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Bonnaroo Day 1: The Best & the Worst



Best Caffeine Substitute at Midnight: Passion Pit
Getting the party started with skittering breakbeats and then keeping it going with a throbbing disco pulse and frothy washes of synths, Passion Pit gave the rain-soaked crowd in This Tent just the midnight pick-me-up it needed. With three banks of keys plus drums and bass, the Massachusetts quintet served up one bracing draught of heavenly electro-pop after another. The biggest high, though, came from frontman Michael Angelakos, whose stratospheric vocals on faves like “Little Secrets” and “Sleepyhead” had enough helium in them to keep the balloons the audience was batting back and forth aloft all night. The children’s chorus from New York’s P.S. 22 might not have been on hand to chant “higher, higher” on “Little Secrets,” but the festival-goers did just fine, throwing thousands of sweaty hands high in the air. — Bill Friskics-Warren

Best Freaky Fantasy Funk: Janelle Monáe
Atlanta’s Monáe did it all during her electrifying — and out there — set in the Other Tent. After delivering an intergalactic monologue from offstage to start the proceedings, the futuristic funk diva ignited half-spoken, half-sung verbal pyrotechnics, belted out a Broadway-style ballad, rapped about HIV and OutKast, and played some Bootsy-inspired, rubber-band bass guitar. To say nothing of the dance moves she flashed throughout, or of the portrait she painted mid-performance and then chucked into the audience, only to dive in after it and surf the crowd. Monáe and her trio of funkateers probably could have landed the mothership if they’d wanted to. Instead, they closed with some hyperkinetic, old-school R&B a la James Brown or Bettye LaVette. — BFW

The Best… Period: People Under the Stairs
The most crowded show at Bonnaroo thus far? Not Passion Pit. Not Janelle Monáe or Chairlift, but Los Angeles hip-hop duo People Under the Stairs, who turned a swampy, muddy field into a bangin’ South Central house party with their hands-in-the-air beats and lyrics about hot ladies and smokin’ weed. “Party time is anytime and anytime is party time,” MC Thes One got the crowd chanting, as Double K sang along and cut up the tables from behind. “Say it with me, say it with me now: ‘Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh SHIT!'” — William Goodman

Most Economical Performance: Murs
Underground rapper Murs took the stage accompanied only by a DJ, his dreadlocks, and a metric ton of charisma. Clad in a Hendrix tie-dye t-shirt (which he soon ditched), brown sneakers, and blue jeans, the politically-minded MC proved that you don’t need fancy lighting or trippy visuals to put on a great festival show. To a soundtrack of soul-sampling funky beats, Murs spat funny, urgent rhymes, jumped and touched his toes, ran in place, pulled off a perfectly executed James Brown drop splits, and received a fierce roar of approval when he announced himself proud to be among all the “Non-showering motherfuckers.” Glad you could make it, Murs. — David Marchese

Best Twin-Drum Propulsion: White Rabbits
The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead might have done it before them, but few bands who sport dual drum kits fuse tribal and pop instincts with more dexterity and abandon than White Rabbits. During their ultra-propulsive appearance in This Tent, drummers Matt Clark and Jamie Levinson pounded out hiccupping Bo Diddley beats, rapid-fire surf rhythms, and Motown-style hip-shake for one of the hookiest and riveting sets of noise-pop this side of Spoon, whose Britt Daniel produced the group’s latest. Not to be outgunned, singer Steve Patterson hammered on his piano like it was made of calf skin, too. Percussion guns indeed. — BFW


Best Argument for the Continued Existence of Hipster Rap: The Knux
Despite nobody being able to tell you what the term actually means, the music of Hollywood-by-way-of-New Orleans duo the Knux often gets tagged as “Hipster Rap.” But as far as the sounds the band threw down during their raucous, vibrant set, “great,” or “exciting” or “best of Bonnaroo so far” would work just as well. Aided by a DJ, backing guitar player, and keyboardist, MC Rah Al Millio spat rhymes with fierce intensity and trickster charm, while his compadre Krispy Kream whacked out hard-hitting and punkish guitar riffs. OutKast-influenced songs like the caffeine-addictive “Cappucino” and menacingly galvanizing “Bang Bang” were powderkegs of verbal intensity and musical aggression. Oh, and I joined the gang that bumrushed the stage — so bonus points to the Knux for that. — DM

Best “Where the Hell Am I?” Moment: Vermont Joy Parade
This Vermont six-piece were crying in unison over a rambunctious clamor of accordion, banjo, and trumpet. Their jug-band music, combined with the lead lass’ velvety jazz wail, sounded like it could be the soundtrack for a traveling circus, circa 1920. And they brought the loony, old-time vibe in the flesh, too: The accordionist, looking like a gold prospector in suspenders, tattered boots, and a long beard, introduced the track as being about a “town in west Texas called Lonely Town, population one.” The group hooted and stomped around like a bunch of lovelorn drunks, pausing mid-song as a the trumpeter — in suspenders and a clown nose — blasted his horn. And the crowd? Girls in homespun burlesque get-ups pranced, as one shirtless dude — with a raccoon tail and a rabbit’s foot tied around his leg, and a collection of forks clanging to his belt — spun in circles. Welcome to Bonnaroo, population: a bunch of crazy motherfuckers. — WG

Next Big Thing: Hockey
This Portland, OR, foursome’s set at Sasquatch Festival was one of the weekend’s best — but the band’s hour-long performance at Bonnaroo’s This Tent Thursday night was even better. “I’ll do anything that I’m told to / I go for broke,” frontman Ben Grubin crooned — like a much nerdier and much younger Rod Stewart — on “Too Fake,” as his band bounced through their nu-disco and soul sound, led by the driving bass of Jeremy “Jerm” Reynolds. Grubin, who has the tiny frame and playfulness of a 12-year-old smart alec, played to the crowd, strutting the stage in his hipster-meets-jazzercise instructor outfit of skin-tight jeans and blue head band, screaming: “Watch out! / I’ve got too much soul for the world!!!!!!” He might be right. The packed crowd, many of who had likely never heard of Hockey or listened to their music before (the band’s debut drops Aug. 25), were convinced, dancing along in the muddy pools and shouting for more as the boys left the stage. — WG

Best Toby Keith Impression: Charlie Allen
It wasn’t just his black leather cowboy hat and slightly skeezy mustache and goatee combo that caused beefy local country rocker Charlie Allen to remind me of the much better-known Toby Keith; it was the music, too — a macho mix of Patriotic jingoism and Nashville popcraft. One song — a loping bit of backwoods funk — claimed that while, “You can take God out of everything / You can’t take him out of me.” Later, during a ballad about the hardships faced by Vietnam vets upon their return home, Allen sang, “I was proud to be an American / Even when America wasn’t proud of me.” But even though the reductive sloganeering was irksome, Allen’s sharp melodies and his band’s wailing pedal steel licks and surprisingly groovy, popping bass lines displayed a smarts and subtlety not matched by his lyrics. The hit-making Mr. Keith would’ve been proud. — DM

Most Convincing Southern Rock from an English Band: Alberta Cross
Wish Southern royalty like Kings of Leon or My Morning Jacket topped Bonnaroo’s bill in ’09? Well, you can find a little of both in Alberta Cross, a London-bred, Brooklyn-based foursome fronted by Brit lad Petter Ericson Stakee, whose fog-clearing pipes nod to MMJ’s Jim James, and whose South-of-the-Mason-Dixon guitar chops recall the Followill Bros. On “Lucy Rider,” Stakee — in a tipped leather hat and cowboy boots, no less — softly strummed his Fender Telecaster, using his moving, high-pitched voice to lament a love he’ll never get over. — WG



Worst Ryan Adams Impression: Erick Baker
Shortly after Charlie Allen finished his set, Erick Baker offered a less successful bit of musical mimicry. But where Allen was aping mainstream country roughneck Toby Keith, Baker was milking a Ryan Adams sensitive guy shtick. Actually, that assessment is probably harsher than the Tennessee kid deserves. His fiddle-kissed and lovelorn folk rock was always tuneful, and delivered with an appealingly earnest intensity, but throughout his performance I kept thinking of singer-songwriters who do Baker’s thing better than he does. (Check out Ben Sollee, also playing Bonnaroo this year.) Other folks had similar ideas: A shirtless and sunburned yahoo standing near me wouldn’t stop yelling for Ryan Adams. — DM

Worst Band Name: Zac Brown Band
The Zac Brown Band sounds like it could be the name of a small town barband, or a high school jam act, or a coffeehouse folk group, or just about any inoffensive outfit, really. Accordingly, the music made by the Zac Brown Band — who closed out the That tent Thursday night — is similarly (if comfortingly) bland. Mixing in bits of Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, Bob Marley, and southern rockers like Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels, Brown delivered a set that alternated between light as air sing-a-longs and extended major key guitar-fiddle-keyboard jams. Neither style gained much heat. Even so, hearing the ZBB was an amiable enough ending to a muddy and wet first day at Bonnaroo. But I’m sure I’ll get a version of the band’s sound done better by someone else before the festival is through. — DM

Worst Thing to See Before Going to Bed: Hippies Having Sex
Sure, People Under the Stairs’ banging beats get people moving — the crowd was one gyrating mass, hands in the air, for an hour straight. But one dreadlocked couple took the opportunity have sex in rhythm with the music… in the middle of the crowd. No joke: The girl was riding this dude as he sat in a sloppy puddle of mud. Sorta awesome, mostly… not. — WG