08. Bonnaroo Vs. Kanye, Forever
Between Macca, Kells, Wu-Tang, Animal Collective, and Petty, Manchester was rife with scenery-chewing legends. And yet, as this photograph lays bare, the specter of Kanye West continues to loom large here. BONNAROO NEVER FORGETS. (Refresher: Five years ago I joined thousands of people waiting in a field until 5AM for Ye to begin, hours late, his Glow In The Dark. It didn't glow; the sun was rising.) I suppose we should at least be thankful that episode provided what is arguably Kanye's #1 rant/quote of all time in "SQUID BRAINS!", and that counts for something. But people seethed the rest of that weekend, scrawling their anti-Ye slogans on the festival walls and their own persons, and apparently it's a tradition that will live forever. Factor in the fact that we spent every morning and late night of this year's festival feverishly absorbing Yeezus, and that Kim released her own Kanye production over the course of the weekend, and you're left with an unavoidable fact: Kanye was a major player at Bonnaroo 2013 without being anywhere near it. It's a whole new measure of star status.
07. St. Vincent's Hair
As you see here, at some point this spring Annie Clark straight up bleached her hair, a power move we'll assume was calibrated, in part, to look better next to her album/tourmate of late, David Byrne. Or as she called him, "the white wizard." (You can see more of Annie being blonde in the new Vogue, and you can see more of David Byrne being a white wizard in perpetuity, or at least we like to think so.)
06. The Crowd Sings Happy Birthday To Oli From The xx
And for once, a song at an xx concert was performed in a major key. KIDDING. "VCR" is in a major key! But yes, it was Oli's birthday on Friday night, and the xx's meticulously manicured, perfectly produced midnight set was all the more memorable for the band's resulting breathy banter. As in when he asked the crowd in sultry hushed tones and bedroom eyed, "Would you mind if I took a picture of you? I want to remember you." I MEAN. Banter aside, each stage movement, and every forlorn glance at each other or the field or the floor was too sensually dramatic (and effective) not to be choreographed at least a bit. It all culminated in a set of lasers forming an overlapping "xx" at the front of stage, a powerful closing image that inspired talks about how this band has been the total package right out of the box, and somehow gets even more dialed in with each year. Aspiring rock svengalis, study up: the xx are a worthwhile model. And happy birthday Oli, you minx.
05. Björk Wears A Headdress Like An Uni
In support of Biophilia, Björk's been touring with a shiny Icelandic girls' choir which should be cast in a shampoo commercial, and has been playing songs from across her career in the process. When the show's staged indoors, her instrumentation includes a "tesla coil synth." Now, said coil didn't make it to Bonnaroo, but still there were sparks compliments of a few flame throwing contraptions which went off during the big finale. And naturally, the music itself was deep with memorability, including a tremendous dance breakdown on "Hyperballad." But as far as the set's defining characteristic, it's hard to argue against it being Björk's look, especially since it was the unveiling of a new Björk look. Lately she's sported a ginger afro wig. In Tennessee, it was something like a backlit sea urchin (or, "uni") shell for a headdress, on top of that flowy bulbous aquatic dress. Girls of America: GET THAT LOOK.
04. Holly The ASL Translator
When superstorm Sandy hit NYC, residents tuned in to Mayor Bloomberg's daily conferences like they were Depression-era fireside chats. This was, in part, to keep track of the city's response to the unthinkable deluge swallowing our city. But it was also largely to keep tabs on the storm's breakout star not named Chris Christie: Lydia Callis, Mayor Bloomgberg's passionately demonstrative, highly interpretive ASL translator. She became a household name, that Lydia, before she backed away from the limelight and receded into a veil of privacy. As a result, the ASL world could use a new face. For that position, I submit Holly (pictured above, on the right), who was on duty for the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and R. Kelly and didn't just sign every word, but put back into it. In fact, Matt & Kim called her onstage during their set, and she was a game participant, satisfying Kim's request she demonstrate the signs for "pussy," "vagina" (note: same sign!), and "Bonnaroo." For a more multimedia illustration from the R. Kelly set, please see this Vine. See?
03. Wu-Tang Clan
Between fellow '90s hip hop legend Nas's early evening mainstage performance, and young god Kendrick Lamar's even more crowded/electric set the next day around the same time, Bonnaroo came stacked with plenty of rap charisma. But those men are but one man each (albeit being one-of-a-kinds), and there isn't a rapper alive -- let alone a collective of them -- that could hold a candle to the Wu-Tang Clan in full swing. And as swings go, the Wu-Tang Bonnaroo set was close to complete, missing only Raekwon and, of course, O.D.B. (R.I.P.). They broke in and out of formation, pumped the air, spat out hits, and generally flexed a staggering reserve of aggregate starpower/brilliance. The genius is undiminished, as is the GZA, the RZA, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Ghostface Killer and the Method Man, and Masta, making the prospect of a 20th anniversary record an extraordinarily attractive one. They just felt like they really had their shit together. You can watch them talking to Fuse News after the set to get a sense of the vibe in 2013. It's a good one.
02. R. Kelly. All Of Him.
Sex. Triumph. Inspiration. Bird-shaped balloons during "I Believe I Can Fly." A cherry picker that took too long to descend Kells from the top of the Which Stage to its base, and so letting the air out of an otherwise brilliantly conceived intro medley, featuring a 40-person gospel choir onstage for about a minute -- a true "tease" in every sense. A lot of swearing, after sharing he'd been asked not to. ("I just laughed at these motherfuckers, like, who don't fucking curse?") A musical interlude about how he'd been going for an hour-and-a-half straight with "no breaks, for which he had us chanting "no breaks. (It was more like 70 minutes at that point, but whatever. To love Kells is to forgive his "liberties.") R. Kelly's Bonnaroo set was so full of hits and pathos, libido and uplifting sentiment, melisma and beach balls, that it's simply impossible to pick just one facet to call a "best thing." Though the fact that his walk-out music was his own music ("Trapped In The Closet"!) is a strong candidate.)
01. Animal Collective Delivers The Quintessential Bonnaroo Experience... With Jonesy From Police Academy
You know how the place in which music is performed has an intrinsic relationship to the music itself? How classical Romantic music was composed by artists who had symphony halls in mind, and how opera was written to be performed in, like, operas? Well it turns out that the Platonic form of an Animal Collective venue is a Tennessee farm in a tent full of people on drugs at 2AM. Makes sense! The last time the band played Bonnaroo was in 2009, and a full 12 hours earlier in the day at that, for a 2:45PM set that saw the florid hues of their triumphant Merriweather tracks blotted out by the midday sun. This situation was the polar opposite. From my experience of 20 some-odd shows with this band, this weekend's felt the most like a bona fide career landmark. For one, there was the inbuilt testament to this weirdo outfit's unlikely infiltration of the pop cultural landscape via the guest on their opening-song collab jam: Michael Winslow, aka Jonesy the vocal sound fx dude from the Police Academys. Why not. Winslow took the stage first and started imitating a fertile psychedelic touchstone: Pink Floyd. ("IF YOU DON'T EAT YOUR MEAT, HOW CAN YOU HAVE ANY PUDDING?!") He left soon thereafter, but that set a freewheeling tone. Following this was a setlist littered with "hits" and epochal AnCo cornerstones -- "Also Frightened," "Peacebone," "Purple Bottle," "Did You See The Words," "What Would I Want Sky," and of course "My Girls" and "Brothersport," all never having sounded better -- and then there were the large stretches of sound we'd never heard before. The This Tent became a primed showcase for the Collective's masterful, evidently innate understanding of psychedelic music. The crowd they performed for were eager to have their warped sense perceptions exacerbated and intermittently punctuated with moments of communal sing-alongs, and the quartet complied by tweaking them in and out of strange-dance fits as if they were a set of the Geologist's knobs. Keyword here being "quartet": The last time here, the group was in its trio format; this time, Deakin was onstage, and the sound was more powerful, and every bit as nimble, for it. You can get a taste here. Bravo, AnCo.