Bonnaroo 2008: Day 1 in Review

Setting the atmosphere and general attitude of the festival, the first set I saw was Brooklyn’s the Big Sleep in the table-filled Troo Music Lounge. There was a huge turn-out for the low-marquee band and they delivered on the promise of their expansive, brooding, garage-y fuzz rock. Though a bit hesitant at first, they locked into solid grooves that by the end of their set had a sizeable dance pit going, a few tables askew, and the tent bursting with people.

Superdrag (Wiki) was up next at the That Tent, where I spent the remainder of the evening.  I must say they underwhelmed.  To be generous.  Things were pretty messy in their set and their songs were just generally uninteresting.  They produced a big sound and good energy, but this failed to compensate for their lack of musical content.  The crowd seemed to react similarly, only really livening up for their one radio smash, 1996′s “Sucked Out.”  The fact that they (Superdrag) drew attention to this and stoked the fire for as much response as they could get for the single left a bitter taste in my mouth and began a trend I noticed with many bigger artists over the weekend.  At some point, you have to decide whether it is really relevant to tour around, playing live on the strength of a few hits of your backcatalog without offering something new.

MGMT’s (Wiki) funky brand of electro-psych flavored pop followed. Their light vocals floating atop mythical synths, punchy bass, driving percussion and crunchy guitar lines created a nearly irresistible formula that willed you to dance.

Tailoring the set to Bonnaroo, MGMT guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden and the extra tour guitarist indulged and expanded on the psych rock roots of their music with extended jam segments of many songs. The specter of a recurring theme for the weekend reared its head as the set progressed, with increasingly frequent and piercing fits of feedback marring an otherwise high-octane, high-quality set.

Battles (Wiki) followed and delivered a memorable set of their complex, instrumental-heavy post-rock. Watching their set was like listening to a soundtrack of the working innards of a clocktower, powered by furious gnomes working the gears through a post-apocalyptic light and fog show. Haunting images of precision work, probably one of the tightest and most interesting sets of the festival.

Another impressive aspect of Battles was their perfectionist bent, tweaking the sound-board after every song until almost mid-set to balance the levels of their numerous electronics. This was, of course, necessary since the feedback creep from MGMT’s set seemed to peak during Battles’ (probably due to all the electronics).

And just to completely obliterate any hope of stylistic consistency for the night, Vampire Weekend (Wiki) closed my night. Vampire Weekend’s music has caused much contempt, and screams of rip-off and unoriginality (the influence of distinct periods of Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon’s career is quite strong). This has only been exacerbated by stories of their less-than-engaging live show. But I was astonished at how good their set was.

Firstly, seeing beyond the collegiate aesthetic, I must say that they are talented musicians with admirable focus on a specific sound they want to create; I see their vision. Far from merely recreating or paying homage to a specific, Afro-pop influenced sound, they infuse some great lyrics and many elements in their music that make them different from predecessors, deftly bringing in classical and more recent developments in post-punk to create a genuinely unique product.

And now, having seen them do their thing live, I feel safe in saying that they are far more deserving of their attention than blog-lash may lead you to believe. They have definitely figured out what works best about their music and how to translate it into a kinetic live show: plenty of herky-jerk, angular movement to compliment their staccato string work and lots of crowd-pleasing call-and-responses/shout-alongs.

The crisp, interlocking, deceptively simple nature of their guitar and drum-work is the key to their toe-tapping groove. And I never would have predicted such a large proportion of the Bonnaroo crowd would know every lyric of every song; but it sure sounded that way. Premiering some new material, it looks like they are ramping up the rock influence with crunchier music that still maintains that feel of laid-back, precisely interdigitating and syncopating layers. I’m now very excited for their next effort and have no reservations in recommending you check out their live show.

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