I got up with the sunrise for day two (June 15) of Bonnaroo, and the campgrounds were already abuzz with talk of last night’s adventures. After some makeshift breakfast and a little time to recover, I made the long, crowded hike into Centeroo to catch Ben Jelen, a late addition to this year’s schedule. Under the comfort and shade of the Troo Music Lounge, Jelen serenaded a packed house, seated quiet and attentive for Friday’s first performance. And the singer/songwriter’s set was the perfect start to a long, hot afternoon, loaded with catchy melodies and driven by swinging piano pop that will wake you up but won’t wear you out. Later, though, the multi-instrumentalist picks up the pace, breaking out more aggressive material, including the title track from his upcoming album Ex-Sensitive. A few screeching violin solo’s later and it was time to call it quits.
From there, it was a mad dash through the dusty, sweaty rat race that is Bonnaroo over to That Tent for the Cold War Kids. Wasting no time getting started, the California four-piece open with their radio friendly indie pop single “We Used to Vacation,” catching the attention of seemingly aimless drifters wandering past who compete for a space on the ground to rest their already weary bodies. For those of us unfortunate to have arrived after the masses, there was no shade to be found and no escape from the unrelentingTennessee heat. Shoulder to shoulder, swapping sweat and sharing water, I could see that the thousands of fans congregated are more than happy to endure the summer sun for a chance to catch Nathan Willett, animated and sincere, channeling his inner Jeff Buckley at the greatest music festival in America. Half an hour, three bottles of water, and a mild sunburn later, it was time to ramble on.
Over the course of the afternoon, I made the rounds of Centeroo, cooling off in the mushroom fountain, napping under one of the few ancient shade trees, scoping out the shopping district and eventually retiring to the campgrounds for a little R&R. But as the sun sets on Bonnaroo, it was time to trek back to the epicenter for what seems like a fresh start to day two.
I arrive at This Tent just in time to witness a mob of waving hands greet Aesop Rock. Joined by Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz, the Def Jux mainstay feeds off the most energized crowd I have yet to witness at this festival, and in no time, dreadlocked hippies were breaking it down to Aesop’s signature brand of innovative old school hip-hop.
Much to the delight of fans, Aesop’s set was heavy on new material, including “None Shall Pass,” which evoked the night’s first call and response. Beaming with delight at the overwhelming response from the crowd, Aesop reciprocated the love. “Thank you! I’ve never been to Tennessee before. It’s fucking beautiful!” Continuing with a slew of anthemic rhymes, including “Coma” and “No Regrets,” Aesop closed right on schedule with a massive sing along to “Daylight” leaving at least this fan wanting more.
Already running late for one of the most anticipated shows of the weekend, I scurried through a forest of giant lightning bugs (mounted on poles between stages to light the way) to The Other Tent, where Ben Harper, John Paul Jones and ?uestlove were already knee deep into the Superjam. It was by far the most crowded tent show of the evening and the ground was littered with the exhausted bodies of fans who refused to call it a night. From the front rows, you could literally feel the bass pounding in your chest, which added to the already surreal nature of the entire experience.
When the 15-minute jam I entered upon finally broke, John Paul Jones played the opening notes to “Dazed and Confused” and the crowd was almost overwhelmed with joy. Transforming his typically folky lap steel guitar into a fiery beacon of rock’n’roll, Ben Harper — rather surprisingly — seemed the perfect candidate for a Zeppelin revival and had the audience hanging on every note. After a half hour of awe inspiring soling, I needed to breathe again, so it was back to camp. Along the way, the distinct sounds of the Superjam echoed through the campgrounds as “Superstitious,” “It’s Your Thing” and “Staying Alive” take on new life at the hands of Harper, Jones and ?uestlove. DANE SMITH