Bonnaroo Day 2: The Best & the Worst

phoenix-ian.jpg
Phoenix / Photo by Ian Witlen
WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

THE BEST

Best Reason to Love French People: Phoenix
Forget freedom fries. The French have earned their keep, and if you have any lingering issues, check out Phoenix, whose set at the That Tent Friday night had Bonnaroo's biggest stars enraptured. Passion Pit, Chairlift, the Beastie Boys, and White Rabbits all stood side stage, fist pumping, and, in MCA's case, jumping up and down. Even America's most cracked-out reality TV jester, Flava Flav, showed up... in a Dwight Howard Orlando Magic basketball jersey. The fivesome's set showed a band at their tightest; the starts and stops and abrupt shifts of "Long Distance Call" and "Lasso," both taut jams that move from Maroon 5-like keyboard grooves to jangly guitar punk in seconds, couldn't have been more fluid. The crowd chanted along to the band's new single, "Listzomania," and lofted frontman Thomas Mars up on their shoulders after he ran around the mud-caked pit, crooning in his Oxford button-up and designer jeans to the faces of glow stick-toting hippies who haven't showered in days. Phoenix dish out sugary, unforgettable pop music -- and I wouldn't be surprised if it became more popular than the baguette. -- William Goodman

Best Friday Night Prayer Meeting: Al Green
With nothing at all to prove at this point, it would have been easy for Al Green to phone this one in and cash his check. Instead, he donned a three-piece suit, brought along a full band with horns and backup singers and tore the roof off the What Stage on Friday night. After remarking that his bassist "played the underwear" off his instrument, he said, "(Let's get) down-home here for a second," before transforming the gospel plaint "Amazing Grace" into a ravaged, gutbucket blues. Next came a version of "Let's Stay Together" that the Reverend preached more than sang. Then a tortured take of "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and a sinewy funk workup of "Love and Happiness." Shouting "Here I am baby" over the outgoing vamp of the latter, Green put himself out there for his congregation, and with a fervor -- and generosity of spirit -- commensurate with his higher calling. -- Bill Friskics-Warren

Best Front Person: Karen O
Despite having already played Coachella and Sasquatch, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs showed no signs of Festival fatigue as they played a rambunctious, supremely confident early evening set. But if you were Karen O, would you ever get bored of scooping crowds up in the palm of your hand? Dressed in black and yellow leopard print leggings and a baggy white, blue, and red dress, the singer put into relief just how personality-deficient so much of her frontperson competition truly is. She was equally arresting making slow, graceful, almost tai-chi like arm movements or spraying beer foam from her mouth. And she sings too! Coquettish on the discotastic "Zero" and seductively haughty on the martial "Runaway," where guitarist Nick Zinner's fractured chording battled O's charisma to a temporary truce. There would've been no shame in defeat. -- DM

Best Brooklyn Band: Grizzly Bear
The members of Grizzly Bear can walk down Brooklyn's chic Bedford Avenue like champions. The Radiohead-influenced, Billboard Top 10 debutantes (Veckatimest bowed at No. 8 a few weeks back) won the imaginary battle of the outer borough bands on musicianship alone. On record, the quartet can sound precious and timid. Live, they killed. Inside the medium-sized This Tent, Chris Bear's drumming hit with seismic force, Ed Droste's voice soared, Daniel Rossen's clever guitar playing ranged from coruscating swirls to jazzy vamps, and Chris Taylor coaxed eerie moans and wails from woodwinds and effects pedals. The next round's on them, TVOTR. -- David Marchese.

Best Psychedelic Voyage: Animal Collective
You never know what you're going to get when Animal Collective play live, but their set at the Which Stage Friday afternoon was certainly mind-expanding. Overlaying hip-hop-style drumming with free-form synths and guitar -- and punctuating it all with disembodied vocals that could be as scarifying as they were soulful -- the trio's unfettered experimentalism didn't try to take the sweaty, sunburned throng anywhere. That is, other than on a journey to the center of their minds. The collective's slow-burning psychedelia threatened to flicker out at times, but at their combustible best, they approximated the ecstatic reveries of incendiary Kraut-rockers Can. -- BFW

READ MORE OF THE BEST ON PAGE 2 >>

Best Pure Reggae Experience: The Itals
Ital means "pure" or "natural" in Rastafarian patois and, as much as any reggae vocal group to emerge in the '70s, Westmoreland, Jamaica's Itals have embodied that ideal. Set to snaking guitar lines and spongy, occasionally dub-inflected beats, the trio's tightly woven harmonies have for more than three decades been reggae's answer to black gospel quartet singing and doo-wop. They sing to lift the human spirit, but as their version of their '70s hit "Brutal Out Deh" at the What Stage on Friday revealed, an acute awareness of suffering and oppression lies just beneath the surface. Midway through their set, in fact, lead singer Keith Porter wryly observed that while dreadlocks were everywhere to be seen at Bonnaroo, there was a time when he could've been arrested in Jamaica for wearing his in public. Brutal indeed. -- BFW

Best Artist's Retrospective: David Byrne
The setlist for David Byrne's generous performance at the Which Stage reportedly drew heavily from his shows at New York's Radio City Music Hall in February. Early highlights included material cherry-picked from his solo catalog and a pair of tracks from his recently reissued Eno-collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Eventually, though, Byrne, who was in terrific voice and spirits all night, gave the people what they wanted -- a liberal selection of Talking Heads classics, including exuberant takes of "Once in a Lifetime," "Take Me To the River," and "Burning Down the House." -- BFW

Best Early Father's Day Present: Gomez
Roots-rock veterans Gomez might just be the perfect mid-day festival band -- for now or any time since 1969. Their songs lope congenially from verse to chorus, chunky riff to concise, tasty solo. The closest these confidently lolling Brits ever get to bad vibes is an occasional wash of echoed keyboard. One song's chorus went "Sha La La." The next's went "Hey La La." It's charming stuff; your Dad would like it. He also would've dug the band's cover of Led Zeppelin's rippling acoustic chestnut "Bron Yr Aur Stomp." See, you could've told him, they do make rock like they used to. -- DM

Best Unexpected Guitar Heroics: Vieux Farka Toure
I'd heard of the young Malian singer-guitarist Vieux Farka Toure before seeing him play at Friday's African music-heavy Other stage (he's the son of well-known musician Ali Farka Toure), but I had no idea of the things he could do with an electric guitar. Whether spitting ringing clusters of notes, spilling forth with long, snaking phrases, or banging out metallic open chords, Toure, rocking a pair of black leather pants, played with a master's sense of pacing and flow and a showman's knack for knowing exactly when his Arabic-influenced songs needed a guitar goosing in order to ascend to the next level of badassitude -- and beyond. -- DM

Best Cross Cultural Exchange: Bela Fleck
The banjo might be the most hillbilly of all musical instruments. Just ask the freaky-looking kid from Deliverance. In the hands of Bela Fleck, though, the five-stringed instrument can be anything. Duetting with Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate on a series of crystalline instrumentals (you can also hear the twosome on Fleck's new CD of collaborations with African musicians, Throw Down Your Heart), Fleck showcased percussive picking and harp-like glissandos that the Earl Scruggs would've been hard-pressed to believe were coming from a banjo. And in doing so, he reminded us that the past doesn't play music, musicians do. -- DM

Best Heart-Melting Hootenanny: Katzenjammer
Dreams do come true: Four hot Norwegians onstage at That Tent rapidly strumming a giant, homespun triangular bass, mandolin, and acoustic guitar like mad Salem witches and singing in unison about how they want to "take their lover down to Mississippi and down to Louisiana." The lead lass grabbed a kazoo and blew it until her face turned blue, spit it into the crowd, ranted into the mic, and shook her mop of locks in circles, pounding her axe as if possessed. The dashing Scandinavians -- in dresses with flowers behind their ears -- then bowed and exited to a hail of whoops from one of the biggest noon-time crowds I've seen in three Bonnaroos... taking with them a piece of my heart with them. -- WG

READ THE WORST ON PAGE 3 >>

THE WORST

Worst Set That Should've Been Great: St. Vincent
Separately, the various elements of St. Vincent's (the stage name of Annie Clark) music appeal to me -- winsome vocals and frantic electric guitar playing, wiggy keyboard squiggles, unpredictable rhythms -- but put together, they always leave me a little disappointed. Clark's mid-afternoon set in the That tent was as enticingly frustrating as ever. When she busted out a fairly straightforward groover like the sardonic "Marry Me," which sailed smoothly along on the strength of some tasty Yacht-ready sax, you could be forgiven for wondering why this adorable, talented woman is not a star. Then she'd play a song where the melody and momentum was constantly interrupted by clattering, echoey keyboard stabs or sheets of guitar feedback and you'd have your answer. Annie Clark's music is an interesting puzzle, but so far the pieces look better than the completed picture on the box. -- DM

Worst Pre-Show Hype: Public Enemy
The guy who hyped Public Enemy at This Tent on Friday called the crowd "hip-hop heads" and said "aight" so many times before bringing Chuck and Flav onstage that even the predominately white audience at the show knew he was talking down to them. Fortunately, when PE finally appeared, Flav announced that they would be performing their classic 1988 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, in full. The bad news was that while the record's prophetic messages -- and Chuck's Biblical thunder -- remain as righteous as ever, the beats that drove PE's performance only occasionally achieved the revolutionary kick of the original. -- BFW

Worst Turnout for a Legend: King Sunny Adé
One of the biggest global pop sensations of the last 30 years, King Sunny Adé and His African Beats were slotted opposite the au courant likes of Grizzly Bear and Yeah Yeah Yeahs on Friday and drew maybe 200 people rather than the 5,000 they should have. It was the same story in the mid-'80s after rock critics in the U.S. dubbed the Nigerian singer and guitarist the next Bob Marley. The subtlety of Adé's polyrhythmic juju music, coupled with the fact that he sings in Yoruba, had everything to do with the lack of translation. Another challenge, at least for Western ears, had to do with how the talking drums, not the vocals and guitar, in his ensemble carried the melody. Fortunately, Adé didn't need a word of English -- or his guitar -- to wow the faithful gathered at the Other Tent on Friday. That said, he did pull out his ax 40 minutes into his set, reeling off just the sort of searing, single-string blues solo that might have made him a guitar hero in this country two decades ago. -- BFW

Worst Brooklyn Band: TV on the Radio
Playing within half an hour of each other on separate stages, former tour partners TV on the Radio and Grizzly Bear briefly turned Bonnaroo into Brooklyn. TVOTR was as energetic as ever, singer Tunde Adebimpe's hip-swaying visible from a mile away in his tight white pants, and songs from last year's Dear Science, like the simmering ballad "Family Tree" and menacingly funky "Shout Me Out," were given tight airings, but all the electric guitar sqonking and saxophone crackling grew grating long before the band was finished playing. Actually, I pretty much felt like I was being blasted by the sound of an egg frying. This is your brain on . . . -- DM

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