Bonnaroo Day 1: Rookies rock stage

Staff writer Chris Rotolo shares his experience at this generation’s version of Woodstock: Bonnaroo

Day 1 – June 10

Humble Beginnings

This year’s Bonnaroo marked the fifth time, since the festival’s inception nine years ago, that a four-day format was used over the original model: a trio of dates.
In the past, top tier acts like The Allman Brothers, Dave Mathews Band, Bob Dylan and Wilco brought zealous patrons out to the farm in flocks —the site of Roo-Fest rests on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn.— on day one. Now, music fans have a new motive for gathering on opening day: the discovery of the next big thing.

With every impending summer festival season since Roo’s inaugural shove off in 2002, its popularity has grown. An event that once struggled to produce three full days of music had to expand by a day in 2006 to accommodate the throngs of artists that desired a slot on one of the many stages and tents on-site.
The evolution of this gala’s headliners is staggering.  Producers have migrated away from procuring the likes of Jack Johnson and Trey Anastasio and have since booked legendary acts like Metallica, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z to be the top dogs on the bill.

Since the aforementioned addition, you won’t find those with the furnished plaques in Cleveland anywhere on the day one schedule. This period of time has grown into a creature of its own, a special entity, reservations set aside for the up and coming.

Crowds pack together, uncomfortably scraping elbows with every minor muscle spasm. They jockey for position to best view the future of music.  The past tells the story better than I can; MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Passion Pit and Zac Brown Band are just a few of the names that were jettisoned toward stardom on the back of a first day Bonnaroo performance.

So spectators fight for the extra foot, always looking for the coveted crevice, the part in the sea that will lead them to the railing.  Everyone in the tent knows the inevitable question pending from their ponderous friends:  “How close were you for ______?”  And nobody wants to be in the outskirts looking in at a career making performance.

If You Don’t Know About Them You Better Ask Somebody

Here are five acts I caught on the first night.

Baroness:

Remember that time when the Devil went to Georgia? He was in a bind, way behind, and looking to make a deal?  Well, the city was Savannah and the deal was a multi-album contract with this thrashing metallic quartet.

Supporting its most recent release, Blue Record, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart in October, Baroness brought the metal to a Bonnaroo lineup that was metallically deprived.

With the growling, bearded and beast-like Baroness front-man John Baizley on rhythm and his cohort Peter Adams on lead, the duo combined sharp progressive metal guitar, with regional punk rock undertones and a hint of twangy 1970s hard rock distortion that was audible when the pair of axemen tag-teamed a tandem riff.  Apparently nobody near me could make it out, but, when I heard the sounds emitting from those amps, visions of Scott Gorham, Brian May, and Tom Scholz shred in my mind.

What’s great about Baroness is that the band possesses a changeup.  Not every song is 100 mph, balls to the wall, testosterone driven brutality.  “Steel That Sleeps the Eye” is a ghostly acoustic track that takes a page out of the Coheed & Cambria song book.  But, Baroness doesn’t need to strip down to bask in its own sludgy lethargy. The electrified instrumental piece “Ogeechee Hymnal” pays testament to that, as well as the numerous improvised jams Baroness used to bridge its songs.

Baroness produces three part harmonies that can shame any demonic symphony of hell beasts.  This is the type of band you expect to hear rocking down in Mephisto’s Café.  Lucipher should be proud of his new acquisition.

Local Natives:

In a few weeks, music enthusiasts, journalists and other industry representatives that are much more important and official than I, will look back and say, “That performance was important, that was the show Local Natives blew up at, that was where they got big.” (You heard it here first I suppose)

So, to answer vocalist Taylor Rice’s inquiry, “It’s Thursday,” said Rice to the sea of hipsters that filled That Tent to capacity and then some, “what are you all doing here?”

We came to see you get famous, good sir.

Local Natives is a band cut from the same cloth as Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, utilizing echoing gang harmonies, low-key rhythmic guitars and minimalistic percussion giving the music a simplistic acoustic sound.  The difference:  Local Natives make consistently catchier songs.

As the five-piece Silver Lake, California, collective rolled into their latest single, “World News,” a captivating number that can only be described as a giant buildup, I couldn’t help but overhear a gentleman to my left yell to anyone who wanted to hear “Right now, at this very moment, this is the coolest place in the world to be!”

I agreed, it definitely was exciting to be present for that sort of bench mark in a young band’s career.  But I couldn’t help myself.  Despite knowing better, I retorted, “What’s the big deal? They look like a bunch of hipsters to me!”

“Well of course they are,” he said, “but they helped create modern hipsterism, they were at the forefront of the movement.  Besides, their music is great.”

He had answered that question before.

And yet I couldn’t argue.  It’s become a pastime of my friends and I to rip on hipsters, but, none of them have ever entertained me like Local Natives were.  So the band got a pass, especially when they broke out a cover of Talking Heads’ “Warning Sign.”

However, what really gained my respect was the fact that this group was still humble, hungry and genuinely surprised at how big a name they had made for themselves.

Neon Indian:

This chlllwave band made the biggest name for itself on opening night shaking That Tent with the heaviest bass I have experienced since Crystal Castles performed on the same stage last year.

Envision the audience chucking glow sticks at the stage during “Terminally Chill,” track two off Neon Indian’s 2009 debut “Psychic Chasms,” only to have them kicked back by an invisible force.

Some people may say that Spingsteen’s “The River” or Nirvana’s “Nevermind” ‘Saved their life,’ but Alan Polomo—the brains behind Neon Indian’s trippy operation—is actually capable of preserving the existence of a living creature.

The music is bass heavy but not completely dominated by it.  Leanne Macomber tickled the electric ivories, providing the necessary pop-beat behind the wall of sound, in turn separating Neon Indian from other psychedelic synth acts.

The best way I can describe Polomo’s filtered vocals, the gurgling squeals and shrieks generated from his lap top, distorted by his bulky keyboard, and shot through amps into us innocent bystanders, is to call it a deep space dance party.  But the strangest had yet to come.

Toward the back end of the set, led by the distorted

Photo by Chris Rotolo
Photo by Chris Rotolo

guitar sound of Ronald Gierhart—the body of his axe had a built in electronic screen that generated pictures of faces and other weird images—played over an irresistible dance beat, Neon Indian belted out its single “Deadbeat Summer” and, without warning or introduction, were joined on stage by a group of scantily clad females in homemade Indian costumes.  Some strategically placed feathers on their bodies.  Others didn’t bother.  The band seemed just as confused as the audience…I love Bonnaroo!!!

It was truly the best performance of the night.  Neon Indian will blow up like Phoenix did last year after its Roo-Fest performance.

Temper Trap:

“The Australian U2,” is how Temper Trap was described to me by Christine, a college student from Binghamton, New York, who is a huge fan of Temper Trap and wants to “have babies” with the bands pretty boy front man Dougy Mandagi.

I have to admit, that was a turn off for me.  I despise U2’s music.  I contemplated walking out of the tent, but I was dead center and four rows from the stage, plus, you know, Christine was next to me, so I stayed.

The band started playing and was surprised at what I heard.

“I thought you said Temper Trap was like U2,” I said to Christine after a few songs.

“They are,” she replied. “Can’t you hear it?”

“A little bit,” I said, “But there’s a distinct difference.  These guys are actually good.”

A little later Temper Trap blasted into its big single and World Cup 2010 anthem “Sweet Dispositions,” the band’s hit off its 2009 debut “Conditions,” and I realized that’s where the U2 comparison is coming from.  This track combines the “best” of the U2’s soft tenderness of “With or Without You,” the rock of “Vertigo” and the emotion of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”  Bono wishes he could write a song this good.

And one thing you will never find at a U2 concert is a mosh pit.  This is actually the first show I have ever been to where I and the rest of the audience were lost in the beautiful music one minute and banging bodies the next to an intense, upbeat, instrumental jam called “Drum Song.”

You will never see Bono take out a drum head and smash it repeatedly until the sweat frantically whips off his face with every swing of his stick, like Thor dropping his mighty hammer of the gods.  Mandagi doesn’t have to worry about ruining a pair of pink sunglasses, so he can bang on his drum all day.

The XX:

The London trio appropriately opened its set under the cover of darkness with the popular instrumental piece off the band’s 2009 debut “XX” simply dubbed, “Intro.”  Many in the audience mockingly sang DMX’s “Rough Riders Anthem” over the track, and I knew it was not going to be a night to block out for the critically acclaimed The XX.

There was no massive light show, no confetti cannons, balloons, whistles or bells.  It’s three people dressed in black, playing their music on a predominantly darkened stage, in a hazy machine generated fog cloud, their faces illuminated by a minimal amount of white front lighting.  The show was visually boring and it lost the attention of many in the audience causing an exodus to the exit.

The music is very tone driven, simplistic and even frightening at times.  The lyrics are sexual banter really, conversational dirty talk in a call-and -answer type fashion between front-man, Jamie Smith and Romy Madley.

Listening to the XX is comparable to sitting in a darkened movie theatre, by yourself, while you close your eyes tight, and listen to the sexy murder scene in your favorite cheesy slasher flick.

“I can’t take it anymore,” said one disgruntled viewer that shoved past me on his way out of That Tent.  “These guys are like Pink Floyd before they realized they had talent.”

I agree with the first half of that statement.  There is definitely a little Floyd influence in The XX.  But this band has talent, you just have to have an open mind, or at least a narcotically altered mind, to appreciate it.

Day 1 Notes:

-Due to traffic I missed the opening act in That Tent, The Postelles, a Strokes influenced rock band from New York that I wanted to jump to.  Download their single “White Night” on Myspace for free.  If upon listening to it you don’t get the sudden urge to sing the chorus and jump around, then go get checked out by a doctor because you’re probably lacking a central nervous system.

-I also missed the Atlanta based indie rock band Manchster Orchestra’s performance.  I was looking forward to catching this act ever since I fell in love with its eerie track “Wolves At Night” off the 2006 albumI’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child.” The band’s follow up was the 2009 release “Mean Everything to Nothing” that included the hit single “Shake It Out.”  Manchester Orchestra’s music is real, it’s truthful, and a joy to experience.

-Wale was half an hour late to This Tent, Snoop Dog was an hour late last year, and Kanye showed up at his 2:45 a.m. gig in 2008 at 4:15.  These rappers seem to have no respect for the Bonnaroo audience.  Something needs to be done.  Jay-Z takes to the main stage on Saturday night.  Maybe rap royalty can set an example.

-Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim has their own mini-carnival here complete with an oversized Meatwad tent.  Is this place heaven?  No, but it’s pretty damn close.