This year's Bamboozle — a three-day parking lot party at New Jersey's Meadlowands Sports Complex — boasted a diverse lineup that reflects the way most young fans consume music these days: no genre barriers, volume levels cranked high, little (if any) attention span required. Hip-hop, indie, metal, punk, emo, hardcore, and R&B (plus whatever the hell you call Insane Clown Posse) were all on display at this year's edition, and while the festival was unintentionally historic for a totally different reason — the news about Osama Bin Laden's death swept through the crowd moments after Lil Wayne wrapped up his headlining set Sunday night — there were plenty of hot musical highlights from Bamboozle 2011. Here are our picks:
BEST SURPRISE: TAKING BACK SUNDAY
For Long Island's Taking Back Sunday, what's old is new. They've reassembled their original lineup, the one that produced the trendsetting 2002 album Tell All Your Friends, for a self-titled record due out in June. The quintet decided to play Tell All Your Friends, front to back, during their mobbed headlining set on Saturday night. Backed by a giant sign that read "Exit 152," marking the spot off a Long Island highway where they grew up, singer Adam Lazzara finally revealed their setlist plan midway through the album's third song, "Cute Without the 'E' (Cut from the Team)," in case people hadn't caught on. It was the equivalent of pouring gasoline on the fire, and things just exploded on the subsequent number, "There's No 'I' in Team," which Lazzara said he once swore he'd never play again.
MOST CARBONATED: INSANE CLOWN POSSE
I.C.P.'s Sunday night crowd rivaled the size of Mötley Crüe's, and the Detroit shock-rap duo rewarded their fans (a mix of die-hard Juggalos and curious newbies) by dousing them with a virtually endless supply of their own Faygo soda, which they sprayed, air-cannoned, and hurled at an unfathomable rate. With the projectile soft drinks, clown makeup, and their crew of costumed goons, you could almost forget that Violent J was spitting unsettling raps about cooking and eating dead bodies, or strangling someone with their own tongue.
WORST PARENTAL NIGHTMARE: LIL WAYNE
"Put your triggers in the sky!" shouted Weezy midway through his Sunday night headlining set. Sigh. It was just a small diversion to the throng of mostly teens, who bumped, grinded, and rhymed along to every one of his filthy rhymes ("She wanna fuck Weezy / She wanna rape Weezy!"). A few terrified dads were spotted dragging their resentful kids out of the crowd. But at least Wayne was appreciative. "I've got three things to tell y'all," he said. "One, I believe in God. Two, I ain't shit without you. And three, I ain't shit without you." A nice sentiment, for sure, but no solace to concerned mommies and daddies.
BEST ROLE MODELS: EISLEY
Earnest, stylish, polite, and super talented, the sister-led band of Texans braved the chilly evening air on Sunday and were Bamboozle's most PG-rated group. That's not to slight the well-crafted songs on their new album, The Valley, and their oft-forlorn but genuine tales of heartbreak. But you'd feel much better taking your little sister to sing along to swoon-worthy songs like "Smarter" than having her rapping Lil Wayne songs on the car ride home.
BEST FACE SAVE: TOKYO POLICE CLUB
Crowd participation and sing-alongs are standard set tactics for many bands in the Bamboozle universe, but it's only effective if your audience knows the words. Singer-bassist Dave Monks overestimated the crowd's familiarity with his band during their Saturday set, and got next to no response when he asked for crowd-sourced backing vocals during "Tessellate." "I have a suspicion that this is the first time many of you have seen us," Monks quipped congenially afterwards, as his band tuned up for the next song. Instead, he offered simple instructions for participatory handclaps to the peppy "Bambi," with better results. Now further engaged, the crowd lapped up the lilting midtempo gem "Breakneck Speed," and "Wait Up (Boots of Danger)," where Monks' sly delivery slipped into a charming, Tom Petty-esque drawl.
BEST BATTLE OF DUDES NAMED "MARS": BRUNO MARS VS. MÖTLEY CRÜE
It was starting to look like Bamboozle's Sunday lineup belonged to Bruno Mars. Early in the day, Pete Wentz's new band Black Cards covered Mars' hit single "Grenade," in their evolving Save Ferris-meets-Rihanna ska-soul style. Then D.C. popsters the Downtown Fiction did a fairly faithful version of Cee Lo's "Fuck You," which Bruno co-wrote. Finally, it was time for the slick Hawaiian soulster to play his own set, with his dimpled grin, pearly smile, and endless parade of hits (especially "Just the Way You Are"), which even caused a few to get misty eyed.
Less than an hour later, on the very same stage (and underscoring how the schizophrenic booking of Bamboozle can be so amazing), Mötley Crüe emerged. There wasn't the same sort of energy one might expect if it were the Crüe's own gig — after all, how excited can teens get about music their parents probably play in the minivan? But there was Mick Mars, the ageless alien guitarist, who's nowhere near as agile as his bandmates but still shreds like he's a 20-something playing for tips on the Sunset Strip. "Dr. Feelgood" was a powerhouse performance, with Mick's buzzsaw riffs pummeling Jersey faces harder than Tony Soprano's baseball bat. Advantage: Mick.
BEST REUNIONS: THE MOVIELIFE / FURTHER SEEMS FOREVER
Many of the bands playing Bamboozle's smallest stages can't compete with marquee acts on the main stage. But, as is the case every year, a few beloved cult acts organize reunions, turning those small stages into must-see sets. Long Island pop-core quintet the Movielife, whose members went on to form I Am the Avalanche and Nightmare of You, among other projects, were Saturday's reunion highlight, playing their first show in almost eight years. Their set reminded folks why "emo" wasn't always a derogatory genre tag: songs like "Jamaica Next" teetered so compellingly between hope and despair, between passion and heartbreak, and captured the essence of young adult life, where every moment is amplified as loudly as the guitars. "We didn't know how popular we'd become," singer Vinnie Caruana said, looking out at a sizable crowd and hinting at more Movielife shows to come.
Sunday featured the original lineup of Further Seems Forever, the Florida band whose original singer was Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba. Taking the stage wearing shades at dusk, and with a hoodie up over a baseball hat, Carrabba was a different person altogether, bounding around like a teenager and tempering his high-register vocals with a tough snarl not often heard in Dashboard's music. Set highlights included the snarly new rager "Engines" (which Carrabba said would appear on a forthcoming FSF EP) and a collaboration with Carrabba's FSF replacement Jason Gleason for a rendition of "The Sound."
BEST HOMECOMING: THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM
While this quartet of Jersey boys ascended to new heights of popularity with last year's American Slang, there was something about the record that wasn't quite right: frontman Brian Fallon moved to Brooklyn, and used New York City as his songwriting inspiration. It wasn't as self-assured or authentic as the songs he wrote in the Garden State - and maybe that's why Fallon's grin was so big when he announced he'd moved back to Jersey. Not surprisingly, the older, Jersey-born tunes carried the set, particularly the surging "Old White Lincoln" and the anthemic "Great Expectations." Welcome home, Brian. Keep it up, and next time hopefully you'll be playing inside New Meadowlands Stadium instead of in the parking lot.
MOST IN NEED OF A BAND: FRANK TURNER
British singer-songwriter Frank Turner can be great, even when only armed with an acoustic guitar and a microphone. "I Still Believe," off the forthcoming England Keep My Bones, was completely stirring when he played it during his Saturday set. But songs like the sprawling "I Am Disappeared" (whose original version you can download on our Bamboozle mixtape) only showed a fraction of their worth without the help of a full backing band. Still, Turner's set was a winner, nabbing new fans who will demand a proper show the next time Turner comes around.
MOST READY FOR THE BIG TIME: CHIDDY BANG
The forthcoming full-length from the young Philly duo of MC Chiddy Anamege and DJ/producer Noah "Xaphoon Jones" Beresin will be one of 2011's most anticipated debuts, and on Bamboozle's main stage, they gave a preview of the juggernaut they're about to become. Sure, it was the MGMT-sampling, set-closing "Opposite of Adults" that drew the biggest cheers, but cuts like "Baby Roulette" showed off Chiddy's silky, unfettered flow, hinting at bigger things to come. Plus, Beresin's now playing a full drum set onstage and he absolutely slays behind the kit. These dudes are what's next.
BEST EGO CHECK: SLEEPER AGENT
They've been on the road supporting Cage the Elephant, playing to hundreds, if not thousands, of people every night. It's the kind of thing that could spoil a precocious band of barely-20-year-olds. Bamboozle was a dose of reality for Sleeper Agent: Playing opposite Circa Survive, and just after Alkaline Trio, the crowd was sparse. While some bands might shrivel up, these young'uns over-delivered, blasting through their bluesy, shape shifting rock'n'roll with ample enthusiasm. Don't worry, kids. Those crowds will get much bigger, really soon.