Though I’ve seen the Fiery Furnaces (Wiki) twice before, I decided to go after their set at the That Tent since the two previous shows had been like night and day, presenting some of the most musically stimulating and challenging live experiences I’ve ever had.
Their Roo performance proved no different. While clearly dialing back some of their more eccentric digressions, the set more than paid for itself with some spectacular guitar fireworks from the Friedberger crew (Eleanor strapping on a Stratocaster is always a treat). Tailoring their show to the jam rock audience known to be at Bonnaroo, this was probably the most rock-oriented set I’ve seen from them. It’s something I wish they did more often considering how they excel at it, laying down riffs heavier than 90% of current purveyors of metal, they masterfully flared their musical nostrils in fits of aggression amidst their more commonplace spacious arrangements and experimental structures. And of course, their infamously complicated, self-referencing medley machine was in high gear, at times mixing discernible strains of 4, even 5 of their own songs into one giant Fiery Furnaces opus.
Mid-set, some cardboard cut-outs of Eleanor and Matt made their way into the crowd, sporting fashionable poses and Converse shoes. “What the heck is that? That’s corporate infiltration! Tear those shoes off,” Eleanor jokingly demanded. The crowd readily tore the cutouts apart, one rendered head and limbless, a lifeless torso on the ground. And that’s likely how the Furnaces feel after one of their exhausting sets.
I didn’t expect Tegan & Sara (Wiki) to deliver much in the way of a captivating live show, especially in the large setting of Bonnaroo. And I was right. I stopped by their set for two songs before I was terminably uninterested and attempted to get a free hair styling. Things were poppy and their voices sweetly crooning, but nothing to keep me standing in the heat.
This was in stark contrast to Bluegrass All-stars, whose set blew me away. Relegated to the Other Tent on the outskirts of the concert grounds, that didn’t deter the crowd from growing to enormous proportions near the beginning of their set as eager country lovers gathered to hear icons of the sound. Béla Fleck (the inimitable creative force on banjo), Sam Bush (the father of new-grass and master mandolin player), Edgar Meyer (supernatural monstrosity of a bassist), Luke Bulla (young prodigious upstart fiddler, songwriter and vocalist), and Jerry Douglas (Dobro resophonic guitar).
Their set was one of the festival’s highlights for me, emblematic of the spirit of music and community that I’m sure festivals like Bonnaroo were intended to engender. The guys were all clearly great friends, respecting each other immensely, and loving just jamming out some great tunes. Each is easily virtuoso-level talent, with dizzying abilities that could send the many of the most technically advanced players in rock packing their bags as failures.
Highlights included Edgar Meyer’s astonishing solos on his upright; I’ve never seen someone manipulate the sound so much off such an unwieldly instrument. He was practically jumping up and down while scaling the strings. At times it seemed like a race between Fleck, Bush and Douglas to see who could play the fastest, most intricate line before burning their fingers to the bone. All this conveyed without a lick of pretense. If you think country music is all about Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, you need to expand your horizons a little. This is country music to get excited about.
Moving from this to Willie Nelson (Wiki), I couldn’t help but be disappointed. As a musical icon, I really wanted to enjoy Willie’s set but it was a real snoozer. The sound levels seemed to be 50% lower than any other stages, so there was significant bleed over of sound onto the Which Stage. Add in the chattering of the crowd and Willie’s flat stage presence and there was really no chance to be lost in his music or set.
The Raconteurs (Wiki) were one of the most engaging of the main stage acts, which by and large I either skipped or found unremarkable. Jack White knows how to work a crowd, and knows what he can do musically. At this rate, he will undoubtedly be one of our generation’s shining musical talents remembered throughout posterity. He has a great ear for blues guitar combined with a natural and dynamic approach to showmanship.
Chris Rock (Wiki) was an interesting curveball thrown in between Raconteurs and Metallica. A comedian in the middle of a rock bill. But hey, it worked and he kept the momentum going, recriprocating introductions with his friends in Metallica. His bit was hilarious, as expected, tackling presidential candidates, dead celebrities and of course shots at the Roo 2008 official punching bag, Kanye.
I was most curious about how the boys in Metallica (Wiki) would be received. The crowd was full, but luke-warm in their reception. When lead singer James Hetfield asked how many first-time Metallica viewers were in the audience, I’d estimate 90% of Bonnaroo raised their hands. Undaunted, they proceeded to roar right into their set, playing a number of their less famous numbers from albums like Kill ‘em all. It wasn’t until they kicked into the big hits that the crowd really warmed up to them and Metallica really tightened up in response.
Things on both sides of the fence were a bit messy and underwhelming at the outset, but by the end of the set I’d say Bonnaroo had embraced Metallica as a valued performer on the bill. Having seen Metallica before, I can definitely say they were holding back and possibly a bit messy (it was hard to tell if Lars was fumbling and the guitar work just wasn’t very precise or if it was just a bizarre speaker delay issue from the main stage).
With Metallica’s set, I found myself hoping they wouldn’t play anything past a certain date in their back-catalog. I began to wonder, even if you are a set of highly competent and talented performers, as Metallica are, when do you stop treading water, banking on those same hits night after night before you call it quits? This feeling was much worse during Pearl Jam, but I’ll go into that more on day 3.
My Morning Jacket (Wiki) closed out my night with one of the famed late night sets (12-3AM). I had high expectations for this set…and they were resoundingly shattered by Jim James’ increasingly other-worldly vocal talents and MMJ’s mutant versatility. Who else could pull off huge, tongue-wagging, foot-up-on-monitor wailing riffs straight out of hair metal, swirling waves of psychedelia washing you in aural euphorics, hunkered-down virtuosic prog jams, and irrepressible R&B, Motown and funk, each performed as if second nature? Where else would you find covers of Motley Crue, Funkadelic, Sly Stone, James Brown, Erykah Badu, Velvet Underground, Kool and the Gang, and Bobby Womack alongside jams that sound straight out of 13th Floor Elevators, Allman Brothers and Prince territory and a guest-appearance by Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on “One Big Holiday” all packed into one set? The answers: nowhere and no one other than MMJ could pull this off.
Their newest LP Evil Urges shook my faith a bit, as I find it a very hit-or-miss record, especially compared to the behemoths that came before (Z, It Still Moves and At Dawn); MMJ kept true to their mantra of never-stagnating and always evolving their sound and style in unexpected directions. But the injection of large doses of Prince-like funk and R&B displacing the more glorious, meandering psychedelia of Z seemed very forced.
This set marked the end of my crisis of faith, as every track sounds fantastic live. Even the much-hated-on “Highly Suspicious” soared on the strength of more prominent guitars in the mix and a bit of downplay on the quirky vocals. “One Big Holiday” turned into one gigantic devil-horned thrusting guitar jam. Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down On It” was delivered with great style and came off as more than just an homage cover, with MMJ truly making it their own, much like James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” The addition of the Nashville/Louisville horns were extra icing that really gave the funk-flavored repertoire extra punch and authenticity.
Epic doesn’t begin to describe the grandiosity and scope of MMJ musically and in live performance. Jim James’ stage presence as a front-man is top-notch, supporting his ever-diversifying and impressive vocal stylings. I only struggled with this experience because of the inclement weather. It seemed there were torrential downpours right as James locked into a solo. But in the end, nothing short of a Biblical flood or fallout snowfall could have sullied such a brilliant performance. If not for the weather, this set would have beaten out Sigur Rós for my personal Bonnaroo highlight. As it stands, it ranks as one of my most memorable live music experiences ever.
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